Smoke alarms for methane benefit public health, the environment and business

The oil and gas industry has planted its sights on playing a competitive role in the energy mix of the future. However, oil and gas extraction, transport and use create serious environmental and safety risks when leaked, releasing 8-10 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere each year in the US alone.

Fortunately, addressing this problem also offers a tremendous opportunity: a 45% reduction by 2025 would have the same benefit as shutting down one-third of world’s coal fired power plants. That’s why EDF set out on a groundbreaking global technology challenge to incentivize new solutions to fix this problem.

The super emitter problem

Methane is invisible and odorless, making leaks hard to detect. EDF-led studies have shown that methane pollution is widespread, pouring out from “super emitters” – the large, enigmatic sources responsible for a big portion of industry’s methane pollution. These super-emitting sources are nearly impossible to predict and can happen anywhere, anytime as a result of malfunctioning equipment that goes unattended or mistakes in the field.

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Unfortunately, operators may not know about invisible super-emitters for months until a scheduled check-in (and that’s the best-case scenario).  Leaks from oil and gas facilities are responsible for about half of the rise in global methane emissions.

Aileen Nowlan, Manager, EDF + Business

Methane monitoring innovation is on the rise

The 2014 Methane Detectors Challenge, an innovative partnership between Environmental Defense Fund, oil and gas companies, and technologists put forward a vision for a win-win solution: a smoke alarm for methane, a novel environmental innovation to help operators find and fix leaks fast. Over time, these alarms could empower operators to prevent leaks from starting in the first place. The goal was to catalyze the development and deployment of continuous methane monitors to end the loss of valuable product and reduce pollution. Shell, Statoil and PG&E installed these next-generation methane sensors to watch for leaks 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

As the BBC just reported, it has been a year since Statoil installed the first continuous monitoring technology – a solar-powered laser that detects the concentration of methane in the air and provides updates in real-time – at one of its oil and gas production facilities in Texas. After a year of tough tests—including more than one hurricane—it is clear that all the hard work and risk has paid off.  Statoil learned that with a smoke alarm for methane, they can now detect leaks significantly faster than ever before. No need to wait months to fix a super-emitter. As a result, Statoil has expanded continuous monitoring beyond the pilot.

There’s also a movement to develop mobile technologies to monitor and quantify leaks, given the potential for surveying highly dispersed industrial facilities – including smaller and older ones – quickly and effectively. The ongoing Stanford and EDF Mobile Monitoring Challenge is advancing the market for mobile methane monitoring technologies, and Stanford will publish the results of upcoming controlled trials for challenge participants in a peer-reviewed journal.

These efforts are giving oil and gas companies real-time means to find and fix methane leaks, keep more sellable product in their value chain and reduce dangerous short-term pollutants.

Faster detection can protect public health

Detecting leaks faster than ever before reduces harmful emissions and improves health. In Wyoming oil and gas pollution has driven up respiratory illness and smog to unprecedented levels. Faster detection can also prevent the adverse health effects that residents living near Aliso Canyon, California experienced during a massive 2015 methane leak – including headaches and vomiting. The long-term health impacts of their exposure to these leaks are still a big unknown.

Credit: Infrared footage from largest scientific study of oil and gas methane emissions

The future is continuous methane mitigation

To protect local communities, continuous methane monitoring is needed at all new oil and gas facilities – and at existing facilities that have problematic environmental records. This would ensure companies can find and fix leaks fast, keep valuable product in the pipes, and protect local health. Innovative technologies can make the invisible visible, and bring new solutions to scale.

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