Fossil Fuels

Published on March 5th, 2013 | by Andrew


New Mobile Methane Surveyor Could Put An End To The Fracking Debate

March 5th, 2013 by  

There has been no end to the debate and controversy surrounding “fracking” — hydraulic fracturing of carbon-rich shale deposits to liberate natural gas and oil — and its impact on water, land, and the atmosphere. New technology from Santa Clara, California-based Picarro could put an end to it.

The Santa Clara, California-based company on March 4 introduced Picarro Surveyor for natural gas emissions, equipment that is said to be “the world’s first mobile and cloud processing platform for measuring fugitive methane emissions across an entire natural gas production field.

“This is a win for everyone in that it enables the energy industry to do what is completely in its power to do: help make us energy independent, but do it right, do it cleanly or we’re not going to let you do it at all,” Picarro CEO Michael Woelk stated in a Clean Technica interview.

Credit: Boston, Duke University

Credit: Boston, Duke University

Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Fields and Pipelines

Noting predictions that boom in shale gas production will make the US energy independent and a net exporter of natural gas in coming decades, the Picarro Surveyor for natural gas emissions “allows natural gas producers and hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) engineering firms to accurately identify and quantify fugitive emissions in order to improve site efficiency and safety, minimize production losses, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and demonstrate regulatory compliance,” according to Picarro’s press release.

“Picarro Surveyor for natural gas emissions enables every producer to ensure that they are extracting natural gas from production fields, including fracking sites, in the most efficient, safe and environmentally sound manner,” Picarro CEO Michael Woelk was quoted as saying.

“The economic savings from stopping fugitive losses alone can be enormous, but moreover, producers and regulators now have the means to credibly demonstrate and assure the public that natural gas production is safe and sustainable – or not.”

Development of fracking and horizontal drilling techniques and technology has enabled oil and gas exploration and production companies to extract natural gas from tightly packed shale deposits. That has led to a boom in exploration and production, with shale gas fracking now accounting for nearly 40% of US natural gas production. Booming shale gas production, in turn, has led to a sharp drop in prices and growing use of natural gas to produce electricity.


Concerns about public and environmental health and safety have accompanied the boom in fracking and shale gas production, which has been linked to water and land contamination, air pollution, fugitive methane emissions, and earthquakes. As has typically been the case throughout history, industry participants in the US and around the world latched on to and began aggressively putting it to work before its public and environmental health and safety impacts could be adequately assessed.

Shale gas exploration and production companies have pushed back hard against any initiative that might lead to greater public scrutiny, government regulation, or the banning of fracking and shale gas exploration and production. They have funded studies, think tanks, and candidates for government office willing and capable of undermining and thwarting opposition to the controversial drilling method and practice.

Their cause was championed by former President George W. Bush and his administration. As noted in the Hydraulic Fracturing FAQ section of the Gasland website, “In 2005, the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. Essentially, the provision took the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) off the job. It is now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole.”

Facing steadfast opposition in a bitterly divided Congress, President Obama and his administration have been going it alone in seeking to ensure public and environmental health and safety by better understanding and regulating shale gas and fracking. “The EPA has been slowly but steadily prying out information about hundreds of different ingredients in fracking brines,” CleanTechnica’s Tiny Casey points out in a recent post.

Such efforts have included EPA and United States Geological Survey (USGS) studies that found evidence of fracking chemicals in drinking water supplies in Pavilion Wyoming. Fracking was also linked to the December, 2011 earthquake around Youngstown, Ohio, which prompted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to issue some of the strictest rules regarding fracking in the country.

A national fracking study that aims to comprehensively analyze the effects of fracking on the nation’s water resources is in progress. Joining in such efforts, France has banned fracking , as has New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Adding to the social and environmental concerns about fracking, two new studies released last week raise doubts about the financial health and sustainability of shale gas financing on Wall Street. As our Ms. Casey reported, “Drill, Baby, Drill” “analyzes shale oil (not to be confused with oil shale) and tar sands in addition to shale gas.”

“Shale gas production has grown explosively to account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. natural gas production; nevertheless production has been on a plateau since December 2001–80 percent of shale gas production comes from five plays, several of which are in decline,” the report authors note.

Additional insight comes from “Shale Gas and Wall Street.”

