How virtual reality can help the oil and gas industry confront its invisible challenge: methane

I’m a certified oil and gas tech nerd, and I’ve never before been this excited about my job.  I love data and the insights that it surfaces, along with the immense possibility of applying those insights to catalyze continuous improvement. There are few decisions I make without an Excel spreadsheet – and, after spending several years working for an oilfield services company, I’m passionate about solving one of the biggest environmental problems of our time: methane emissions.

Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas and a common byproduct of oil production. Unburned, it’s also a powerful greenhouse gas. Worldwide, about 75 million metric tons of methane escape each year from oil and gas operations (through leaks, venting and flaring) – making the industry one of the largest sources of manmade methane emissions.

As methane risk is starting to draw increasing attention from public officials, major investors, and leaders within the industry, tech solutions are booming and “digitization of the oilfield” is becoming industry’s hottest new term.

The good news: many of these tech solutions are available today and easy to deploy on a wellsite. Unfortunately, many stakeholders involved in this global challenge have either never been to a wellsite or don’t spend much time on a wellsite. And even if they do, methane is invisible.

That’s why EDF worked with the creative agencies, Hunt, Gather and Fair Worlds, to build a new virtual reality (VR) experience, called the Methane CH4llenge, that brings the wellpad to you and showcases the power of tools like infrared cameras and portable analyzers to experience first-hand what methane leaks look like.

I recently spoke with Hunt, Gather / Fair Worlds Creative Director Erik Horn, my partner in crime for this project, about developing the VR, which you can experience at the World Gas Conference next week. Here are five takeaways from our discussion, which you can watch in full here. Read more

Natural gas, meet Silicon Valley. The challenge for mobile methane monitoring is now underway

Oil and gas methane monitoring

Three years ago, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) united with oil and gas industry leaders including Shell and Statoil to launch the Methane Detectors Challenge – a collaborative effort to catalyze the development and deployment of stationary, continuous methane monitors. With industry pilot projects now cropping up from Texas to Alberta, continuous methane monitoring on natural gas sites is on a pathway to become one of the core tools in the monitoring toolkit.

And that’s a good thing – 24/7 monitoring is the gold standard for emissions control, opening a new frontier in site-level insight. It will enable real time identification and repair of natural gas waste that pollutes the atmosphere, and the industry’s own reputation.

Now, another exciting area of innovation is emerging, as entrepreneurs, technologists, and academics pursue mobile approaches to monitor leaks. Whether by plane, helicopter, drone or truck, mobile monitoring offers the promise of surveying highly dispersed industrial facilities – including smaller and older ones – quickly and effectively. With an estimated one million well pads in the United States alone, the speed and coverage of monitoring matter.

Environmental Defense Fund takes oil and gas operators and local media for a demonstration of mobile monitoring technology from Apogee Scientific

Mobile methane monitoring for some sites could be a perfect complement to continuous monitoring for others, offering a 1-2 punch solution to comprehensively monitor and address emissions across a highly variable industry, with fit-for-purpose tools.

A new collaborative challenge to reduce methane

That’s why we are so pleased to support Stanford University’s Natural Gas Initiative by announcing the Stanford/EDF Mobile Monitoring Challenge (MMC). The MMC is the latest collaborative innovation project from EDF, partnering with Dr. Adam Brandt of Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, the principal investigator for MMC and one of the world’s leading scientists studying oil and gas methane emissions.

Stanford/EDF Mobile Monitoring Challenge – Now accepting applications

The aim of the Mobile Monitoring Challenge is to rigorously test and compare the most promising new mobile technologies and approaches to quickly detect and quantify methane emissions – with extra interest in commercially scalable options.

Calling all methane monitoring entrepreneurs

Today begins a 45-day application period for technologists around the world who wish to participate in 15 days of field trials. Stanford and EDF, aided by industry and other expert advisors, will pick the most promising submissions this fall, and Professor Brandt’s team will oversee field testing with controlled releases of methane this winter and spring, culminating in a Stanford paper documenting results for the peer-review process.

Candidates for the Mobile Monitoring Challenge should have methane monitoring technology that:

  • Is field ready
  • Can be deployed on a mobile platform (e.g. drone, plane, car, truck, etc.)
  • Is cost-effective and can quickly detect leaks at multiple sites
  • Provides both detection and quantification

See the Stanford/EDF application process for full details.

With subsequent real world testing and demonstration, the leading mobile monitoring approaches coming out of this initiative may even support regulatory compliance, propelling greater emission reductions at even less cost – the classic win/win.

Three years ago, EDF was encouraged to receive dozens of technology applications from around the world for the Methane Detectors Challenge. With the ongoing sensor revolution coupled with the surge in methane emissions interest across North America and the world, we are even more optimistic today about what the future holds.

That’s because at EDF, we know that bringing the right stakeholders together to harness diverse thinking and innovative technologies is the next wave of environmental progress.

Let the challenge begin!


Follow Ben on Twitter, @RatnerBen


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