Can technology save the climate? These companies are betting $1 billion it can

Photo credit John Davidson.

Last November, on the same day the Paris climate agreement took effect, 10 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, including BG Group, BP, Eni, Pemex, Reliance Industries, Repsol, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Statoil and Total, announced a billion-dollar investment in climate solutions. Together, the member-companies of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) produce 20 percent of the world’s oil and gas and operate in 55 countries.

Their commitment was the beginning sign of a growing and public recognition by the oil and gas industry that tomorrow’s low carbon energy transformation has become today’s new energy imperative.

Right now, the biggest, most pressing climate item for the oil and gas industry is methane. Importantly, OGCI’s announcement included a global focus on reducing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Far more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timespan, methane is responsible for about a quarter of the warming we feel today.

Many expect OGCI to direct hundreds of millions of its billion-dollar pledge into addressing methane. Beyond the climate benefits, it’s a smart business investment. The International Energy Agency has said, “the potential for natural gas to play a credible role in the transition to a decarbonized energy system fundamentally depends on minimizing these emissions.” Simply put, methane is an existential threat for an industry and its long term investors banking on natural gas to aid the transition to a lower-carbon energy economy.

Potential is high for OGCI’s methane endeavor to catalyze important breakthroughs. With sets of OGCI members holding joint stakes in nearly 250 natural gas projects worldwide, there is opportunity to catalyze and spread methane emission reductions throughout the whole industry. We stand ready to help OGCI develop innovative solutions and offer the following suggestions as it begins its methane work.

Data Drives Success

Data alone won’t solve the methane challenge. But strong and credible data are essential. In the United States, vast scientific initiatives have greatly improved our understanding of methane leaks, releases and total emissions from oil and gas activity. This scientific understanding helps companies identify reduction opportunities and regulators develop sound, data-based regulations.

Globally, however, methane measurement is much less mature. Filling the gaps to better inform how companies and countries can address this problem in other parts of the world is important, while companies continue to pursue mitigation opportunities. As a future founding member of the UN’s Oil and Gas Methane Science Studies partnership, OGCI is positioned to bolster reliable and transparent methane science worldwide.

Innovation Requires Collaboration

Some of the innovation required to solve the methane challenge will come from collaboration within and among the OGCI companies. But not all of it. Around the world, there are entrepreneurs, scientists and investors that are already tackling methane. In our experience with the Methane Detectors Challenge, we learned that innovation requires early and ongoing collaboration across technology and energy sector lines. Without it, entrepreneurs don’t know what the market needs or wants and energy companies don’t know what technologists can deliver.

Today, there are gaps of information, culture, language and understanding between technology entrepreneurs and the energy companies they are trying to serve. Closing these gaps by supporting technology innovation is a prime opportunity for an industry group like OGCI to support, and OGCI is positioned to do this now that it has set up a smaller investment vehicle with the license to be nimble.

Focus on Prevention and Detection

Preventing methane leaks and finding them quickly are the two most important methane opportunities.

Every leak that is prevented is a leak that doesn’t need to be repaired. Innovation in design, technologies and strategies that prevent emissions at specific and known sources of equipment should be top of mind for OGCI. For example, aerial measurement studies have shown that tanks are significant emission sources, some of which are not properly controlled. Routine methane releases from inefficient or malfunctioning valves are also believed to be a significant source.

An undetected methane leak can leak indefinitely. It’s one reason why periodic detection is so important, and efficient airborne sweeps for large leaks should be investigated. But while routine checks are better than none, they can still allow leaks to persist for months at a time. In the United States alone, studies have shown that 10 percent of leaks are responsible for 80 percent of emissions. Fortunately, next-generation detection technologies are being developed to catch large leaks with the speed we’d expect in the digital age.

Statoil, a Norwegian-based international oil and gas company and OGCI member, is pioneering continuous methane emissions monitoring at a well pad in Texas, and a leading natural gas utility is doing the same in California. These are promising developments, bringing real-time methane monitors to market. Now, the next level of industry leadership from groups such as OCGI are vital to help spur competition in this growing segment and drive unit deployment up and costs down.