“In 2011, shale mergers and acquisitions (M&A) accounted for $46.5B in deals and became one of the largest profit centers for some Wall Street investment banks. This anomaly bears scrutiny since shale wells were considerably under-performing in dollar terms during this time.”

Picarro’s Mobile Methane Emissions Surveyor

The lack of tools to accurately and comprehensively detect, analyze, and identify the source of methane emissions across large areas has been a major obstacle to determining the potential impacts of fracking and shale gas exploration and production on public and environmental health and safety.

Picarro believes its Surveyor mobile methane emissions detection and analysis platform can settle the debate and lead to much better informed government policy-making and industry regulation.

“There’s been a big shift in this whole sector, as people now in the utility and gas industries more broadly begin to understand their ability to contol information aboout the health and safety of their grids is waning,” Woelk told CleanTechnica.

Consisting of an anemometer, GPS, and the Surveyor, Picarro’s mobile methane emissions detection and analysis platform is some 1,000 times more sensitive than current equipment. Driving on- or off-road, the Surveyor system can detect, analyze, and pinpoint the source of fugitive methane emissions. Results are practically instantaneous, and can be mapped and graphically represented in integrated fashion in real-time.

“You have to know wind speed and direction to produce a multiple-pixels simulation of the [methane emissions] plume in order to understand the dimensions of the plume,” Woelk explained.

“Picture a bell curve. Anywhere in there, put a dot. Just measure at that dot and that can be the front or leading edge of the bell curve or be somewhere in the middle. If you measure only at the one location, you have no idea of methane concentrations elsewhere. You have to measure at multiple locations simultaneously, like pixels in a camera, to understand the dimensions and composition of that plume.”

“We can now do that. We can identify source of methane emissions and natural gas pipeline leaks, pinpoint and quantify them on a map just by driving by. No one’s ever been able to do that before.”

US Fracking and Natural Gas: Changing the Game

The ramifications and potential applications are far-reaching and profound. “Being able to see these emissions for the first time — from pinhole leaks to massive leaks at fracking sites — no one has been able to see those emissions before,” Woelk stated. “We think it will change the debate if all stakeholders are able to identify and quantify fugitive methane emissions and plug the holes in the natural gas system.”

“Imagine this scenario,” Woelk said. “You’re driving around and find a source that’s producing a lot of emissions in the atmosphere, not only natural gas, or methane, but a proxy for other VoCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) being jacked into the air, carcinogens like benzene. The chemical make-up for those fracking cocktails have generally been called a trade secret. We want to know what the impact is going to be where. You just know which way the wind blows.”

“This is pollution we’re going to see and measure. You can’t hide it anymore. You can hire 500 scientists to challenge results and the credentials of researchers, but what are you going to do when these emissions are identified, quantified and mapped. This is a solvable problem; solve it or go out of business. The good guys are going to win. This can change the rules of the game,” he continued.

Picarro is also promoting use of its mobile Surveyor platform among natural gas suppliers downstream, including natural gas pipeline operators and utilities. Having been raked over the coals over a natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, PG&E has taken the lead in terms of adopting and deploying the technology. Picarro has also demonstrated it in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the site of another devastating natural gas explosion.

Use of Picarro’s mobile methane emissions platform has also been instrumental in landmark scientific studies that quantified and mapped methane emissions from leaking pipelines in cities such as Boston, where scientists from Boston University and Duke University used a scientific version of Picarro’s Surveyor in identifying, quantifying and mapping 3,356 separate natural gas leaks under the streets of Boston, including six locations where gas concentrations exceeded the threshold above which explosions can occur.

It has also been instrumental in incipient efforts by the nascent Mayors’ Council on Pipeline Safety to better understand the nature, scope and scale of fugitive natural gas pipeline leaks in order to better regulate the industry and protect public and environmental health and safety.

“All this debate has revolved around what’s the loss as a percent of production. The biggest environmental agency in the world doesn’t fully understand the issue; the industry is refuting every number that comes out, and scientists are grappling to understand it,” Woelk continued.

“We’re going to stop all that. We’re going to drive down the highway detecting, identifying, analyzing, quantifying and mapping fugitive emissions from natural gas production sites and pipelines. And that’s going to be a good thing for smart producers of energy.

“There’s no disconnect between the smart guys and the good guys anymore. They’re going to be able to prove that they frack and don’t pollute or not.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.

