COSIA in Space

Investigate the use of satellite technology to measure greenhouse gas emissions from tailings ponds and mine faces
Increase the accuracy and frequency of emissions measurements from oil sands operations with the potential of reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Oil sands mining operators are required to conduct annual measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane emissions from tailings ponds and mine faces, known as “fugitive emissions.” Fugitives make up a significant part of a mine’s total emissions, which also include stationary combustion and mobile sources. All emissions are reported annually to the provincial government for compliance purposes.

The current measurement method involves using a “flux chamber,” a large hood which is either floated on the surface of a pond or set on the mine face to capture emissions that rise from the surface. Operators then measure the amount of emissions captured within the chamber and use it to estimate the total emissions from the mine face or tailings pond over a period of time.

“This existing measurement method has a significant degree of uncertainty, 50 per cent or more,” says Glynis Carling, a Senior Environmental Advisor at Imperial. “It’s also costly and there are associated safety risks, since workers must conduct the measurements directly on the ponds or close to mine faces.”

This is where Canadian space technology meets Canada’s oil sands innovation. Imperial is leading a joint industry project (JIP) with Canadian Natural and Suncor to work with GHGSat (a global emissions monitoring company based in Quebec) to investigate the use of satellite technology to provide more accurate and frequent measurements of fugitive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from tailings ponds and mine faces.

“COSIA will literally be going out of this world to achieve its vision of accelerating the pace of environmental performance improvement in Canada’s oil sands,” says Jonathan Matthews, Director, GHG Environmental Priority Area (EPA).

Technology and Innovation

The project will develop a modelling system that will allow COSIA members to use GHGSat’s innovative satellite technology to measure emissions in the atmosphere above two tailings ponds and one mine face. The emissions rates will be calculated based on those measurements and will be compared with more conventional technology measurements, including the flux chamber method, outlined above.

Learn more about GHGSat

In addition to measuring fugitive emissions from oil sands operations, the demonstration satellite, GHGSat-D will also be looking at a number of other industries, including traditional oil and natural gas, coal and hydroelectric power generation, and waste management.

GHGSat-D will be measuring the concentration of methane and CO2 in the atmosphere above a number of industrial sites.

The satellite is 45 centimetres long, 30 centimetres high, 20 centimetres wide, and weighs less than 15 kilograms. It will be carrying a device called a spectrometer, which measures the concentration of different types of gases, such as CO2 and methane in the atmosphere by observing the absorption of light at different wavelengths. GHGSat has miniaturized the technology to ensure it is light and robust enough for space travel. By comparison, NASA’s OCO-2 satellite measures CO2 concentrations at a lower resolution, is two metres high with six panels, each a metre wide and weighs 450 kilograms.

“Each gas has its own spectral fingerprint,” says Germain. “The spectrometer can read those fingerprints and use them to calculate the type and concentration of gases being emitted from a specific industrial site.”

A technician sits next to the payload primary instrument aperture for GHGSat’s demonstration satellite, GHGSat-D.

The participating COSIA members will be building on a common technique called “dispersion modelling”, where known sources of emissions are combined with meteorological data to determine the concentration and location of emissions in the atmosphere at a given time.

“In this case we will be reversing the process and developing an ‘inverse dispersion model,’ that will allow us to determine the source of emissions based on the atmospheric conditions and the concentration of methane and CO2 in the atmosphere,” says Imperial’s Carling. “We will be testing the model by using flux chamber data to simulate the correct corresponding atmospheric conditions.”

The satellite, named “Claire”, launched on June 21, 2016 from India's Satish Dhawan Space Centre. The satellite will remain in orbit for at least one year and will circuit above Alberta’s oil sands mining operations once every two weeks. Provided that the conditions are clear enough, which is expected to be about half the time, the satellite will conduct concentration measurements and transmit them back to Earth.

The data will then be plugged into the inverse dispersion model to determine the emissions levels from the targeted tailings ponds and mine face at the time the satellite was overhead. Attempts will be made to conduct measurements on the ground at the same time as the satellite is overhead so that the measurements can be compared.

“This will give us a flux estimate about every two to four weeks versus a single estimate each year using the current process,” says Carling.

Watch the launch of GHGSat's demonstration satellite 'CLAIRE'
Environmental Benefits

The technology being tested could replace the current method used to estimate area fugitive emissions from oil sands operations, this is expected to improve accuracy of the estimates and potentially increase the frequency at which estimates are made. The project also has the benefit of avoiding safety risks associated with making ground-based measurements, and the cost of conducting measurement campaigns could likely be lower as well.

“This technology could also help us determine the source and cause of some of the ‘noise’ we see in current measurements,” says Carling. “And if we know what the cause is, we can work to reduce emissions from that specific source.”

With an improved methodology for measuring fugitive emissions, COSIA can begin to look at emissions reduction technologies and confirm their effectiveness.


Imperial is leading the project with member companies Canadian Natural and Suncor. The work will be conducted in partnership with GHGSat, as part of a one-year demonstration project that has received financial support from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, the Boeing Company, LOOKNorth and the Canadian Space Agency. GHGSat will also be supported by Ramboll Environ, a global consulting firm with specific expertise in dispersion modelling.

“The prospect of using a satellite as a method to improve the accuracy of just one company’s emissions measurements is daunting to say the least,” says Carling. “Being able to explore this technology through COSIA has made it possible to go ahead with the project.”

Carling anticipates that if the project is successful, satellite technology has the potential to be quickly adopted as the industry standard, thanks to the input and knowledge sharing that takes place through COSIA.

Greenhouse Gases