December 2022, Vol. 249, No. 12


Methane Emissions Problem Requires Better Monitoring

By Robert Kester, President, Honeywell Rebellion   

(P&GJ) — In 2021, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured methane in the atmosphere at 1,900 parts per billion. That was a record high and almost three times the level of methane present in the preindustrial age.

This is a big problem. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2), and human-caused emissions of methane are now a significant contributor to climate change, accounting for around 25% of global warming.  

Encouragingly, in June, the United States, the European Union (EU) and more than 100 other countries announced the Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. A large part of this effort will focus on the oil and gas industry, which is a major source of methane emissions.   

Reducing methane has long been a goal in the industry because the gas is highly flammable and poses a safety risk to workers. Now, as the climate crisis intensifies, industry and government leaders are recognizing that cutting methane emissions is also critical in the fight to slow global warming.  

In 2020, the oil and gas industry released more than 70 million tons of methane into the atmosphere. Because 1 ton of methane heats the atmosphere as much as 30 tons of CO2, those 2020 methane emissions equaled the total energy-related CO2 emissions of the entire EU.  

Methane does its damage quickly. Although it breaks down and leaves the atmosphere faster than CO2, in its first 20 years it traps 80 times more heat than an equal amount of CO2.   

With climate impacts like heatwaves, floods and wildfires happening now, it becomes more urgent to cut methane emissions. And it becomes more imperative for the oil, gas, chemical and power-generation industries to optimize their processes so they can detect and stop methane leaks as quickly as possible.  

Doing this is not easy. Because methane is an odorless, colorless gas, it’s hard to detect methane leaks. Once detected, there is usually a simple fix. But leaks can occur at almost any point in the oil and gas chain of production and finding them at their source as they happen is difficult.  

To find methane leaks and stop them, many oil and gas companies around the world are deploying innovative and effective technologies that enable them to monitor their operations for leaks 24/7 and repair them as soon as they happen.  

Quick Response  

The way most companies detect methane leaks in supply lines is by manual spot-checks. This entails measuring gas flow at predefined points to locate reductions in volume, if any. Workers in the field use handheld optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras and sniffers to regularly inspect leaks.  

The flaw in this process is that a leak may happen soon after a check is done, and it can go undetected until the next check. A lot of methane can be released into the atmosphere during that time, especially in a large facility where checks are done less often. The process is also labor-intensive, costly, subject to human error and poses risk to workers who are sent into hazardous places.  

Fortunately, new tools for monitoring pipelines are now coming onto the market. Many use drones, aircrafts and satellites to detect leaks. These solutions will find their place. But another technology – artificial intelligence (AI)-based tools for continuous pipeline monitoring – will likely prove the most effective way for the oil and gas industry to reduce methane emissions going forward.  

AI-based tools monitor facility operations around the clock and notify managers of leaks as soon as they’re detectable. Recently, continuous monitoring has seen significant improvement with the introduction of continuous optical gas imaging, or C-OGI, which provides all the benefits of OGI without the inefficiencies inherent in periodic monitoring.  

One example of C-OGI in action is gas cloud imaging (GCI) technology, which continuously monitors supply lines to pinpoint leaks as they happen. It provides a live video feed to display and verify leaks in real time. The system combines hyperspectral gas analysis with AI to create an optical fingerprint of gas releases. It can even identify the type of gas.   

With compact cameras that fit in tight spaces, the system can be deployed throughout a facility to continuously monitor for gas leaks and provide immediate alerts when it detects them.  

With a range of up to 5,577 feet (1,700 meters), the system can cover extended areas. Using hyperspectral snapshots, it delivers an image of gas clouds that show their size and location, making it possible to detect, identify and quantify leaks in real time.   

Additionally, with the advent of video verification capabilities, invisible gases like methane can now be visible to workers, so they can locate them and address them immediately. Ultimately, this enables quicker leak detection and faster corrective action than manual inspections.  

The bottom line is that repair teams now have the information they need to act quickly and efficiently. Because GCI delivers data on the concentration of emissions, companies can prioritize repairs in a targeted way, while also reducing unnecessary trips to fix gas leaks that are not actually there due to low false alarm rates.   

Armed with around-the-clock advanced monitoring technology and automated analytics, oil and gas companies can stay a step ahead of leak detection and repairs based on reliable real-time information. These kinds of systems are now being deployed globally in many applications and are allowing site workers to find and fix leaks far more quickly and efficiently than they could with periodic manual inspections.  

Old Ways Lacking  

Manual inspections for methane leaks are no longer good enough. They are not always a reliable means of tracking and stopping climate-damaging methane leaks. Indeed, a University of Michigan study of an oil and gas production site in the southwestern U.S. found that 10% of methane emissions from leaks were causing over half the point-source emissions in the region.   

A similar report, which brought together two decades of methane studies in North America, revealed that around 50% more methane has been leaking into the atmosphere than previously thought. What’s more, offshore energy-producing platforms in U.S. waters off of the Gulf of Mexico are emitting twice as much methane than previously thought, according to another study from the University of Michigan.   

By using continuous monitoring solutions, operators can better detect and address their methane leaks and reduce their harmful impact on the climate.  

Methane emissions contribute to global warming. This is a fact. It is also a fact that the oil and gas industry now has access to new and better ways to significantly cut methane emissions, meet sustainability commitments and improve safety.  

By investing in technologies like continuous monitoring – and continuous visual monitoring in particular – companies in the oil and gas industry can boost their efficiency and their productivity, and better meet their business and societal commitments.

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