Photo: Whiteway’s field research team prior to boarding their plane.

Jim Whiteway boarded a plane this past summer and flew over the Fort McMurray oilfields.

His head wasn’t in the clouds, though. It was in space.

Whiteway was testing the level of methane gas in the air, using a spectrometer he had created in the lab at his Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science (CRESS) at York University, in collaboration with Communitech’s DATA.BASE program.

DATA.BASE is tasked with building a commercial cluster around big data collected by small, low-orbit satellites. That data includes information about greenhouse gases linked to global climate change.

Whiteway and his team want to gain a better understanding of atmospheric methane, a greenhouse gas that could be more potent, yet is less studied, than its better-known cousin, carbon dioxide.

As part of this effort, they want to learn how much methane, if any, is being emitted from oil production, and then track how it spreads around the world via the atmosphere.

“Methane is a gas that actually absorbs infrared radiation more strongly,” Whiteway says. “It’s potentially more potent a greenhouse gas [than carbon dioxide] and it’s not taken into account and it’s not understood very well.”

CRESS is the oldest research unit on the York University campus. Its main focus is to build instruments and test them in the field. These prototypes are often then refined to become working tools on planes, boats and yes – satellites.

Whiteway’s latest instrument isn’t ready for orbit yet. For now, he’s a little closer to the ground in his methane levels research.

Given the potential threat of methane as a greenhouse gas, Whiteway and his team suspect it will be on everyone’s lips within a few years, and they hope their research will help determine where it’s coming from. The crew is specifically interested in the levels of methane floating above the Alberta oil sands.

The data is still being analyzed, so Whiteway is unsure if the team’s research will confirm his hypothesis: that high levels of methane result from natural gas and oil production.

Since methane is a component of natural gas, it can escape into the atmosphere during its extraction. Methane-laden natural gas is also a by-product of producing oil .

It’s a relatively new research area, so there have been few studies on the impact of the natural gas and oil industries on methane levels. Still, those few studies noted elevated methane levels in the atmosphere over oil fields.

Whiteway believes now is the time to really explore this issue, since there are huge implications for the oil and gas industries if his hypothesis is confirmed.

Whiteway’s colleague, Brian Solheim, explains that currently, three percent of natural gas escapes during production, into the atmosphere or the ground. It has been traditionally burned off on oil fields.

If early data from their summer research is confirmed, combined with findings from the few other methane studies already done, the team could eventually make the claim that natural gas and oil production are as dirty as coal in terms of their environmental impact. Solheim and Whiteway are quick to stress that this is still a very early indicator.

“If we are measuring three percent or above, that means that all this hype about natural gas being such a clean fuel isn’t quite right,” says Solheim.

Since the team’s findings could lead to new government legislation, Whiteway wants to see his methane spectrometer up in space on a satellite.

“In orbit, [the spectrometer] would be generating lots of data,” he says. The instrument would track the levels and sources of methane, “which would then go into a database and people would have access to it.”