State environmental regulators are teaming up with rocket scientists and satellite engineers to track air pollutants the way meteorologists monitor rain clouds from space.
By 2023, a constellation of two-dozen tiny satellites designed by the National Aeronautics Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, based in Pasadena, and constructed and managed by Planet Labs, a private Earth-imaging firm in San Francisco, will map “chemical weather” — otherwise undetectable plumes of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.
The automation of precise near real-time measurements from orbit will provide agencies like the California Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board and state air quality management districts powerful new tools in the battle against climate change and industrial activities that produce harmful greenhouse gases.
From 2016 to 2020, planes equipped with JPL-designed sensors flew over nearly 300,000 potential sources of emissions in California, including industrial equipment used by oil refineries, landfills and industrial agriculture facilities. The sensors will eventually be installed on orbiting satellites no larger than a mini-fridge for fully remote, around-the-clock imaging of air pollution sources.
The early studies revealed nearly 600 such “point sources,” which researchers define as industrial elements less than 10 meters in diameter responsible for highly concentrated methane plumes. Those studies found 10% of the sources — dubbed “super emitters” by the research group — produced two-thirds of all emissions.
“The outcome of this study is that less than 0.2 percent of the infrastructure we surveyed is responsible for at least a third of the state’s entire methane inventory,” said Riley Duren, chief executive officer of Carbon Mapper, the nonprofit organization that is leading the research consortium.
A series of state greenhouse gas reduction laws mandate a 40% reduction in methane from 2013 levels by 2030. Despite its designation as a “short-lived climate pollutant,” methane, a byproduct of organic waste, has a warming effect on the atmosphere that exceeds that of carbon dioxide. The law sets specific targets for methane reductions in landfills and livestock agriculture operations.
According to Carbon Mapper, California’s landfills comprise the largest category of all methane emitters, 41%, followed by livestock agriculture and petroleum facilities, each responsible for about 26%.
As part of the project, Carbon Mapper contacted companies to provide them with their own emissions data in hopes that they could identify the causes of gas leaks and fix them.
“Most of these are malfunctions,” said Duren. “In fact, when we share the data with operators, in general … they’re reporting that about 50% of what we’re finding is fixable.”
In 2016, when methane sensor overflights began, Sunshine Canyon Landfill — one of the nation’s largest municipal garbage dumps — stank like rotten eggs. Each day, approximately 9,000 tons of garbage flow into the 1,000-acre site located in the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley, mostly from the city of Los Angeles.
The landfill’s owner, Republic Services, and local environmental regulators were unable to discover the source of gases that were causing odors so overwhelming that nearby residents filed a class-action lawsuit. The firm eventually began working with Duren’s team to resolve the leaks.
“We had more extensive data than any other landfill in the world in terms of surface emissions, so I gave all that to NASA and they used it to calibrate their methane flux model,” said Eugene Tseung, an environmental engineer and attorney who has been advising Sunshine Canyon Landfill and its regulators. Tseung said that the collaboration has led him to develop new protocols for similar aerial surveillance and methane mitigation of landfills around the world.
“We are currently collaborating with JPL-CARB and consider our relationship to be synergistic with our commitment to innovation and sustainable solutions,” Republic Services said in a written response to the Bay Area News Group.
Bill Gates is a major shareholder of Republic Services, which reported 2020 revenues of $874 million. Gates is also a significant shareholder at Waste Management, a major Northern California landfill owner, which reported $15 billion in revenue last year.
SoCal Gas, which serves 21 million customers across the state, also used the project’s imagery to resolve a massive methane leak. The Aliso Canyon leak near Porter Ranch contributed more than 109,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere from October 2015 to February 2016. The source of the leak was detected by a spectrometer aboard the Earth Observing-1 satellite and by planes equipped with various sensors.
“They had a four-inch pipe that was running underneath this street in a subdivision with no obvious infrastructure around and we saw this big plume coming up through a manhole cover and SoCal Gas went out there and found that the pipe had actually cracked,” said Charles Miller, a scientist at JPL and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Some refer to this new paradigm as getting at what we call ‘chemical weather.’”
Jorn Herner, who is leading the state Air Resources Board’s efforts to use new sensors for pollutant measurement, said that once the full complement of satellites is launched into orbit in 2023, the environmental regulator will be able to inform other regulators and companies about emissions leaks within 48 hours of detection.
Once 15 satellites are deployed CARB will have “near-daily coverage” of most of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, Herner said.