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New satellite is designed to track methane emitted from the oil and gas industry

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Monday, a SpaceX rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base. That's about an hour north of Santa Barbara, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET)

MARTIN: The rocket carried dozens of satellites, but one has a very specific mission. It will detect one of the gases in the atmosphere that's playing a big role in heating the planet. NPR's Julia Simon watched the launch, and she's with us now. Julia, good morning.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what did you see?

SIMON: I was standing about 4 miles from the launch site with some of the many scientists, engineers who worked on this satellite and their families. You may hear the squeal of a small child. The rocket goes up.

You can hear the rocket. Wow.

There's also a sonic boom, Michel, as part of the rocket falls back to Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOM)

SIMON: And everyone applauded because this satellite is a real climate solution that can have a real impact on slowing global warming.

MARTIN: Tell us more about that. How is this satellite a climate solution?

SIMON: For years, scientists have known that methane pollution was a problem. And methane, it's this super potent gas responsible for about a third of global warming. One of the main sources of methane pollution is the oil and gas sector. But it hasn't been clear where that pollution was coming from. Here's Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund, or EDF.

MARK BROWNSTEIN: When you've got a problem the size of the planet, you need a tool that's capable of gathering data across the planet, and that's where the satellite comes in.

SIMON: Brownstein and a team of scientists from Harvard, a lot of other places, designed this satellite to go into space with sensors that look for the fingerprint of the methane molecule in oil and gas regions around the world. The data then gets sent back to Earth.

MARTIN: This is going to detect all of the methane in the atmosphere and sort of pinpoint where it's coming from. Is that it?

SIMON: Right now it's focusing on the oil and gas industry. Other sectors produce methane, notably agriculture, right? But the EDF made a strategic decision to focus on the oil industry first because they have fewer companies, and they have a lot of money to actually clean up their pollution.

MARTIN: But how does this help with cleanup? Is the idea that the oil and gas companies don't know what their emissions are, or is there no way to prove it?

SIMON: I think it's a little bit of both. The idea of this satellite is that there's going to be a lot more precise, granular data that will help with enforcement. That is regulation. The EDF told me that they're talking to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. The EPA administrator was at the welcome event Sunday night before the satellite launch, and late last year, the EPA released this rule that, for the first time, requires oil and gas operators to detect and fix methane leaks. I asked the EPA if they plan to use this new data from this satellite. They responded saying the rule does allow for a third party like the EDF to apply to help them spot big releases of methane. An EDF scientist told me the hope is that the data from this satellite will help move more oil and gas companies to clean up their methane pollution, which would have a positive climate impact.

MARTIN: That's Julia Simon. She covers climate solutions for NPR. Julia, thank you.

SIMON: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.