  • John Baker

    How long before corporate oil wises up to the opportunities eg bribing anyone involved in the ‘Surveyor mobile methane emission and detection and analysis platform’?

  • John Baker

    No date on this article.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You can always check the address line in your browser window – 2013/03/05.

  • Can these devices stop the industrialization of our residential area?

  • It’s foolish to proceed with fracking when we do NOT know if it is sustainable.

  • I’m all for a nation of clean energy, but what is the bridge to get us there? Oil? No, it’s life cycle here in the states is almost over. There isn’t enough land in the US for solar or wind or enough windmills out in the ocean to fully supply the country’s needs in terms of energy. Nat Gas is that bridge. There is enough in the Marcellus play and the Utica play, which is twice as big as the Marcellus play, to make the Saudis look dirt poor. It burns 6x cleaner than oil, and we already have an infrastructure to support it. A simple $2k swap in a vehicles fuel delivery system will be the only change to your current vehicle. Here is the big kicker. Fed ex and UPS are already switching their vehicles to it, not to mention most garbage haulers. If they are doing it, how long do you think it will be before everyone else is. To go the same comparable distance on a gallon of gas to a “gallon” of Nat Gas (liquid to gas state measures are not the same, so you can’t compare them directly without doing some conversions), here in PA a gallon of gas is 3.75. A comparable gal of Nat Gas is around 2.40 and dropping. Which would you rather pay?

    • Bob_Wallace

      ” There isn’t enough land in the US for solar or wind or enough windmills out in the ocean to fully supply the country’s needs in terms of energy”

      That is wildly incorrect. Just absolutely absurd.

      If we powered the entire US, both transportation and electricity with wind the turbines, access roads and necessary structures would take about as much space as three Disney Worlds..

  • Karel Phillips

    The debate can not be singled to fugitive methane emissions. This negates the combustion emissions, water footprint, land footprint, habitat loss, displacement of food production, greenhouse gas life cycle assessment, public access to information and a choice in their energy future and the diversion of funds away from low carbon energy sources. How long can we continue to use the air, soil and water as a medium to assimilate pollution with an acceptable level being perceived as normal and every compartment either fulled to the legal limit or in violation. This energy source is unsustainable.

  • Otis11

    Good video that’s fairly neutral on fracking:

  • SmellsLikeMarketing

    Agree with logicld. This barely scratches the surface of the problems with fracking, most glaringly in that it doesn’t address any of the water concerns.

  • Wayne Williamson

    Been gone from this site for a year(when they changed to feedburner). Glad to be getting the emails again. Interesting to see how the posters have changed…looks like anti anything but pure green.
    Nice article Andrew, keep it up.
    To the posters, even in a solar/wind/geo economy you will need an energy source that can quickly supply baseline when nature fails. Natural gas seems to fit the bill as long as it is regulated and monitored.

  • not the end

    ‘fugitive emissions’ is only part of the problem with fracking. furthermore, it seems that it would require either constant driving/monitoring or else a bunch of sensors across the countryside, hooked up to an alert/notification system and the necessary maintenance to go with it long term. this, however, would do nothing for the failure of a well or migration of frack fluids into the water column, or the thousands of gallons of diesel burned to ferry water to a well, or the destruction of roadways in well infested areas or the extra diesel burned by repair crews to fix the roads and the fossil fuels to make the asphalt, or the boom to bust of unprepared communities.

    So in other words, NO, this technology won’t be putting an end to the fracking debate.

    @logicid, I think you’re right on with your comment. This article has the odor of being a little to close to the source of the fugitive emissions.

  • GFYS! There is no ethical petroleum or gas.

  • logicld

    What does this have to do with clean renewable energy sources ? I don’t care about the natural gas industry improving their efficiency or trying to pretend they are a viable long term source of energy. They are part of the problem, not the solution. If there was a negative rating system on this site this article would get one.

  • JMin2020

    This would put some strong evifence in the hands of Attorneys on either side of a case wouldn’t it. I see it as a plus. For the most part methane gets generated through improper or ignored and incomplete geological survey data. Naturally occurring seismological events woulf then need to be identified as such as a secondary technology development for safe and proper fracking procesd practices.

  • JustSaying

    The first time I saw the Boston study, I thought that we needed a lot of those vans driving all the major pipeline and production fields. Maybe there should be a requirement to map before you start drilling, so then we would have a before and after and it would be clear the impact.

Back to Top ↑