Should Australia be using satellites to keep coal companies honest?

The Federal government has acknowledged new satellite techniques to measure methane emissions at coal mines “is valuable” but it wants more work to be done to ensure a higher level of reliability.

Earlier this month, Cosmos Magazine covered the story of the Hail Creek Mine in Queensland’s Bowen Basin, and a study, using satellite technology, which suggested it was potentially emitting 35 times more methane than it was reporting.

The results are controversial and known to the Government.

A statement from the Government to Cosmos says it is committed to improving and maintaining the integrity of Australia’s emissions inventory “drawing on best available science, technology and data.”

A spokesperson for Chris Bowen, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, said: “New satellite data is valuable and opens up new possibilities to test and improve methane emissions estimates in national inventories, consistent with international guidelines.

“Australia will use this newly available satellite data in conjunction with bottom-up validation techniques to help ensure integrity in methane emissions estimates.

“However, satellite data is not currently reliable enough on its own for emissions estimates given technical challenges like visibility through clouds or estimates on uneven ground.”

Read more: Satellite mapping is preparing Australian cities for a warming earth

Although some researchers don’t think satellites are precise enough to be able to measure regular levels of emissions for reporting purposes, researchers like Professor Peter Rayner, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne, think that they could supplement ‘bottom up’ reporting – where data comes from modelling and sampling.  

“Most of us recommend a multi-tier system at the moment combining satellites with aircraft and on-ground measurements,” says Rayner, an expert in the estimation of emissions data using satellites.

Rayner says satellites “will help spot super-emitters, but ‘normal’ quantification will be hard with just satellites unless the mine is isolated.”

The Morrison government published a preliminary analysis on the use of satellite data in emission estimation.

In the meantime Rayner says satellite measurement is only going to get better.

“This reflects my view that current national emissions are highly uncertain so even moderately useful measurements could help,” he says.

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