The War Against Methane Will Be Fought From Space - And Other Promising Strategies To Combat A Potent Greenhouse Gas

The War Against Methane Will Be Fought From Space - And Other Promising Strategies To Combat A Potent Greenhouse Gas

by Michael Grubb -
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Hitting ambitious new methane reduction goals means relying on the latest tech, but real progress requires a wholesale change in consumption and energy use.


I grew up in the San Juaquin Valley of California, an extremely productive agricultural region of the Sunshine State. Almost everything you can think of is grown there, most of it in enormous quantities, including cows. When you enter the valley, no matter from which direction, your arrival is first and foremost signaled by the aroma these cows produce. To me it is like a combination of baked brie and a bucket of plums left to ferment in the summer heat. It seems to have a certain weight to it, like a blanket, and hits you like a freight train, all at once. It often elicits reactions of disgust and horror in others, but not for me. This particular pungent encounter always brings out an upswelling of excitement in me when I visit my family. It signals that I am almost home.

I found myself reflecting on the smell of the valley, and the cows that produce it, when I read that more than 103 countries pledged to cut their methane emissions by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030 at the COP26 conference in Glasgow last November. In concert with the announcement of this global pledge, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States announced new rules requiring oil and gas companies to more accurately detect, monitor, and repair leaks in their production infrastructure.

Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas with a Global Warming Potential 80 times that of CO2.It is responsible for one quarter of the global warming we are experiencing today. CO2 can persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Methane, on the other hand, has a much shorter life-span of about 20 years. A sharp reduction in methane emission could have a disproportionate effect on the overall rate of global temperature rise. It is perhaps the most efficient way that we can affect climate change right now, as climate scientist Ilissa Ocko explained in a TED talk in 2021.

Burping Cows

The largest contribution to methane emissions comes from agriculture, specifically from enteric fermentation – the digestion process that occurs in the stomachs of ruminant animals, primarily cows, and results in burps (and farts, to a lesser extent) that contain methane. According to the EPA, methane emissions increased by 8.4 percent between 1990-2019. The increase can be attributed to a trend toward large-scale industrialization of dairy production.. Though the overall population of dairy cattle in the U.S. fell over the same period by 3.1 percent, milk production increased by 58%. As dairy cattle become concentrated in large-scale production operations, their methane emissions actually increase.

CH4 Emissions from Enteric Fermentation

Source: EPA Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990-2019

A number of approaches have been developed to reduce methane emissions in agricultural production, the most common of which is the use of methane digesters. Animal waste is collected in enormous containers that trap the gas produced for usage in energy production. Increasing the quality of animal feed also has an impact on the amount of methane produced. Dairy cattle in industrial operations are generally fed a homogenous diet of either corn or soy – a far cry from the variety of plants they would encounter in the natural environment, and a diet that results in excess methane emission. Certain feed additives, as recently approved for use in Brazil and Chile, greatly reduce methane emissions in cattle. Adding certain types of seaweed to their diet can have a similar effect.

Leaking Infrastructure

The second largest source of methane emissions comes from oil and gas production. The vast infrastructure of wells, pipelines, refineries, and ports that facilitate the extraction and consumption of oil and gas is continuously leaking vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere. . The potent greenhouse gas is both colorless and odorless, so these leaks are difficult to detect. The task of detecting and repairing these leaks is expensive, and most oil and gas companies have avoided doing it all together – out of sight, out of mind. However, the new EPA rules instituted in November 2021 are forcing oil and gas companies to take responsibility for what is estimated to be 15 percent of total emissions in the energy sector.

This new burden on energy companies presents an enormous opportunity for numerous innovative companies in the field of methane detection. The most common technology used is based on infrared imaging of the type found in military grade night vision goggles. Special cameras attached to planes and drones are flown over larges areas to detect leaks. These types of cameras are effective, but expensive, costing up to $100,000 each.

Infrared imaging is being deployed on a much bigger scale by the organization MethanSat. Their satellite, to be launched into orbit in October 2022, will continuously monitor for leaks on a global scale. , It will join various other satellite monitoring missions already underway. Other companies, like LongPath Technologies, are using a Nobel Prize-winning innovation developed at the University of Colorado, Boulder called “laser frequency comb.” It projects a broad range of laser frequencies in a rotating beam (like a ships radar) to scan for leaks continuously within a 2.5 mile radius.

Fig. 1: Satellite observations of atmospheric methane from the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI), developed by the European Space Agency

We Have a Role to Play The global commitment made at COP26 to reduce methane emissions is a hugely important step in combating the climate crisis. Meeting those goals won’t be possible without innovative solutions to combat the causes. Implementing them at scale will require large scale investment and a continued commitment by both government and industry. We must not, however, lose sight of the true goal –a zero-emission future. We as consumers and citizens have role to play here. We can make choices about the amount of meat and dairy in our diets, and we can pressure our governments to act to accelerate the development of a green energy infrastructure. It is possible for me to imagine a future where I enter the San Juaquin Valley and am struck by the absence of that thick aroma of cow manure. A part of me may long for it, out of a sense of nostalgia, but its absence will signal the progress we’ve made towards a better future. That is a trade-off I’ll gladly accept.

Some Videos and Readings for the Curious:

TED Talk by Lisa Ocko on tackling the problem of methane emissions

CBS News report in San Francisco on the impact of large scale dairy production:

Biogas digester at Oregon's Lochmead Farms turns manure and methane into power,” The Oregonian (Jan, 10, 2019)

Michael Grubb//  22 February 2022 // #GoingGreen

Michael Grubb is a master student in Digital Journalism at the Hochschule für Medien, Kommunikation und Wirtschaft (HMKW) in Berlin, Germany. He was born and raised in the Central Valley of California, and completed his undergraduate degrees in German Literature and Political Economics at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. He has been living and working in Germany since 2014.