methane gas fire

A methane-tracking satellite is one of seven projects funded by the $400 million Audacious Project, a new initiative from TED.

  • The Environmental Defense Fund announced this week at the TED Conference that it's working on a low-cost satellite, called MethaneSAT.
  • The satellite will identify and measure human-caused methane emissions, with a particular focus on the oil and gas industry.
  • EDF's MethaneSAT is one of seven projects funded by the $400 million Audacious Project, a new initiative from TED.

Floods, famine, drought, fire — these are just some of the consequences of out-of-control climate change.

Carbon dioxide emissions play a huge part in this humanity-threatening problem, but there's an even bigger culprit: methane emissions.

Methane emissions from human activities generate one quarter of all the warming that Earth is experiencing, and the oil and gas industry is one of the leading emitters of the greenhouse gas. It's a dangerous — and hard to track — situation.

The Environmental Defense Fund announced this week at the TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada, that it's working on a satellite, called MethaneSAT, that will identify and measure human-caused methane emissions, with a particular focus on the oil and gas industry.

EDF has long taken an interest in studying methane emissions, including funding a $20 million series of studies looking at ground and air-based emissions from the US oil and gas industry. But the kind of satellite that EDF now plans to launch was previously considered impossible, according to Fred Krupp, the president of EDF.

"There's nothing like this accessible today, and there was no satellite on the drawing board doing anything like this," he said.

After years of work and a partnership with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, EDF figured out the science. Then it had to come up with the funds, which is where TED stepped in.

MethaneSAT is one of seven initiatives funded by the $400 million Audacious Project, a new program from TED that aims to deal with the fact that, as TED Curator Chris Anderson said, "Real change is expensive."

The $400 million is spread out among the recipients, who each presented TED with a detailed budget for their project, ranging from $30 million to $100 million. The nominees were chosen by TED this year, but the organization will allow the public to submit ideas starting next year.

The Audacious Project is backed by funders including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Dalio Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, and Virgin Unite. TED isn't revealing which funders are working with each individual project (there isn't a big pool of Audacious Project money; instead funders choose the individual projects they are passionate about).

Krupp also declined to say how much TED's initiative is providing EDF. But "it's fair to say the satellite wouldn’t be happening except for The Audacious Project," he said. Krupp estimates that it will cost tens of millions of dollars just for the satellite, and then tens of millions more to generate actionable data.

The Audacious Project isn't providing all the necessary funds to the environmental organization. But it is offering enough of a cash injection that EDF was able to hire Tom Ingersoll, a satellite industry veteran who was formerly the CEO of Skybox, to run the satellite project.

"We were told by a search firm that he’d be the best person to do the project, but that we'd never get him. He fell in love with the project," said Krupp.

Once it's launched, the satellite will have a 124-mile-wide (200 kilometer) view of global methane emissions checked on a regular basis. It will cover over 80% of all major the oil and gas-producing regions on Earth.

"We will have global coverage of where these methane emissions are," said Krupp. " Some [of the methane emissions] are vented intentionally, some are leaked inadvertently."

EDF plans to launch MethaneSAT by the latter half of 2020 or the beginning of 2021, according to Krupp. All of the data from the satellite will be publicly available. Once methane emissions can be more easily measured, it might be easier to manage them.

"A lot of folks are just kind of resigned to global warming, and that's one of the biggest enemies we have," Krupp said. "This is a practical way to lower the temperatures we'd otherwise see in our lifetimes."