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Phil Covington headshot

Unlikely Partners Aim to Improve Methane Leak Detection

By Phil Covington

Natural gas is often described as a “bridge fuel” to a lower-carbon energy future because, compared with burning coal for electricity generation, burning natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide.

So, until non-carbon producing energy sources dominate, natural gas is at least half as damaging as coal when it is burned. And due to prevailing low prices of natural gas, the fuel is already widely displacing coal for electricity generation.

But we have known for a long time that natural gas has a problem which coal does not: It leaks. It leaks during extraction, storage and transportation -- right through the entire supply chain.

And because natural gas is comprised mainly of methane -- which is about 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years following emission -- natural gas can actually become more environmentally damaging than coal if there's enough leakage.

That's the impetus behind a curious union between the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Norwegian global energy company Statoil and Colorado-based technology startup Quanta3.

After three years of work, the unlikely partners say they're well on their way to deploying the first round-the-clock, automated monitoring system of methane leaks at a Statoil facility in Eagle Ford, Texas.

Detecting leaks as soon as they occur means they can be fixed promptly -- mitigating the harmful effects of unnecessary releases of greenhouse gases.

“Methane is responsible for 25 percent of global warming, and the oil and gas industry is the biggest source of methane emissions,” Aileen Nowlan, who leads EDF’s work to minimize methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, told TriplePundit by phone last week.

Today, checking for leaks of methane -- a colorless and odorless gas -- are either not performed at all, or are at best done periodically. As such, leaks are never caught when they start.

Not only that, “super-emitters” form a concentration of the leakage problem, Nowlan said. Ten percent of production sites account for 80 percent of methane emissions. And in the U.S. alone, 9.8 million metric tons of methane were released by the oil and gas industry in 2014.

Some of those emissions are an unfortunate technical condition of natural gas and oil production, while the remainder are what are called “fugitive emissions” -- that is to say, leaks which Quanta3’s technology aims to detect immediately. Today, EDF estimates fugitive emissions account for approximately 50 percent of total methane emissions.

To put that into context, EDF told us that 9 million tons of methane released into the atmosphere would have the same effect over 20 years as running 200 coal-fired power plants. The EPA (for now, at least -- grab this link while you can) has committed to reduce methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent of 2012 levels by 2025. That would be the equivalent of shutting about 90 coal-fired plants -- much of that could be achieved by detecting and fixing leaks at the point of production.

The environmental value in doing that is clearly significant. But Nowlan told us, “Companies did not know how much was leaking until EDF started getting involved” and added “the state of disclosure is still not good enough.” This is no doubt, in part, because there are no federal regulations for leak detection and repair (nor can we realistically expect there to be any new ones under President Donald Trump).

But even so, it’s actually quite astounding the industry isn’t addressing the problem more aggressively. EDF reports $2 billion a year is lost in the U.S. through wasted, unburned natural gas. That rises to $30 billion a year when viewed globally.

Perhaps that alone will bode well for the future adoption of leak-detection technologies, notwithstanding potential changes to EPA regulations.

In any case, Nowlan told us, the industry is not monolithic.

In fact, some energy producers are highly motivated. Statoil became involved in this project because it took a position of stewardship and partnered from a sense of commitment to do a better job with leak mitigation. In an EDF press release, the company is quoted as saying, “Statoil aims to be recognized as the most carbon efficient oil and gas producer.”

The three-way partnership between EDF, Statoil and Qunata3 grew out of EDF’s Methane Detectors Challenge (MDC), which invited U.S.-based technology developers to innovate marketable continuous methane-detection technologies.

Quanta3’s technology deployed with Statoil in Texas uses a stationary “tune-able laser diode” technology to detect methane. In simple terms, air from an oil or gas production site passes through a laser, which is able to measure the level of concentration of methane continuously.

Of course, there are normal operational concentrations of methane on a site. So, to avoid false positives, the system takes into account the weather and other environmental factors, and with cloud-based data analytics, determines if there is leak, where it's located and its estimated size.

In an EDF press release, Statoil says, “Further qualification of this technology will be performed by long-term deployment across various onshore facilities throughout 2017.”

Image courtesy of EDF

Phil Covington headshot

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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