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

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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

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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.”

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