The Environmental Defense Fund is expanding its efforts to fight climate change with a new eye-in-the-sky satellite focused on uncovering harmful industrial methane leaks.

The New York City-based nonprofit has announced the development of a multimillion dollar satellite named MethaneSAT that will allow for pinpoint detection and measurement of surface methane emissions virtually anywhere on Earth. Once located, the information will be made public, allowing companies and regulators to quickly respond.

"Cutting methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry is the single fastest thing we can do to help put the brakes on climate change right now, even as we continue to attack the carbon dioxide emissions most people are more familiar with," EDF President Fred Krupp said during an unveiling of the project last week. "By providing reliable, fully transparent data on a worldwide scale, MethaneSAT will help transform a serious climate threat into a crucial opportunity."

Methane: A colorless, odorless threat

The Aliso Canyon methane leak as captured by the Environmental Defense Fund using an infrared camera. The Aliso Canyon methane leak as captured by the Environmental Defense Fund using an infrared camera. (Photo: EDF)

While carbon dioxide accounts for a large majority of global greenhouse emissions, methane packs a bigger punch. Odorless and colorless, a molecule of methane warms the atmosphere 30 times greater than the same amount of CO2. According to the EPA, concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have more than doubled since preindustrial times, a dramatic increase "predominantly due to agriculture and fossil fuel use."

As more countries turn away from coal to natural gas, the potential for methane leaks increases. This is because natural gas is predominantly made up of methane, as Krupp pointed out during his TED Talk.

"So as it's produced and processed and transported to homes and businesses across America, it escapes from wells and pipes and other equipment," he said. "It gets up into the sky and contributes to the disasters that we're now experiencing."

As an example, Krupp highlighted the Aliso Canyon blowout, a gas leak that became the nation's worst with an estimated 100,000 tons of methane sent into the atmosphere. Discovered in October 2015, the leak was not fully plugged until February 2016. By having something like MethaneSAT regularly monitoring some 50 major regions accounting for over 80 percent of global oil and gas production, EDF is hopeful that future incidents like Aliso Canyon can more quickly be addressed.

From development to launch

The EDF intends to make all information collected by MethaneSAT publicly available online. The EDF intends to make all information collected by MethaneSAT publicly available online. (Photo: EDF)

To successfully develop and launch the organization's first-ever satellite, EDF has put together a team led by aerospace industry veteran Tom Ingersoll. They're also partnering with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to complete the basic science and technical strategies for the mission. With funding for the multimillion dollar project already mostly in hand thanks to a generous grant from the Robertson Foundation, the EDF is targeting late 2020 or early 2021 for launch.

According to Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, the satellite will greatly improve the tools available to target man-made sources of greenhouse gases.

"Methane emissions, especially from the oil and gas sector, are a huge driver of climate change. To help companies and countries cut these emissions faster, we need better data that will enable quick, cost effective action," he said in a statement. "EDF’s MethaneSAT project will help fill this gap, and make us that much smarter as we tackle this threat."

You can watch Krupp speak more about the MethaneSAT in the TED Talk below.

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Methane-hunting satellite aims to expose industrial leaks
The Environmental Defense Fund is developing a satellite that will regularly monitor 50 major oil and gas regions for methane leaks.