Buckle up: Methane monitoring is going mobile

A “better, faster, cheaper” methane leak detection solution used to be an elusive unicorn of the oil and gas industry. Yet, since EDF commenced its methane innovation work in 2014, there has been a mass proliferation of innovative methane detection companies, big and small. With new ideas and new technologies, innovators are challenging old assumptions and pushing the frontier of what is possible.

The Stanford and Environmental Defense Fund Mobile Monitoring Challenge launched in 2018 to independently and rigorously assess a selection of the most promising technologies available today to help oil and gas companies detect, pinpoint and estimate methane leaks from upstream production facilities.

The results of this challenge were published today in the journal Elementa — and the findings offer a glimpse towards a promising new era of higher frequency monitoring. Even as the Trump administration attempts to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency’s common-sense methane regulations, some companies are looking to innovative technology to go above and beyond what is currently required. The results are significant beyond U.S. borders as well. Numerous international oil companies, including the members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, will require higher frequency, accurate methane monitoring to help achieve their methane reduction commitments.

Here are the three main takeaways from the Mobile Monitoring Challenge study.

The era of mobile monitoring is emerging

Drone, truck and plane-mounted sensors offer a compelling approach to methane monitoring. That’s why the challenge analyzed these mobile leak detection methods at upstream test sites (the study’s results do not apply to local distribution utilities) — their mobility enables higher frequency and density coverage, meaning that you can scan for more leaks more often on a cost basis that is in some instances competitive with traditional handheld instruments.

As the science on methane emissions has indicated, leaks can occur anywhere, at anytime. A system that provides higher frequency monitoring could increase the likelihood of catching and eliminating leaks quickly.

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The impact of higher frequency monitoring is underpinned by technologically capable sensors and algorithms that can accurately detect, localize and estimate methane leaks. The good news is, such systems are rapidly developing.

Ten technologies were tested using single-blind controlled releases at two locations in Colorado and California. We found that six of the 10 technologies correctly detected leaks in over 90% of testing scenarios, with one technology, a drone mounted sensor from SeekOps, correctly detecting 100% of leaks. This is particularly significant as “false positives” have historically been a detection bottleneck.

Mobile monitoring is not a silver bullet

While several solutions show promise, for now the value of mobile monitoring remains a complement to — not a complete replacement for — handheld leak detection instruments. Although several technologies were able to identify the presence of a leak, fewer solutions accurately localized the leak to its specific source. This information is critical when deploying labor efficiently to address a leaking piece of equipment.

At the same time, virtually all solutions tested experienced real challenges in quantifying leak rates. These limitations should be assessed in the context of existing methane monitoring paradigms and should not discount the role of mobile solutions in methane programs today and going forward. In the short-term, mobile monitoring may have the most potential as a screening mechanism, particularly for larger leak events that require rapid intervention. If this were the intended application, leak quantification from these solutions is not a critical path technology criteria and the road to scalability may be accelerated.

Leak quantification becomes increasingly important when these solutions are expected to deploy as baselining and measurement tools, not just as leak detection monitors.

The path to scale, while promising, may encounter some turbulence

Mobile monitoring could propel a paradigm shift in methane monitoring, enabling higher frequency, scalable detection across facilities big and small. This vision is achievable. Several of the technologies tested can accurately detect and localize methane leaks.

With the right business model, price point and regulatory approvals (FAA drone approval, for example), one can imagine a basin like the Permian blanketed with a constellation of mobile monitors regularly scanning for leaks.

Meanwhile, additional research is required to assess the comparative emissions reductions and environmental outcomes from mobile solutions as compared to traditional instruments such as optical gas imaging cameras. Ongoing efforts, such as the equivalency modeling underway at Colorado State University, enable these important comparisons.

As methane monitoring moves from the ground, to the sky, and increasingly to space — including EDF subsidiary MethaneSAT — companies along with their investors and the public will have greater visibility into industry’s emissions than ever before. We welcome new, effective tools in the toolkit to combat this pernicious pollutant.

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