Avoiding the wasteful flaring of natural gas in favor of recapturing the fuel is another worthy opportunity to tighten the oil and gas system. There are roughly 16,000 flares worldwide, and some flares burn all day and night. OGCI can galvanize investors and operators to provide the capital and incentives to put entrepreneurs to work turning wasted gas into productive use.

Results Matter

OGCI’s success will be measured by the amount of methane reductions it delivers. Now is the time for OGCI to set a clear path for how it will achieve success with its multi-million dollar methane mitigation endeavor.

EDF’s global goal – reducing oil and gas methane emissions 45 percent by 2025 – coincides with OGCI’s 10-year mandate and is a mark we encourage the group to embrace or exceed. Industry leaders and investors need to manage methane risk so that natural gas is a cleaner, more responsible transition fuel. Governments and their citizens need to know that industry is doing all it can to address the global methane challenge. OGCI is in a unique position to spur innovation that can satisfy both needs.

Follow Ben on Twitter @RatnerBen

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

 

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

Cameras, Drones and Lasers: How They're Tackling Oil and Gas Pollution

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Heath Consultants' methane-measuring drone

Dr. Jason Gu was still a graduate student when he developed the technology behind SenSevere, a start-up that creates laser-based gas sensors for use in heavy industry and power plants. Today, he’s working to apply this technology to methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, making him one of the many entrepreneurs developing solutions to tackle the problem. His fascination with innovation isn’t just making his clients more efficient—it may also be saving the planet.

The hidden cost of methane

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a powerful pollutant responsible for a quarter of the global warming we feel today. The oil and gas industry releases 7 million tons of it into the atmosphere every year through emissions from oil and gas fields and associated pipelines, resulting in over a billion dollars’ worth of wasted American energy resources. And, toxic chemicals like benzene, a known carcinogen, can accompany methane emissions, posing a potential threat to public health.

“The industry is beginning to become more sensitized to the fact that methane is an aggressive greenhouse gas,” said James Armstrong, president of Apogee Scientific, a Colorado-based methane mitigation company. For more than 15 years, Apogee has manufactured a methane detection system that uses a vacuum and infrared sensors and can be mounted to trucks, ATVs and helicopters to identify leaks in the field. “If you find the leaks and repair them, you’re not only helping the environment…you’re extending the resource.” 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

Two Bold Efforts to Speed Methane Detection Technology to Market

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Surging national focus among both industry leaders and government officials on the problem of methane emissions has put a sudden new premium on tools and technologies to help identify the leaks and other sources where the potent, heat-trapping greenhouse gas is escaping into the atmosphere. The good news is that some of the planet’s best innovators are rising to the challenge.

 Two major initiatives are helping uncover simpler, faster solutions: The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)’s Methane Observation Networks with Innovative Technology to Obtain Reductions Program grants (MONITOR for short), and the Methane Detectors Challenge, led by EDF and industry partners.

Fixing and repairing methane leaks is one of our most pressing climate challenges – and also one of our biggest opportunities. Improvements in methane detection technology will help the oil & gas sector find and fix leaks with the speed we expect in the digital age. In addition, reducing leaks can help clear the air in surrounding communities, and boost the revenue of companies that act quickly to repair them by keeping more product in the pipeline. Read more

Lasers, circuit boards and a $30 sensor: innovative solutions to the methane problem

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices.

The technologies we see today didn’t all start out in the forms we’re used to. The phones we carry in our pockets used to weigh pounds, not ounces. Engineers developed hundreds of designs for wind turbines before landing on the three-blade design commonly seen in the field.

innovation

(Missy Schmidt/Flickr)

Fast forward and now we're looking at a drunk-driver-and-alcohol sensor that was converted into a methane leak detector. And a sensor purchased off the web for less than $30 that was transformed into a monitor that fights off greenhouse gases.

I was excited to see the diversity of technologies such as these moving forward in the Methane Detectors Challenge.

Environmental Defense Fund’s initiative with seven oil and natural gas companies—including Shell and Anadarko Petroleum Company, the latest two to join—seeks to catalyze a new generation of technology for finding methane leaks in the oil and gas sector – a powerful contributor to climate change.

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