February 2021, Vol. 248, No. 2


PART 2: Policy Implications for Satellite-Based Methane Detection

By Jonathan Elkind, Erin Blanton, Hugo Denier van der Gon, Robert Kleinberg and Anton Leemhuis, Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA 

Access to publicly available satellite methane data from TROPOMI, and in future platforms such as those being planned by the ESA Copernicus missions, are animating interest from for-profit companies and not-for-profit advocacy groups interested in using methane data to advance these organizations’ missions.  

For example, the Paris-based company Kayrros produces and seeks to sell insights on methane emissions that fuse publicly available satellite imagery with other data sources and market information. 

On the nonprofit side, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) will soon launch MethaneSAT. Working in collaboration with scientific advisors, satellite constructors and other specialist organizations, EDF intends to start producing data from MethaneSAT in 2023.  

MethaneSAT will offer the possibility of targeted measurements as well as measurements across larger areas such as oil and gas producing regions.[35] Soon after launch, EDF will begin a stream of near real-time data that will be made available to the public for free. 

Table 2: Methane emissions data will follow three pathways to user communities.
Table 2: Methane emissions data will follow three pathways to user communities.

Thus, in roughly the next five years, data about atmospheric methane emissions will be significantly more plentiful, less reliant on estimates and more widely available outside the scientific community than in the past. One can classify the different streams of methane data and their availability in accordance with the three pathways (Table 2): public information, a hybrid of public and private information, and proprietary information. 

Several implications are worthy of note: 

Availability of services: An increasing range of paid services is expected that will give consumers access to methane emissions information without bearing the cost and burden of developing extensive scientific and technical expertise. 

Different levels of analytical transparency: Methane information gained through the public route can be expected to be more transparent and verifiable.  

By contrast, proprietary and hybrid sources will be likely to generate commercially marketed information, such as satellite data that are fused with big data from non-satellite sources and observations; comparing data from alternative channels will enable verification of emissions data. 

No “one-size-fits-all” solution: Different users will be served best by information products made available through different sources. An industrial end-user that requires detailed and confidential information on its facilities will have different needs than advocacy groups trying to encourage effective policy or responsible industrial field operations, or a national government seeking to verify emissions in the context of an international treaty. 

Satellite Systems 

The emergence of new satellites, in roughly the next five years, will radically increase the amount of methane emissions data available, with greater accuracy, spatial detail, quantification and timeliness. Moreover, those data can be expected to enable – and in some cases to force – decision-making and action by the oil and gas industry, by the finance world and by the public policy community. 

Currently, companies engaged in the production, processing, transportation and distribution of oil and gas often engage in self-reporting of methane emissions. This is generally true even for those companies that are engaging in voluntary emissions-reduction programs.[36]  

Consequently, results from the voluntary efforts are difficult to verify for outside parties. Those companies not inclined to engage on a voluntary basis have only limited incentives. Some companies see these efforts as core to good business practice; others view them as a strategic effort to sustain their industry’s social license to operate. Many companies seek to reduce the wastage of methane as a potentially valuable resource, as industry advocates are quick to stress. 

Nonetheless, in a situation in which official emissions figures are calculated using engineering estimates that appear to systematically underreport actual emissions levels, as discussed, there is little if any external stimulus for transparency, precision or remediation of true emissions.  

The decline in global demand for oil and natural gas this year, which pushed many oil and gas producers into survival mode, may have resulted in temporary reductions in emissions. This only makes it more challenging for companies, however, that have not been addressing methane emissions from their facilities to begin doing so now. 

Companies have slashed capital expenditure budgets[37], and some experts worry that deferring investments to reduce methane emissions may result.[38] The oil and gas industry is also confronting a significant loss of trust from many members of the general public.[39] 

As public awareness of actual emissions levels grows, the environmental bona fides of natural gas are now subjected to more skeptical evaluation.[40] 

With the arrival of progressively improving satellite-based methane emissions information, the oil and gas industry will face far more scrutiny from stakeholders who will be armed with far more accurate and timely information. 

This scrutiny translates into good news for the climate. It will be directed along the entire value chain of the industry – from exploration and production all the way through to local distribution[41]. It will apply no less to non-operated assets and joint ventures – even those in jurisdictions where there has been little or no transparency, less attention to environmental standards and little ability to engage in aerial or ground-based monitoring. 

