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.

1. VR is so real, you’ll think you’ve been to a wellsite

Isabel Mogstad, Project Manager, EDF+Business

EDF works with the oil and gas industry in a number of ways to catalyze, accelerate, and scale innovative methane solutions but this is the first time we’ve ever explored virtual reality as a way to showcase problems and solutions. VR, referred to by some as an empathy machine, creates memories for people because it tells you a story it brings you to a place like an oil and gas site, that you’d otherwise never be able to visit.

Methane emissions are an invisible odorless threat, but being on a well site feeling like you’re standing there, seeing emissions first hand, brings a level of awareness that was never before possible.

Leveraging a tool like virtual reality to contextualize the work that we do is a powerful medium and channel to make solutions more relatable and more accessible. Without it, we’re often talking about vast, highly technical infrastructure that, for many people, can be difficult to relate to. We designed a facility that is regionally agnostic but technically specific and nuanced enough that it really highlights some of the key facets of the challenge that we’re facing.

The experience can feel so real that it has the power to create real memories you can recall knowing what it’s like to look through a FLIR camera and see a super emitter, and that’s a visceral experience. It’s very different seeing a large plume on a video screen versus looking at it one to one. VR represents scale in a real life fashion, which no other medium on earth has ever achieved.

It’s so real that some users come out of the experience with sweat on their brow it’s a true wow factor that you have to experience to believe.

2. Showcasing real-world technology highlights simplicity of solutions

EDF’s new Methane CH4llenge VR experience

Through this virtual reality experience, we’re showcasing commercially available tools and technologies that are here today to help us find and fix methane leaks fast and cost effectively. Once a user experiences these solutions for themselves, they can see how simple the solutions really are.

For example, there’s a part of the experience where you essentially close a thief hatch on the top of a tank, which can be one of the largest emitters of methane, and it literally is as simple as closing the tank lid. The fact that you have to actually physically close it with your hand in the VR experience gives a sensation of the ease of cutting down on methane leaks.

The technologies showcased in this simulation are available today and deployed worldwide. Solutions such as portable analyzers can be the size of a cell phone and allow field teams to not only detect but quantify leaks as they move about a facility. For this experience, we collaborated with SENSIT Technologies, a manufacturer of these instruments, to highlight the effectiveness but also simplicity of a handheld solution that is available today. I certainly hadn’t held a SENSIT analyzer prior to the VR. Now, I feel like I’ve actually used it and understand what it does and why it’s important.

3. Methane is a problem no matter where you are

A Qatari facility could be completely different to a Russian facility, it could be completely different to an American facility, but the methane problem is exactly the same. Methane is a global issue across facilities worldwide leaks can happen anywhere, at any time. You need to use high-tech equipment to find them, but as I noted above, the solutions may be as low tech as closing a hatch.

Everyone can relate to it regardless of their infrastructure. While there is variability and nuance in oil and gas infrastructure, at the end of the day a wellhead is a wellhead; a ball valve is a ball valve. Our team spent several days visiting oil and gas facilities to survey wellsite design and structural details, ensuring that we designed a facility relatable to an array of audiences.

4. Methane is also an unprecedented opportunity

Methane is an opportunity for innovators who are creating new technologies, and a big opportunity in the data and analytics space. Oilfield digitization is a huge frontier for industry and methane management can be a big part of that.

The VR tool is just that, a tool but it helps us spread the word in an innovative way that methane is a global challenge and we currently are racing against the clock to get the world onboard implementing methane mitigation solutions.

I think the VR gives off that feeling of optimism and I’m hoping that new oil and gas industry members using the VR at World Gas Conference take this as a call to action. People that didn’t know that the solutions were out there can go home and start to explore how they can incorporate cameras and analyzers and continuous monitors and drones into their existing or new leak detection and repair programs, and really start to manage methane in other parts of the world.

5. Digitization of the oilfield is the future

In the VR experience, users are accompanied by Bella bot, a futuristic robot who helps you find and fix leaks. She’s your partner in crime. In some ways, she represents how EDF is thinking about the future of managing methane. There are new tools and new technologies, there’s data, there’s analytics, there’s robotics, all of which are helping us find and fix leaks better, cheaper and more cost effectively. To some extent, she exemplifies the future of the space which is all about digitization.

This idea here is that robotics, analytics and automation are going to play an increasingly key role in solving our challenges with methane, but also fit into the broader themes in the oil and gas industry.

Follow Isabel on Twitter, @isabel_mogstad