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Fracking operations could be next in line for surveillance after NASA's 16-year-old EO-1 satellite tracks methane leak from Aliso Canyon facility.

Fossil Fuels

Ancient Satellite Busts Massive Gas Storage Leak, Fracking Could Be Next

Fracking operations could be next in line for surveillance after NASA’s 16-year-old EO-1 satellite tracks methane leak from Aliso Canyon facility.

NASA has just reported that its EO-1 satellite has picked up the trail of emissions from the massive methane leak at a natural gas storage facility near the gated community of Porter Ranch in California. Okay, so they took their time about reporting it — the leak dates back to last fall and it was fixed by February — but the important thing is, this is the very first time that an orbiting spacecraft has confirmed methane emissions from one identifiable facility.

That’s significant because it means that orbiting spacecraft could become an effective means of detecting significant, fixable sources of methane on a global basis. That news comes at a bad time for the fracking industry, which is coming under increased scrutiny for bleeding out methane gas from drilling operations among (many) other ills.

NASA methane leak fracking

Methane Super-Emitter Busted By Satellite

For those of you new to the topic, the Porter Ranch methane leak involved a SoCal Gas storage facility at Aliso Canyon, resulting in thousands of evacuations from the well-to-do community.

The leak began last October and it took crews until February to stop it.

Over the winter, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory set EO-1 to the task of monitoring the methane leak, deploying a spectrometer called Hyperion. The findings, gathered in the course of three different flyovers, confirmed other results obtained by aircraft.

The findings are available at the journal Geophysical Letters under the title, “Space-based Remote Imaging Spectroscopy of the Aliso Canyon CH4 Super-emitter.” Here’s a taste from the abstract:

…Hyperion measured shortwave infrared signatures of CH4 near 2.3 μm at 0.01 μm spectral resolution and 30 m spatial resolution. It detected the plume on three overpasses, mapping its magnitude and morphology…We evaluate Hyperion instrument performance, draw implications for future orbital instruments, and extrapolate the potential for a global survey of CH4 super-emitters.

EO-1 methane satellite

EO-1 (rendering via NASA).

Busted!

By the way, we’re calling EO-1 ancient because it was launched in 2000 and it was originally designed to circle the Earth only for a year or so, to test cutting edge equipment like the Hyperion. Data collection and transmission was supposed to be a byproduct.

Fracking And Greenhouse Gas Emissions

NASA likes to remind folks that it “uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future,” so we’re going to guess that EO-1 will play a pivotal role in global greenhouse gas management for as long as it stays aloft.

Here in the US, evidence is mounting that there are significant fugitive methane emissions from fracking sites and from conventional drilling sites. Leaks can also occur along transmission pipelines and storage facilities.

The problem is finding all of them, and now we know that satellite observation can provide a reliable, efficient way of gathering measurements.

The clampdown has been slow in coming, but just last month the US Environmental Protection Agency issued its final rule for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, all along the supply chain:

The final standards will significantly curb methane emissions from new, reconstructed and modified processes and equipment, along with reducing VOC emissions from sources not covered in the agency’s 2012 rules. These sources include hydraulically fractured oil wells, some of which can contain a large amount of gas along with oil, and equipment used across the industry that was not regulated in the 2012 rules.

EPA estimates that if the industry acts upon the new rule by 2025, there will be a reduction of 510,000 short tons of methane in 2025.

By remediating leaks, the industry will be able to capture more natural gas, and the EPA estimates that the use and market value of the additional gas will partly offset the cost of compliance.

The real value will be “climate benefits” of $690 million, compared with the estimated $530 million cost of compliance.

Though not quantified by EPA in terms of cost-benefits, the new rule is also expected to result in a significant reduction of volatile organic compounds and other airborne toxins that are linked to asthma and other significant public health effects. That includes ozone-forming VOCs, along with benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene.

Fracking: Compare And Contrast

All of these expectations could collapse like a house of cards, depending on who gets to be elected the next President of the United States.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, for example, does not appear to have evolved on the topic of fracking since issuing this tweet in 2012:

Donald Trump frackingOn the other hand, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton seems to have absorbed the mounting evidence that links fracking to water contamination and seismic activity as well as airborne pollutants.

As Secretary of State and a high level surrogate for President Obama from 2009 to 2013, Clinton supported the Administration’s “all of the above” energy policy that embraced the oil and gas industry.

However, shortly after leaving that post, Clinton adopted a practical approach that works around the virtual impossibility of getting Congress to issue a blanket ban on fracking. Instead, she would ramp up the Obama Administration’s slow but steady deployment of EPA’s rule making authority.

By September 2014, she was on record with a strategy for squeezing out fracking operations, where risks are “too high.”

That risk-based approach has tightened up considerably over the years, particularly since last summer when primary season got under way. Clinton now foresees that very little, if any, fracking would go on if she wins the Oval office.

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Images: via NASA.


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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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