It is likely to exacerbate significant controversies over new developments and continuing operations. Improving satellite-based emissions information may also enable comparison of companies in different jurisdictions; it will make it much easier to assess company performance, whether the company is a publicly traded “major” or a smaller independent company or a state-owned entity. 

The arrival of new satellite capabilities will not only bring new challenges for natural gas, but it will also bring new opportunities. Companies that move aggressively to quantify their true methane emissions and reduce them may have a window of opportunity to differentiate themselves from less-proactive competitors.  

Companies that seek to reduce their methane emissions as a matter of strategic priority may benefit from their ability to use the range of new emissions-detection and quantification tools that are emerging at a much lower cost than in the past. 

These satellite technologies may help facilitate the development of a market in which end-users can opt to buy what might be called “certified low-emissions natural gas” – a differentiated commodity akin to structures that now allow electricity consumers to buy carbon-free “green” power. 

For Investors 

The financial and investment community is increasingly focused on understanding and mitigating its vulnerabilities arising from the causes and impacts of climate change. Many investors who wish to base their investment decisions on assessments of environmental risks and opportunities lack the data to accurately evaluate companies’ performance. Such investors often look to environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings of the companies in which they may invest. 

But today’s ESG ratings can confront investors with more complexity and confusion than clarity and definitive insight. With more than 600 ESG ratings and rankings available, the ESG landscape is fragmented.[42] Different ratings schemes often use nontransparent methodologies – “black boxes” – with little or no standardized scoring methodology. Compounding the problem is the fact that ESG ratings firms must depend on unreliable public data when it comes to emissions. It is therefore hardly surprising that a given company’s rating can vary wildly from one ratings agency to the next.[43] 

Many in the investment community conclude that they cannot rely on either ESG ratings or the oil and gas companies’ own measurements of emissions.[44] What is needed instead are reliable and impartial data of actual performance. In regard to environmental attributes (the “E” in “ESG”), satellite data on methane emissions can provide badly needed, uniformly applied, authoritative verification.  

Investors can be expected to see the new satellite-based methane information as a tool to press for real-time and accurate disclosures of methane emissions. The financial community will also be likely to face growing divestment pressures in regard to those oil and gas companies that fail to reduce and prevent methane emissions. 

Public Policy 

The public policy impacts of more accurate and timely understanding of methane emissions could prove especially significant. 

This better understanding may well reverberate through national and international structures whose mission it is to maintain inventories of greenhouse gas emissions and craft policies to respond adequately to them, including national-level environment agencies, scientific entities like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. If it turns out that global emissions of oil-and-gas-related methane are significantly greater than previously understood, national and international priorities for climate change mitigation may need to be reordered.[45] 

Availability of improved methane emissions data could encourage countries to demand that their companies detect and respond to methane emissions. The new data could drive efforts to introduce strict regulation of gas production or imports or to accelerate abandonment of fossil fuel usage. The new data could also facilitate emissions pricing schemes.  

The corollary to this thought is that, because of methane’s potency and short atmospheric lifetime, addressing methane emissions with a much greater sense of urgency may help to foster badly needed climate progress. Reducing and eliminating methane emissions, after all, should enable easier and faster climate mitigation than alternative options, such as significantly reducing emissions from heavy industry or replacing internal combustion engines with electric vehicles.[46] 

Other impacts in public policy will arise in regard to current legal and regulatory structures. Policy makers, regulators, the general public and environmental advocacy groups that seek to speak on the public’s behalf will have a much better understanding than was historically the case of how much methane is being emitted, where, by whom and for how long.  

This information may be used to identify ineffective regulatory oversight or to “name and shame” individual companies whose operations result in methane emissions. The data may be introduced into facility-level approvals as well as long-term policy planning.  

In this sense, the new information may assist regulators in enforcing emissions standards, penalizing laggards or, conversely, creating greater incentives for stronger environmental stewardship. 


Last, the new availability of methane emissions data may be used to exert influence on policy makers and regulators themselves. The environmental community has historically criticized those officials perceived as defending the interests of companies rather than the general public.[47] 

The availability of accurate, near real-time methane emissions data can be expected to exert pressure for a new degree of public accountability. If lawmakers and regulators fail to set and enforce sufficiently rigorous standards and mandates, the public will be able to see the proof in new, clear detail. 


