California, NASA partner to launch methane-tracking satellite

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FILE PHOTO: Methane bubbles are seen in an area of marshland at a research post at Stordalen Mire near Abisko

(Reuters) - California and NASA, with the backing of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, on Thursday unveiled a $100 million effort to pinpoint large emissions of greenhouse gases from individual sources like power plants and oil refineries from space.

The partnership between the state, U.S. space agency, satellite company Planet and four other institutions will launch its first two satellites in 2023. The technology could help increase pressure on polluting industries -- already targeted by environmental activists and investors for their contribution to climate change -- to find and plug leaks.

The initiative is part of the growing use of space-age technology to locate big sources of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. Scientists say identifying methane sources is crucial to making the drastic emissions cuts needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The coalition is operating under a non-profit organization called Carbon Mapper that is funded by philanthropic groups including Bloomberg's.

The Carbon Mapper satellites will use technology developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to see and measure emissions at the scale of individual facilities for the first time. Other satellite technology has monitored greenhouse gases over larger geographic areas.

The data will be shared publicly, but companies that own and operate emitting infrastructure can subscribe to get access to the data sooner, allowing them to address leaks quickly.

"It will be transformational," Riley Duren, a researcher at the University of Arizona and Carbon Mapper's chief executive, said in an interview. "There is significant interest in using this type of technology... to support the leak detection and repair enterprise."

The satellite effort is an outgrowth of surveys JPL completed for the state of California using methane-tracking planes. Those identified small numbers of methane "super-emitters" in the oil and gas, waste and agriculture industries that have an outsized contribution to methane in the atmosphere.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Sam Holmes)