Shell becomes latest oil and gas company to test smart methane sensors

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.

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.

This post was also published on EDF's Energy Exchange blog. Image source: Shell/Ian Jackson


Aileen Nowlan is a Manager at EDF + Business. Follow her on Twitter for more news on EDF's work on innovation and energy.

Technology Breakthroughs: Creating Fertile Ground for Innovation in the Oil and Gas Sector

aileen_nowlan_31394David Hone, Chief Climate Change Advisor at Shell, recently stated that it takes 25 years for a new technology to reach one percent of the energy system. At the multinational companies I have worked with as clients and partners, I have seen how much time it can take to launch a new idea or product.  But, I believe we can and must accelerate the pace of technology development and adoption. This is especially crucial in the area of methane detection. Methane is the main component of natural gas and methane emissions are the cause of 25% of today’s global warming.

For the past three years, the Methane Detectors Challenge (MDC), a groundbreaking partnership between Environmental Defense Fund, oil and gas companies, technology developers, and other experts, has focused on designing and testing promising methane detection technologies. Two of the most promising technologies, both of which provide low-cost continuous methane emissions monitoring, will soon be pilot-tested by major oil and gas companies. Moving from concept to pilots in just a few years teaches us that it is possible to accelerate the adoption of new technology in the oil and gas sector.

Lesson One: Bring all stakeholders to the table around a realistic shared goal

During tMDC_teamhe initial phase of the Methane Detectors Challenge, we facilitated a series of meetings between environmentalists, scientists and oil and gas companies, including Shell, Noble Energy and Southwestern Energy.  This collaborative approach set MDC up for success.  We gained insights on how methane detectors would need to work in the field—simple, self-powered, able to send automated alarms—and this helped the technology entrepreneurs target key functionality.

Our environmental goal for MDC struck a balance of ambitious and pragmatic; detecting big emissions that account for the vast majority of total methane emissions.  By understanding which features would deliver the most impact, we focused on key—but not all—technology gaps.  This dramatically sped up the development and testing time.

Lesson Two: Cast the net widely

At the start of the Methane Detectors Challenge, we cast the net widely for initial applications. If existing providers aren’t already solving the problem, there is no reason to stick with the familiar.  MDC invited applications from all over the world and from different industries.  The result was technologies adapted from outer space, coal mine safety, and personal breathalyzers, to name a few: fresh ideas and new approaches brought together by entrepreneurs who are committed to slowing the tide of climate change.

Lesson Three: Small, flexible investments can pay off

Small investments in emerging technologies can yield great results, and while not all will pay off, those with promise will improve rapidly. This is a portfolio approach to innovation—much like successful Silicon Valley enterprises. This requires leadership commitment and clear communication of project goals to all stakeholders, then being flexible and creative.

Taking some early-stage risk is necessary to create opportunity for big payoffs. Oil and gas companies are familiar with this at the exploration stage; the same is true for technology innovation.  MDC focused on new hardware solutions. Many entrepreneurs (as with entrepreneurs in other sectors) were often advancing personal funds to contract manufacturers or suppliers. This is a dangerous stage that many startups do not survive.

Oil and gas companies should consider offering working capital, rapid payment terms, and in-kind support for early-stage ventures.  The payoff could be significant—a more efficient, more effective strategy that works with a company’s exact specifications. With the right assistance, hardware startups are still not going to turn a profit on the first units, but they might make it through their first year.

MDC headerCatalyzing innovation requires flexibility and compromise on all sides.  Just as entrepreneurs aim to learn about the culture, quality and safety standards and business priorities of oil and gas customers, oil and gas companies will learn and improve faster if they ask themselves what they do and do not need from an early-stage entrepreneur as compared to their expectations of an established provider.  Their requirements for fast iteration of a developing technology may be different from adoption of a tested and proven technology. A lower risk, rapid improvement orientation can be reflected in product or service agreements, warranties, and the feedback offered to innovators.  Similarly, for oil and gas companies, the business case for adopting a new technology may not initially outweigh their current approach.  But with a portfolio of small bets, and the patience to help new ideas progress down the cost curve, these companies increase the odds that a new technology dramatically improves on the status quo.