Methane emissions pose a serious threat to global climate, and therefore to the oil and gas industry. They result from faults in design and operation of complex industrial systems that reach from the wellhead in oil and gas producing regions to the burner tip in industrial installations, residential kitchens and other end-use locations. 

Methane emissions can come in the form of routine, low-level leakage, but also as intermittent super-emissions, which often go undetected for a period of time due to the pernicious combination of inadequate methane emissions detection systems and inadequate regulatory and/or financial incentives. 

The power of methane as a greenhouse gas, and methane’s comparatively short atmospheric lifetime, mean that it is vital to eliminate – or at least control much more effectively – methane emissions. The climate benefits of doing so are compelling. 

The emergence of new generations of space-based methane emissions detection and quantification systems can and should drive change in the treatment of methane in the oil and gas industry, the financial community and the public policy arena.  

More plentiful and accurate data on methane emissions will soon be available through a variety of channels and in a variety of forms – some designed for speedy remediation of leaks by industry, others available to be used by investors or public interest groups to enable accountability, regulatory action and perhaps legal change.  

Companies that fail to act now and reduce emissions will suffer the consequences at the hands of investors, governmental decision makers and the general public. There will be nowhere to hide methane emissions 



Jonathan Elkind is a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy. 

Erin Blanton is a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy. 

Hugo Denier van der Gon is a senior scientist and emissions inventory expert at the TNO Department of Climate, Air, and Sustainability.  

Dr. Robert L. Kleinberg is an adjunct senior research scholar. 

Anton Leemhuis manages the program for Earth Observation satellite instruments and satellite data utilization at TNO. 

Editor’s note: Posted with permission by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA. https://tinyurl.com/CIPA-Center. 


[1] R.L. Kleinberg, “The Global Warming Potential Misrepresents the Physics of Global Warming Thereby Misleading Policy Makers,” preprint (2020) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344026808_Kleinberg_GWP_Climate_Policy_200901. 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] D. Shindell, et al., “Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security,” Science 335 (2012): 183-189, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/335/6065/183. 

[4] Kleinberg, “The Global Warming Potential Misrepresents the Physics…” 

[5] E.G. Nisbet, et al., “Very Strong Atmospheric Methane Growth in the 4 Years 2014–2017: Implications for the Paris Agreement,” Global Biogeochemical Cycles 33, no. 3 (2019) https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB006009. 

[6] Quirin Schiermeier, “Global Methane Levels Soar to Record High,” Nature (July 14, 2020), https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02116-8 (accessed August 17, 2020). 

[7] D. Zavala-Araiza, et al., “Super-Emitters in Natural Gas Infrastructure Are Caused by Abnormal Process Conditions,” Nature Communications 8 (2017), https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14012. 

[8] R.A. Alvarez, et al., “Assessment of Methane Emissions from the U.S. Oil and Gas Supply Chain,” Science 13 (July 2018), Supplementary Material, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6398/186. 

[9] EPA, “Methane Emissions from the Natural Gas Industry,” EPA/600/R-96/080a through EPA/600/R-96/080o (15 volumes) (1996). 

[10] Examples of such abnormal conditions include failures of tank control systems, stuck pressure-relief valves that result in venting of methane from tanks into the atmosphere, design failures, excessive operating pressures, and malfunctioning or improperly operated equipment (Zavala-Araiza, “Super-emitters”). 

[11] Alvarez, et al. found actual emissions from production, gathering, processing, and transmission to be 1.7 times larger than reported via the official inventory and did not assess emissions from natural gas distribution, oil refining or transportation. See: Alvarez, “Assessment of methane emissions” and note the references therein. For comparison to the official inventory, see EPA, “Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, 1990-2018,” US Environmental Protection Agency, 430-R-20-002 (2020a). 

[12] EPA, “EPA’s Voluntary Methane Programs for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry,” US Environmental Protection Agency (2020b), https://www.epa.gov/natural-gas-star-program. 

[13] D. Lyon, et al., “Aerial Surveys of Elevated Hydrocarbon Emissions from Oil and Gas Production Sites,” Environmental Science and Technology 50 (2016): 4877-4886, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.6b00705. 

[14] R.L. Kleinberg, “Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Oilfield Flares Accounting for Realistic Flare Gas Composition and Distribution of Flare Efficiencies,” preprint (2019), https://doi.org/10.1002/essoar.10501340.1. 

