A bright future for continuous methane detection

Over the last decade, a trove of scientific studies has established that not only are methane emissions from oil and gas operations a major contributor to climate change, but also that they are severely underestimated and underreported.

EDF has been at the forefront of research to detect and quantify the magnitude of oil and gas methane emissions. And we’ve also helped develop solutions that make large-scale emission reductions easier, faster and cheaper. A new initiative led by The University of Texas at Austin called Project ASTRA is a promising, multi-year experiment with the potential to build on and complement other efforts aimed at scaling global reductions of oil and gas methane emissions.

The goal of Project ASTRA is to establish a proof-of-concept network of methane-sensing technologies, data sharing and data analytics to provide near-continuous monitoring of oil and gas facilities in the Permian Basin. Once operational, this kind of smart, automated network would allow producers and regulators to pinpoint methane releases for mitigation at or below the cost of current monitoring technologies, many of which measure emissions only on an annual or semi-annual basis.

EDF is providing technical and policy expertise for the project. Working with UT on Project ASTRA is a continuation of EDF’s efforts to push the boundaries of how technology can be part of methane reduction policies. It follows EDF initiatives like the Methane Detectors Challenge and Mobile Monitoring Challenge, each of which tapped entrepreneurs to advance sensor-enabled, remote technologies that industry can use to identify and quantify methane leaks quicker and easier.

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UT’s ASTRA announcement comes weeks after EDF launched a multi-scale research project, also in the Permian Basin, which combines proven data collection methods with state-of-the-art technologies to monitor oil and gas methane emissions in the world’s largest oil patch. EDF’s PermianMAP is a first-of-its-kind public resource for operators, public officials and communities, providing timely and accurate data for tracking oil and gas methane emissions rates by company in the study region.

PermianMAP is also a precursor for another ambitious remote-sensing effort, MethaneSAT, a satellite —being developed by EDF subsidiary MethaneSAT LLC — scheduled to launch in 2022 that will provide global, high-resolution coverage of methane emissions not only from known oil and gas facilities, but also from previously unknown sources.

Scientific study of the problem is important to help identify and quantify emission sources accurately, reliably and, in some cases, publicly. But it does not address the need for businesses to work together in constantly monitoring large production regions, like in the Permian, that are known to have significant emission challenges. Speed and collaboration matter, and Project Astra focuses on driving progress on both dimensions.

On-the-ground continuous monitoring in energy production regions will be key if companies are to quickly fix leaks and provide verifiable emission — and emission reduction — data. Even a sophisticated satellite like MethaneSAT cannot sit above every oil field on Earth 24/7. The breadth of methane detection solutions being developed by these projects and more are a sign we may soon move toward widespread emission prevention.

Sometimes, mitigating an industry’s impact on the environment is viewed as an added process or an added expense. With preventing waste of methane from the oil and gas industry, that need not be the case. Transforming methane detection from a manual, analog process into a remote, automated and digital process is a game changer for methane reductions and fits perfectly into the operational and business changes the industry is already implementing.

Technologists interested in participating in project Astra can learn more and apply here.

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