Methane Detectors Challenge: An Unlikely Partnership

The 2016 election was one of the most divisive in recent history. I cannot remember a more polarizing time. However, today, I believe, more strongly than ever, that many Americans across the political spectrum have a hunger for something better: for turning down the volume, having rational conversations and finding common ground that unites us.

In the energy sector and environmental communities, this common ground means achieving solutions that benefit the environment and help businesses thrive, not pitting one against the other.

Three years ago, Environmental Defense Fund launched the Methane Detectors Challenge, an unlikely partnership between oil and gas companies and U.S.-based technology developers. This partnership aims to reduce methane emissions by catalyzing technology solutions that continuously detect these emissions. This is our story.

 A Shared Problem, A Shared Solution

25-percent

About 25 percent of today’s warming is driven by emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane emissions from the oil and gas industry speed global climate change, waste a valuable energy resource (methane is the key component of natural gas), and often slip into the atmosphere with other pollutants, harming air quality.

In other words, methane emissions are a problem and detecting leaks quickly is a needed solution.

However, in 2013, we learned that no oil and gas operators were conducting 24/7 monitoring of methane emissions. None. Some companies were not using technology to conduct leak detection and repair activities, while others conducted manual leak surveys with special cameras once or twice a year – far better than nothing, but a long way from continuous detection made possible in the digital age.

When EDF learned about this lack of continuous monitoring, we could have launched a negative ad blitz. Started a petition. Designated a villain.

We didn’t.

Instead, where some might see failure, we saw opportunity and a reason to partner. We decided to take a risk, try something bold. We decided to partner with leading companies in the oil and gas industry, technical experts, and others, to source innovative technology solutions from the marketplace and solve the methane leak problem.

We called it the Methane Detectors Challenge. Our aim was to catalyze the development and adoption of new, cost effective, continuous detection systems.

I remember sharing our vision with Mark Boling, President – V+ Development Solutions at Southwestern Energy, over breakfast. Before the food had even arrived, Mark committed to Southwestern’s participation. We had our first partner. And this was just the beginning.

A Partnership Blooms

In the months that followed, we recruited partner after partner: Apache, Anadarko, BG Group, Hess, Noble Energy, Shell, Southwestern and Statoil. We found experts willing to lend their knowledge, from places like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the University of Houston.

We launched a series of gatherings that brought stakeholders together in Houston to define the problem and develop a shared plan of action. We got to know one another and to develop a common empathy for the challenges we all shared.

At the end of our first Steering Committee meeting, one of our corporate partners came up to me and said, “Great meeting today, but one thing you should change. Don’t call it the EDF Methane Detectors Challenge. Just call it the Methane Detectors Challenge. We’re all in this together.”

In March 2014, our jointly developed request for technology proposals was out in the world, and we soon reviewed twenty proposals from four different continents. The surge of market interest was incredible, and the best of the proposals inspired excitement among all partners.

By the end of 2015, in partnership with the independent non-profit Southwest Research Institute, we had conducted rigorous indoor and outdoor controlled testing of nearly a half dozen technologies. Two technologies performed excellently, catching leaks of various sizes in various wind conditions. Next step? Industry pilots.

When Challenge Strikes

As the Methane Detectors Challenge shifted from third-party evaluation to piloting, there were increased expectations of our oil and gas partners. They had already helped inform the project’s direction and shared invaluable technical input about their technology needs. The next step was a higher bar – purchasing one or more units and committing organizational resources for pilot testing.

And then a challenge struck.

In 2015, the oil and gas commodity markets fell off a cliff. Oil nose-dived from over $100 a barrel to as low as $29 a barrel. Natural gas prices crashed. Before we knew it, our partners were making layoffs, in some cases as large as 40%, and cutting capital expenditure by as much as 80% for the year ahead.

As the markets sunk and companies down-sized, our effort became much more challenging, but the foundation of trust and the value of our common mission remained unchanged. And so we persevered.

Over the course of 2016, dialogues continued between the leading entrepreneurs and a number of our industry partners. The unglamorous, but necessary issues were resolved: contracts, prices, disclosure and data sharing agreements.

And then one day, I came into my office to find a note from my colleague. “We have a deal”, it said. A large energy producer and Methane Detectors Challenge partner, Statoil, agreed to purchase a methane detection system and host a pilot with Colorado based start-up Quanta3.

Weeks later, we got more good news. Following a successful pilot test, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) (an enthusiastic recent addition to the Methane Detectors Challenge), agreed to send a device from Acutect, the other leading entrepreneur, to an operating facility in California for real-world testing.

In praise of an unexpected partnership

In the coming months, we will learn much more about how the technologies developed for the Methane Detectors Challenge perform in the trials with Statoil, PG&E, and likely others. It’s too soon to know whether these technologies will provide the needed breakthrough for continuous methane detection, whether they will require additional development, or whether other advances from the marketplace will propel methane management forward.

But it’s not too soon to appreciate this unexpected partnership.

pge-methane-sensor-3828-300dpiWe have demonstrated that there is a vibrant global marketplace of entrepreneurs eager for the chance to accelerate a clean energy future and willing to take risks along the way. And, we have shown that diverse groups can come together over a shared vision.

Most of all, I hope we have proven that even in this era of divisiveness, partnerships are not just possible, they are powerful. Our door is always open to new partners.

 

EDF is grateful to our partners and hope the Methane Detectors Challenge is the beginning of something even bigger.


Follow @RatnerBen on Twitter