Though long recognized as a potent greenhouse gas – more than 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in the short term – its significance in our battle against climate change has only recently been quantified. The oil and gas industry, for example, is among the largest emitters of methane on the planet, and research (including some by EDF scientists) has documented that far more methane seeps out of wells, pipelines, valves and other points in the oil and gas supply chain than energy companies and official emission inventories report.
The first time I spoke at a conference about air pollution, the venue was right beside a daycare—a well-regarded chain, no doubt with significant waiting lists. But on the outside, the facility was steps from onramps to a bridge and a major highway, where horns blared and buses and trucks idled at the lights.
The pollution around this daycare was invisible, but because there is still so much we don’t know about air pollution, so were many of the risks. Read more
Leaders from pretty much every country in the world representing current and future customers attended the World Health Organization’s (WHO) inaugural Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva last week, along with academics and nongovernmental organizations, but there were no corporate leaders in attendance.
The absence of companies suggests that air pollution isn’t front and center on business leaders’ radars. Here are three reasons why it should be.
When you picture a city bus, an animal control van or a waste management truck, you’re probably not thinking about a high-tech, mobile urban sensing platform, about saving millions of lives, or about the smart city of the future. At least not yet. But a new initiative in Houston is turning public fleets into the rolling eyes and ears of the city, and enabling these vehicles to revolutionize the way air pollution is monitored, measured – and ultimately addressed across the United States.
The information generated by these IoT-enabled “future fleets” is also a key tool in the transformation to fully connected, smarter cities, where hyperlocal data makes streets safer and less congested and where market forces reward urban efficiency, decarbonized electricity, and clean transportation. Picture using connected, clean fleets to improve delivery times, bring residents to work, school and doctor’s appointments, and even pinpoint the location of toxic air pollution threats – all at the same time.
These vehicles are enabling a future where air pollution forecasts eliminate hundreds of thousands of heart attacks, tens of thousands of hospital and ER visits, and an even larger number of missed school and workdays that are caused annually by air pollution. Air pollution also costs the global economy $225 billion dollars every year in lost labor income, but recent studies show that improving air quality – both indoors and outside – could improve worker productivity. Read more
The oil and gas industry is at an inflection point: according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the role that natural gas can play in the future of global energy is inextricably linked to its ability to help address environmental problems.
One of these problems is methane emissions–a key focus of the World Gas Conference in Washington, D.C. this week–which represent a reputational risk to the oil and gas industry, a waste of saleable resources, and a contributor to both poor local air quality and climate change.
Right outside my window in Washington, DC, there is a hill where trucks accelerate towards the north, and buses idle to pick up tour groups. Even when the air looks clear, it may be hiding an invisible danger. Air pollution kills 4.5 million people a year and costs the world $225 billion a year in economic damages. These global figures mask what can be a highly local, personal risk. Recent studies show that air pollution varies as much as eight times within one city block. We also now know that living by streets with the most elevated pollution can raise the risk of heart attack or death among the elderly by more than 40% – suggesting air pollution is far more dangerous than previously understood.
The good news is we are on the cusp of generating widespread hyperlocal insights into air pollution. Understanding for the first time at a local, personal level where pollution is, where it comes from, and its impacts could shine a spotlight on the problem and increase the urgency and motivation for action. Because the best actions will protect health and mitigate the risk of climate change, local insights can provide the springboard for local, regional, national and even global impact. Read more
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.
Heroic imagination is required to protect health and ensure prosperity in a world of climate chaos, according to Thomas Friedman at the recent New York Times ClimateTECH conference. This potential is ours to realize, says Friedman, due to the unleashing of new technology a decade ago. With Twitter, YouTube, GitHub and the like, the interdependent power of many has never been greater, and the independent power of one has never shone brighter.
Not surprisingly, Friedman’s words inspired the conference audience of entrepreneurs and established companies there to discuss new clean tech innovations.
The problem is that although inspiration and imagination can help motivate change, they are not strategies to achieve it. Building a climate-friendly economy will help us realize the greatest opportunity of our lifetime — creating jobs and protecting health.
Seizing the opportunity to build prosperity while facing climate chaos requires more than a field of a thousand blooming start-ups. It requires massive, continuous innovation, and exponentially increasing investment to bridge the gap between inspiration and implementation.
