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 been so excited about my job. I love data, the insights that come with it, and especially the ways 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 man-made methane emissions.

As methane risk draws increasing attention from public officials, major investors and industry leaders, tech solutions are increasingly relevant and “digitization of the oilfield” is becoming industry’s hottest new term.

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

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

I recently spoke with Hunt, Gather / Fair World’s 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 to catalyze, accelerate, and scale innovative methane solutions – but this is the first time we’ve ever explored virtual reality to showcase this process. 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 wellsite, feeling like you’re standing there, and seeing emissions firsthand brings a level of awareness that wasn’t possible before.

Leveraging a tool like VR to contextualize the work we do is a powerful way to make solutions more relatable and accessible. Without it, we’re left talking about vast, highly technical infrastructure that can be difficult to relate to. We designed a facility that is regionally agnostic but technically specific and nuanced enough that it 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 actual 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 VR experience, we’re showcasing commercially available tools and technologies that can help us find and fix methane leaks quickly and cost-effectively today. 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 close a thief hatch on top of a tank – which can be one of the largest emitters of methane – and it is literally as simple as closing the tank lid. The fact that you have to physically close it with your hand in the VR experience conveys how easy it is to curb certain methane leaks.

The technologies showcased in this simulation are available today and deployable worldwide. Solutions such as portable analyzers can be the size of a cell phone and allow field teams to detect and 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 and simplicity of a hand-held solution available now. I certainly hadn’t held a SENSIT analyzer prior to the VR. Now I feel like I’ve used it, understand what it does, and see why it’s important.

3. Methane is a problem no matter where you are

A Qatari facility could be completely different from a Russian facility or 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 can be as low-tech as closing a hatch.

Everyone can relate 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 an unprecedented opportunity

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

The VR tool is just that, a tool – but its value is that it helps us spread the word that methane is a truly global challenge. We’re  racing against the clock to get the world onboard with implementing methane mitigation solutions.

I think the VR exudes a feeling of optimism and I hope members of the oil and gas industry who use 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 exploring how they can incorporate cameras, analyzers, continuous monitors, and drones into their new or existing 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. 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 more efficiently and cost-effectively. To some extent, she exemplifies the future of the space – which is all about digitization.

The idea here is that robotics, analytics, and automation will play an increasingly key role in solving our methane challenges, while also fitting into the trends that will define the oil and gas industry.

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