Oil and gas wells aren’t the first places that come to mind when you think of cleantech. Fossil fuels still present an inherent challenge for the planet. But even as it’s working to accelerate the wind and solar revolution, one environmental organization has surfaced a crucial opportunity to protect the climate by reducing millions of tons of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — leaking from the oil and gas supply chain.
To stop the wasteful emissions, the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)* brought technology innovators together with some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies to develop new, more cost-effective ways to find and fix methane leaks faster. The Methane Detectors Challenge introduced a competition to build the best new continuous methane monitoring technology. Forging ahead with great success, EDF is now taking these solutions to scale on active oil and gas sites.
In August, Shell announced the deployment of a solar-powered laser at a well site in Alberta, Canada. The system will provide continuous monitoring and protection against methane leaks at the facility, in the same way your smoke detector keeps an unblinking eye on your home.
The giant Norwegian producer Statoil has a similar field test ongoing in Texas, and utility Pacific Gas & Electric Company initiated a pilot project in California. Together, these projects are providing big energy companies with proof of concept for monitoring technology.
The solar-powered laser being tested in both the Statoil and Shell pilots was developed by Colorado-based Quanta3. The technology communicates real-time data analytics to well site managers via internet-connected mobile devices or other web portals — giving operators an efficient means of methane monitoring. A similar laser technology was developed by Sensit, a family-owned business, and unlike special inspections, these technologies keep watch all day, every day.
“Further qualification of this technology will be performed by long-term deployment across various onshore facilities throughout 2017,” says Andrea Machado, senior researcher in Statoil’s shale oil and gas R&D team. “This initiative can be a step change in how the shale oil and gas industry will monitor fugitive emissions in the future.”
“This pilot shows we’re serious about reducing the methane emissions associated with natural gas production to support the overall climate benefit of this fuel,” said Greg Guidry, Executive Vice President Unconventionals, Shell.
Why Methane Detection Is Needed Now, More Than Ever
Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas, and is also found in most oil wells. It’s also a powerful greenhouse gas, with over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe (although methane doesn’t last as long as CO2, it packs a bigger punch). According to EDF, about 25% of climate warming is caused by methane.
Methane leaks occur throughout the oil and gas supply chain. Some emissions are “vented” (released intentionally), and others are “fugitive” (unintentional leaks). According to the latest data, 9.8 million metric tons of methane escaped from the US oil and gas system in 2014.
EDF works to surface the most important environmental problems that need to be solved, and then catalyzes real, practical solutions by bringing the right people to the table. By enlisting innovators and major oil and gas producers, the Methane Detectors Challenge is throwing an important spotlight on both a problem and an opportunity — one that has been largely overlooked until recently.
“When I heard about the Methane Detectors Challenge and size of the emission problem in the oil and gas sector, I was inspired to put my research background in laser-based systems to work to develop a 24/7 monitoring technology,” says Quanta3 founder and CEO Dirk Richter. “We believe oil and gas production should be leak free.”
In addition to being harmful to the planet, escaped methane is also harmful to the bottom line. By failing to adequately manage methane emissions, companies are squandering $2 billion in revenue every year in the US alone due to unburned, wasted natural gas. EDF says that wasted natural gas could meet the cooking and heating needs of more than 7 million homes for a year.
“By building bridges between innovators and companies that want scalable solutions, we’re accelerating technologies that can help the oil and gas industry reduce waste and cut emissions dramatically,” says EDF’s Aileen Nowlan, who manages the Methane Detectors Challenge. “It’s a strategy that comes straight from EDF’s mission to find solutions that improve efficiencies, build safer communities, and let both people and the planet thrive.”
“It’s a win-win situation; implementing continuous methane detection can reduce loss of valuable product and ensure a cleaner environment,” says Statoil’s Machado.
Pushing Back Against An Anti-Environmental Administration
Working with industry, entrepreneurs, academics, and local communities is one way that EDF is maintaining forward momentum despite strong headwinds from the Trump administration, which has made it a top priority to roll back important legal and regulatory safeguards, particularly in the energy sector.
“We’re working hard to protect and defend strong, sensible environmental policies, which have helped propel America’s clean technology industry,” EDF’s Nowlan says. “It’s not just us. Some of the oil and gas companies we talk to are concerned too. Collaborations like the Methane Detectors Challenge help leaders move the needle on sustainability, while inspiring technology breakthroughs that support good policies.”
New technology to manage emissions needs to be created and deployed faster than ever. EDF’s Methane Detectors Challenge offered a unique resource to innovators — access to real facilities and collaboration with potential customers — which are essential to help entrepreneurs understand the market, demonstrate demand, and ultimately achieve economies of scale.
Learn More About the EDF Methane Detectors Challenge in the video below:
*This article is sponsored by Environmental Defense Fund. Images from EDF.