[15] EDF, “Flaring: Aerial Survey Results,” PermianMAP, 

https://www.permianmap.org/flaring-emissions/ (accessed September 9, 2020). 

[16] C. Leyden, “Satellite data confirms Permian gas flaring is double what companies report,” EDF (2019), http://blogs.edf.org/energyexchange/2019/01/24/satellite-data-confirms-permian-gas-flaring-is-double-what-companies-report/. 

[17] A.R. Brandt, et al., “Methane Leaks from Natural Gas Systems Follow Extreme Distributions,” Environmental Science and Technology 50 (2016): 12512−12520, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.6b04303. 

[18] D. Zavala-Araiza, et al., “Reconciling divergent estimates of oil and gas methane emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (2015): 15597–15602, https://www.pnas.org/content/112/51/15597; 

  1. M. Duren, et al., “California’s methane super-emitters,” Nature 575 (2019): 180-185, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1720-3.

[19] EPA, “Oil and Natural Gas Sector: Emission Standards for New, Reconstructed, and Modified Sources, Background Technical Support Document for the Final New Source Performance Standards 40 CFR Part 60, subpart OOOOa,” US Environmental Protection Agency (May 2016), Table 9-4 for Projected Year 2020, https://beta.regulations.gov/document/EPA-HQ-OAR-2015-0216-0212. 

[20] A.K. Thorpe, et al., “Methane Emissions from Underground Gas Storage in California,” Environmental Research Letters (April 15, 2020), https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab751d. 

[21] S. Pandey, et al., “Satellite observations reveal extreme methane leakage from a natural gas well blowout,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 52 (2019): 26376-26381, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1908712116. 

[22] Based on Kayrros processing of data from Sentinel 5-P/TROPOMI satellite. See: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth/Copernicus/Sentinel-5P/Mapping_methane_emissions_on_a_global_scale. 

[23] MethaneSAT, “How it fits into the methane measurement eco-system,” MethaneSAT (2020), https://www.methanesat.org/fit-with-other-missions/; GHGSat, Satellite Imagery and Data Product Specifications - IRIS for CSA & ESA, Document No. GHG-1502-7001, 13 November 2019. 

[24] OGCI, “What OGCI Climate Investments is Doing,” Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, https://oilandgasclimateinitiative.com/climate-investments/reduce-methane-emissions/ (accessed September 4, 2020). 

[25] Dylan Jervis. et al., “The GHGSat-D imaging spectrometer,” Atmospheric Measurement Techniques, preprint (September 25, 2020), https://amt.copernicus.org/preprints/amt-2020-301/. 

[26] TNO, “TANGO satellite: monitoring greenhouse gas emissions,” TNO (June 10, 2020), https://www.tno.nl/en/about-tno/news/2020/6/tango-satellite-monitoring-greenhouse-gas-emissions/ (accessed June 2020). 

[27] S. Hamburg, “How Can Aerial Measurements Aid Methane Emissions Reduction?” (online event, Florence School of Regulation, June 1, 2020), 


[28] NASA, “GeoCarb: A New View of Carbon Over the Americas,” NASA (January 11, 2018), 


[29] Table created by Kleinberg, Leemhuis, and Denier von der Gon using sources as listed here: For SCIAMACHY and TROPOMI: D. Jacob, et al., “Satellite observations of atmospheric methane and their value for quantifying methane emissions,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 16, no. 22 (November 18, 2016): 14,371–14,396; for Sentinel-5 the same threshold is assumed as the TROPOMI instrument on its precursor mission Sentinel-5p; European Space Agency, “Copernicus CO2 Monitoring Mission Requirements Document,” Earth and Mission Science Division, 2019, ref. EOP-SM/3088/YM-ym. 

https://esamultimedia.esa.int/docs/EarthObservation/CO2M_MRD_v2.0_Issued20190927.pdf; For the TANGO mission the minimal detection threshold is based on: TNO, “Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions,” https://www.tno.nl/en/about-tno/news/2020/6/tango-satellite-monitoring-greenhouse-gas-emissions/ (accessed October 2020); for MethaneSat, S. Hamburg, “How Can Aerial Measurements Aid Methane Emissions Reduction?”; for GHGSat, D. Jervis et al., “The GHGSat-D imaging spectrometer”; for GeoCarb, B. Moore et al., “The Potential of the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCarb) to Provide Multi-Scale Constraints on the Carbon Cycle in the Americas,” Frontiers in Environmental Science 6 (2018), https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2018.00109. 