During the Methane Developers Challenge, I have witnessed first-hand how environmentalists and oil and gas companies can learn from the portfolio approach and rapid iteration lessons of Silicon Valley innovation. In the next few months, MDC entrepreneurs will learn from deploying their technologies at major oil and gas companies. This is a powerful example of ambitious and pragmatic collaboration. This corporate leadership, with oil and gas companies taking a risk and putting their unique resources and insights to work catalyzing innovation, will enable business and the planet to thrive.


Follow Aileen Nowlan on Twitter, @aileennow


Additional information on EDF Methane Detectors Challenge

 

Time to Tell the EPA What Works in Methane Mitigation

aileen_nowlan_31394The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has committed to regulate existing sources of methane from the oil and gas industry, and it is asking for information from the methane mitigation industry to make sure the rule’s approach and requirements account for recent innovation. The EPA’s announcement comprises the U.S. portion of the North American commitment to cut methane by up to 45% from the continent’s oil and gas industry by 2025. Existing sources in the oil and gas industry make up over 90% of the sector’s emissions, which contribute over 9 million tons of methane pollution annually.

The opportunity is open now to tell the EPA what works in methane mitigation.

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Emission standards for existing sources of methane will not only reduce greenhouse gases but could also create new markets and customers for the growing mitigation industry. The regulation will likely start with one or more approved work practices to find and fix methane leaks, describing a technology or group of technologies that must be used in a certain manner. For example, EPA’s New Source Performance Standards for new and modified sources of methane required the use of optical gas imaging cameras or “Method 21” instruments. With far more existing sources of methane than new or modified sources, being part of an approved work practice for existing sources would open up a significant market opportunity.

In one of the first steps toward developing the existing source rule, the EPA has set up a voluntary Request for Information, asking anyone with “information about monitoring, detection of fugitive emissions, and alternative mitigation approaches” to submit details by commenting on the Request for Information docket online. The EPA states it is particularly interested in “advanced monitoring technologies” that could be “broadly applicable to existing sources.” The EPA cites as an example “monitoring systems that provide coverage across emission points or equipment in a way that was not previously possible, thus enabling a different approach to setting standards.” A good submission may include “published or unpublished papers, technical information, data, or any other information” that might be relevant.

The deadline to submit information via comment to the agency is November 15, 2016. But there is no need to wait–those who submit earlier will be part of the conversation sooner. And a number of important topics need to be discussed to shape the existing source regulation. The federal New Source Performance Standards and Colorado’s methane regulation contain a pathway for innovative technologies—a mechanism, supported by industry and  environmentalists alike, for the EPA to evaluate and approve better methane reduction approaches. A similar approach could help incentivize advanced technology deployment for existing sources.  This request for information is the first invitation of many to highlight innovation in the methane mitigation industry.


Follow Aileen Nowlan on Twitter, @Aileennow


Read more about the emerging Methane Mitigation industry

Why energy investors need to manage methane as a Rising Risk

 

Regulation as a Platform for Innovation

IMG_0187To get anything accomplished, you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. One unsung story buried in last week’s release of EPA’s new source methane rules may make good options even better – driving innovation and offering industry more options to meet the methane challenge.

The new rules target a pervasive problem: methane – the primary component of natural gas – leaking throughout the oil and gas value chain. Methane emissions represent a waste of saleable resources, a reputational risk, and a contributor to both poor local air quality and climate change.

Under the EPA’s framework, oil and gas operators must take steps to minimize emissions from new and modified sources – from finding and fixing leaks to swapping out equipment to reduce methane vented from pneumatic controllers and pumps. Companies in Colorado working to comply with the state’s similar rule have reported that putting similar measures in place is cost-effective, even generating positive returns from selling the captured gas.

