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MethaneSAT: Q&A With Board Member Mark Heising

Mark Heising smiling at camera.

MethaneSAT, a new satellite funded by Climate and Clean Energy grantee Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), launched from Vanderberg Space Force Base on March 4, 2024. MethaneSAT will find and measure methane emissions with unparalleled precision. Heising-Simons Foundation Board member Mark Heising serves as Chair of the Board of EDF and sits on the steering committee of MethaneSAT. As the first donor for EDF’s methane work, Mr. Heising sat down for an interview with Amy Middleton (SVP, Chief Marketing, and Communications Officer of EDF) prior to MethaneSAT’s launch.

The interview is replicated here with permission from EDF.

As our first donor for the methane work, what drew you to it? Why is methane important?

Something like 12 years ago I was taking an online course on global warming by David Archer from Chicago. That was the first “oh my goodness” moment. Discovering that methane was responsible for roughly 25% of global warming since the Industrial Revolution was a real eye-opener. The lightbulb goes off and I’m like, “I need to talk about Steve Hamburg about this at our next board meeting. I need to convince him that EDF should do something about this.” So, Steve and I walk out of a Science Day meeting in Cavallo Point and I start talking about methane. It takes him about half a sentence for him to get really excited. He was way, way ahead of me. He said they were looking for some seed funding to look at methane emissions from the Oil & Gas sector. They were worried that the EPA estimates were way off. It was one of my best EDF moments.

What has motivated you to support EDF’s methane work for so long?

It is still some of the most impactful work we do. While we have made tremendous progress, the job is far from finished. As most people know, there are multiple sources of methane emissions, and each of them requires fundamentally different solutions.

Looking back at how far we’ve come, how does it feel to see the world paying attention to methane?

Honestly, it’s been very exciting right along. Early on we were getting data that indicated we were on to something. The story just keeps getting better. Now of course we are eagerly awaiting the launch of MethaneSAT. Then we will have a nerve-wracking wait while they bring up the instrumentation. If we are successful, I anticipate a certain amount of elation.

From a technology standpoint – what makes MethaneSAT’s capabilities so impressive? How does MethaneSAT compare to other satellites?

There are three important aspects to measuring methane emissions from space. Spatial resolution, speed of acquisition, and precision. In other words, you need to know where and how much methane is being emitted and you need to be able to do that across the planet as fast as possible. We will be able to image most of the planet every four days for methane emissions with unprecedented accuracy.

What gives you hope in addressing climate change?

Some say we have likely already averted the worst possible outcomes. It now appears unlikely that we will see the truly horrific 6 or 7 degrees of climate change that were still considered quite possible 10 years ago in a business-as-usual case. There may be as-yet-unknown tipping points, but that is what the scientists and economists are converging on.

What do you want future generations to know about the work we’ve done together?

I want to apologize in advance that we are taking so long to make progress. Let’s say we manage to hold to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees. There will still be hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Most impacted will be people who live in extreme poverty in the equatorial zone. I am sure with 20/20 hindsight people will wonder why we didn’t think of such and such or do so and so sooner. I know we must be making some mistakes, but we are trying really hard. I do think we have the right culture at EDF to execute on good ideas when they do come along.

What do you believe is the value of MethaneSAT? What do you wish other people knew about MethaneSAT?

The highest value is that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Shedding light on these emissions will provide a lot of incentive to do something about it. Once governments decide to start regulating methane emissions and charging polluters, MethaneSAT will be incredibly helpful for enforcing those regulations.

Why do you feel personally compelled to tackle climate change?

It is the great problem of our age. It is frustrating because progress is slow, and the solutions are not likely to be perfect. But maybe if humans can figure out how to beat climate change, we won’t just be helping our planet, but also come out as better people too.

The goal of the Foundation’s Climate and Clean Energy program is to protect people and the planet from the worst impacts of climate change by cutting pollution and accelerating the transition to an equitable, clean energy future. We aim to help make energy clean, affordable, safe, and reliable for all. Learn more about how the Climate and Clean Energy program is supporting work to secure climate policy, transform the energy sectors, cut potent pollutants, and more.

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Climate and Clean Energy, Interviews