[30] Alan M. Gorchov Negron, Eric A. Kort, Steven A. Conley, and Mackenzie L. Smith, “Airborne Assessment of Methane Emission from Offshore Platforms in the US Gulf of Mexico,” Environmental Science and Technology 54 (2020): 5112-5120, Supporting Information Appendix S4, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.0c00179. 

[31] EIA, “Drilling Productivity Report,” EIA (September 14, 2020), https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/drilling/. 

[32] Y. Zhang, et al., “Quantifying Methane Emissions from the Largest Oil-Producing Basin in the United States from Space,” Science Advances 6, no. 17 (April 22, 2020), https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/17/eaaz5120, and O. Schneising, et al., “Remote Sensing of Methane Leakage from Natural Gas and Petroleum Systems Revisited,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, preprint (2020), https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-2020-274.  

[33] Zhang, et al., “Quantifying Methane Émissions.” 

[34] D.J. Varon, et al., “Satellite Discovery of Anomalously Large Methane Point Sources from Oil/Gas Production,” Geophysical Research Letters 46, no. 22 (October 25, 2019), https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GL083798. 

[35] Environmental Defense Fund, “MethaneSAT Mission,” Methane SAT (2020), 

https://www.methanesat.org/fit-with-other-missions/ (accessed September 9, 2020). 

[36] As an example, see information on the Methane Guiding Principles initiative, through which a number of leading companies share best practices and engage in dialogue with expert international organizations, environmental advocacy groups, and others – https://methaneguidingprinciples.org/. 

[37] Dyna Mariel Bade, “Update: Oil price war fallout: Capital spending cuts sweep through shale,” S&P Global Market Intelligence (April 7, 2020), https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/latest-news-headlines/update-oil-price-war-fallout-capital-spending-cuts-sweep-through-shale-57505881. 

[38] International Energy Agency, “Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas” IEA (June 2020), https://www.iea.org/reports/methane-emissions-from-oil-and-gas. 

[39] See: World Economic Forum, “Trust Challenge Facing the Global Oil and Gas Industry,” World Economic Forum (April 2016), http://www3.weforum.org/docs/Trust_Challenges_Facing_Global_OilandGas_Industry.pdf (accessed August 22, 2020) and Rebecca Fitz, Chris DiPaolo, and Matthew Abel, “Winning Back Investors’ Trust,” Boston Consulting Group (December 17, 2019), https://www.bcg.com/publications/2019/value-creation-oil-gas-investors-trust (accessed August 22, 2020). 

[40] Nicholas Kusnetz, “Is Natural Gas Really Helping the U.S. Cut Emissions?” Inside Climate News (January 2020), https://insideclimatenews.org/news/30012020/natural-gas-methane-carbon-emissions. 

[41] For measurement-based quantification of the local gas distribution network in the US and Europe see respectively: J.C. Von Fischer, et al., “Rapid, Vehicle-Based Identification of Location and Magnitude of Urban Natural Gas Pipeline Leaks,” Environmental Science and Technology 51, no. 7 (2017): 4091–4099 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.6b06095 and H. Maazallahi et al., “Methane mapping, emission quantification and attribution in two European cities; Utrecht, NL and Hamburg, DE,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, preprint (2020), https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-2020-657. 

[42] Christina Wong and Erika Petroy, “Rate the Raters 2020: Investor Survey and Interview Results,” SustainAbility (March 2020), https://sustainability.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/sustainability-ratetheraters2020-report.pdf. 

[43] Florian Berg, Julian Kölbel, and Roberto Rigobon, “Aggregate Confusion: The Divergence of ESG Ratings,” MIT Sloan School Working Paper (May 17, 2020), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3438533. 

[44] Tim Human, “Investors Relying Less on Top-Line ESG Scores Say Panelists,” IR Magazine (August 3, 2020), https://www.irmagazine.com/esg/investors-relying-less-top-line-esg-scores-say-panelists. 

[45] Nisbet, et al., “Very Strong Atmospheric Methane Growth.” 

[46] Shindell, et al., “Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security.” 

[47] For one such example, see: “Letter to Railroad Commission on venting and flaring,” Environment Texas Research and Policy Center (December 3, 2019), https://environmenttexas.org/reports/txe/letter-railroad-commission-flaring-and-venting (accessed August 22, 2020).

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