But what should an agency do when the solutions available now are reasonable but not perfect? Existing strategies don’t monitor all the time – only a few days a year. So leaks and malfunctions can be missed, or leak for months before they are fixed.

MDC-devices-in-fieldNew technologies – emerging from research labs, startups and mature companies in adjacent sectors – can help spot leaks at lower cost, including through continuous monitoring. EDF’s Methane Detectors Challenge will launch pilots of sensitive, rugged, low-cost continuous methane monitors with oil and gas operators. Due to collaborative partnerships, these innovative technologies are advancing rapidly.

In a regulated industry like oil and gas, adaptability as technology progresses is key to ensuring operators can use more effective and lower-cost solutions as they become available. That insight led many innovators, forward-thinking oil and gas operators and EDF to call on EPA to include a pathway to innovation in the final rule. Read more

Coming Soon: Solutions for Finding Methane Leaks Faster

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Infrared footage of the leak from the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility

After more than four months of spewing potent methane pollution, the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak has finally been plugged. But now the state of California and the utility that owns the site, SoCalGas, are left with the responsibility of ensuring a disaster like this doesn’t happen again.

While Aliso Canyon has captured the attention of the nation, it’s important to remember that there are smaller—and far more prevalent—leaks happening throughout the country’s oil and gas supply chain every day. In fact, those emissions add up to more than 7 million metric tons of methane pollution every year.  That equals over $1 billion worth of wasted natural gas at 2015 prices.

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Map of leaks around the Porter Ranch area

Methane leaks aren’t just wasteful—they have real impacts on communities. In Wyoming, for example, oil and gas pollution has driven up respiratory illness and smog levels to rival those in famously polluted Los Angeles. In California, residents living near the Aliso Canyon leak have already experienced headaches and vomiting; the long-term health impacts of their exposure to these leaks are a big unknown.

While solutions to detect leaks—like the infrared cameras that made the Aliso Canyon geyser visible to the world—are readily available today, a group of technology developers and oil and gas companies are collaborating with EDF to develop even more cost-effective–and automated–technologies to dramatically speed up leak detection. Read more

How Fast is Fast Enough to Solve a Challenge Like Methane?

aileen_nowlan_31394Bill Gates, in an interview with The Atlantic, reminded us that if Thomas Edison were alive today, he’d probably recognize a lot of our energy infrastructure – batteries and most coal plants, for example. Gates argued in the interview that we need to drastically speed up the pace of innovation to bring our energy infrastructure out of the Victorian era. But how do we change how we make and use energy? It touches everything we do, but in less than a decade we will be living, working, and traveling differently.

That’s where I – and EDF – come in.  I joined EDF this fall after working as a lawyer, consultant and accelerator for business-social collaborations, and I’ve found that it takes all kinds of skills and experiences to set ambitious targets and turn the impossible into the inevitable. From energy retrofits for churches to starting a clean energy incubator with global energy companies, I’ve attacked the challenge of achieving a low-carbon future from many angles. I’ve been drawing on all of that experience since joining EDF, at what’s proving to be an exciting time for climate change leadership.

Methane: a challenge we have to tackle today

One area where we know we have to innovate – like people stranded on a desert island – is methane emissions from oil and gas. Methane is the most powerful greenhouse gas that almost no one has heard of. And more importantly from a climate perspective, methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are cheap to eliminate, if you can find them. The recently-announced regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry won’t take us all the way to the 40-45% reduction in methane emissions the administration has set as a priority. We need action at hundreds of thousands of oil and gas facilities, and that’s just for U.S. onshore oil and gas. Worldwide, methane leaks amount to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, or the equivalent of 40% of the total CO2 emissions from burning coal.

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How do you innovate fast enough to attack this challenge? One approach we at EDF have taken with the Methane Detectors Challenge is to identify a need – invisible methane leaks – and envision a tool that didn’t yet exist that could enable the action we need – operators finding and fixing leaks faster. The ultimate goal is to make tools like that a reality, and bring to market continuous methane detection systems that are so affordable they can be deployed throughout the oil and gas supply chain. Read more