Here’s how to address both challenges.
A recent study from UPS and GreenBiz revealed that 95 percent of surveyed companies recognize the effect that urbanization – particularly air quality and traffic congestion – will have on business growth and sustainability.
Why? Because poor air quality costs the global economy $225 billion every year in lost labor income, according to the World Bank. Air quality also worsens with congestion, which will likely increase as 2.5 billion more people are expected to live in urban areas by 2050.
It’s no surprise then that less than half of the UPS/GreenBiz study participants feel prepared to address these challenges.
The good news is that cities and businesses can turn their anxiety into action by embracing and utilizing disruptive mobile sensor technologies that collect air quality data.
This week, the oil and gas giant Shell took a positive step toward addressing methane emissions. The company announced a new technology trial at a wellsite in Alberta, Canada, where it is piloting a specially designed laser to continuously monitor emissions of methane, a powerful pollutant known to leak from oil and gas equipment.
The move by Shell is a glimpse into the future and demonstrates growing market interest in smart, sensor-based methane detection technology. Shell’s project joins a similar field test already underway in Texas, operated by the Norwegian producer Statoil, and a California utility pilot run by Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
Each of these deployments is promising, but the ultimate test will be broad-scale adoption of innovations that generate actual methane reductions.
For industry, there is an incentive to move ahead. An estimated $30 billion of natural gas (which is largely methane) is wasted every year due to leaks and flaring from oil and gas operations worldwide. In addition, roughly 25 percent of global warming is driven by methane. Oil and gas methane emissions also contain chemicals that adversely affect public health.
For these reasons, methane is a problem that has caught the attention of regulators, investors and consumers alike. Advancing new technologies to enable the oil and gas industry to tackle this challenge more efficiently is key, even as companies use established tools to manage emissions now.
Collaborations Spark Methane Innovation
When you bring the right people to the table, innovative solutions will follow. Behind the Shell, Statoil and PG&E demonstration projects is a collaborative initiative, the Methane Detectors Challenge, begun by the Environmental Defense Fund four years ago. The project united eight oil and gas companies, R&D experts and technology innovators in an effort to accelerate the development of next-generation methane detectors.
The formation of this project was motivated by a key insight: new technology to manage emissions needs to be created and deployed faster than ever. The Methane Detectors Challenge offers a unique resource to innovators – access to real facilities and collaboration with potential customers – which is essential to help entrepreneurs understand the market, demonstrate demand, and ultimately achieve economies of scale.
Both the Statoil and Shell pilots are using a solar-powered laser, created by Colorado-based Quanta3. The technology uses the Internet to provide real-time data analytics to wellsite managers via mobile devices or web portals.
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Continuous Visibility, Faster Response
The oil and gas industry has a lot to gain from smart methane sensors that can prevent the loss of valuable product and reduce pollution.
Imagine a future where continuous leak detection systems allow operators to digitally monitor methane emissions occurring across thousands of sites. It’s a game-changer on the horizon. The burgeoning field of continuous methane monitoring offers a range of possibilities – including technologies capable of identifying emission spikes in real-time, allowing operators to cut mitigation time from months to days. Over time, smart sensors on wells may even help predict and prevent leaks and malfunctions before they occur.
Smart Methane Sensors Triggering New Market
The methane-sensing laser deployed by Shell and Statoil is one of many technologies in the emerging methane mitigation industry. In North America alone, more than 130 companies provide low-cost methane management technologies and services to oil and gas customers – a number likely to expand as innovators innovate, pollution requirements tighten, and producers increasingly appreciate the urgency of dealing with methane to maintain their social license to operate.
Smart automation technologies are already being used across the oil and gas industry to improve operating and field efficiencies. Continuous methane detection technology is the next logical step, which has the potential to provide significant economic, environmental and societal benefits.
The Shell pilot is a milestone to celebrate and we recognize the company for its early leadership. Now, we need governments and industry to show the determination needed to meet the methane challenge head-on. Sustained leadership is a prerequisite. But the keys to solving this problem are smart policies that incentivize ongoing innovation, and clear methane reduction goals—supported by technologies like continuous monitoring.