Coming Soon: Solutions for Finding Methane Leaks Faster

porter-ranch-aliso-canyon-methane-gas-leak-3-1020x610After 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.

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.

Scattered, aging infrastructure

Part of the problem is that much of the oil and gas infrastructure around the country is showing its age. The well that failed at Aliso Canyon was 63 years old. That’s no surprise—California has been an oil and gas producer for over a hundred years, and that state alone has over 50,000 wells. With wells, storage fields, and gathering and boosting facilities around the country, we expect aging oil and gas infrastructure will only make the problem worse over time.

Some of the biggest methane leaks, called super-emitters, are elusive and unpredictable, often occurring as a result of operating conditions like tank venting. These leaks are relatively easy to find and cheap to fix if–and this is a big if–robust monitoring and repair practices are in place.

Up to now, periodic monitoring has been the industry norm, but leaks can appear at any time and continue unabated until the next inspection. Just imagine how much more methane pollution could be cut if there were a way to continuously monitor for leaks.

A partnership to find and stop leaks faster

MDC_teamThat insight inspired EDF, in partnership with eight oil and gas companies, to develop and launch the Methane Detectors Challenge, an initiative to bring next-generation, cost-effective methane monitoring technologies from the lab to the marketplace. With continuous detection systems, companies will be able to identify and address leaks almost as soon as they begin.

Over the past two years, innovators have come forward with solutions, and our panel of technical and industry experts put those solutions through extensive independent lab and outdoor testing.

This initiative has resulted in front-runner detection systems that are accurate at distances of over 80 feet from a methane source. They are designed to be installed at an oil or gas facility and allow remote monitoring—the systems are self-powered and communicate via a cellular connection or the facility’s local control system. Deployed in the right location on a site, one or two systems could provide 24-hour real-time methane monitoring and alerts.

Some MDC partners are moving to refine these systems in the field, potentially in Colorado, North Dakota and Texas. Over the next couple of months, we will ensure the systems can differentiate between on-site from off-site methane, withstand harsh weather conditions and provide fast, accurate alerts.

That’s a solution that SoCalGas—facing potentially billions in losses from the Aliso Canyon disaster—may now wish they had last fall when the leak began.

Luckily, efforts by leading companies and innovators are helping to make the best possible solutions available – including continuous monitoring technologies, like those emerging from the Methane Detectors Challenge –to protect communities and the environment from the threat of methane pollution. As detecting methane leaks becomes faster and cheaper than it’s ever been, the industry and the regulators overseeing it have the tools they need to ratchet down the hidden risks and waste from oil and gas methane.

This post originally appeared on the EDF + Business blog.

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