Odorless and invisible to the human eye, methane gases are not something most people think about.  

But oil and gas industry leaders – including Statoil – have given significant time and thought to addressing methane emissions, including those from so-called fugitive sources, such as pipeline and storage tank leaks. 

It’s a problem that Dr. Desikan Sundararajan, principal researcher, and his fellow employee Andrea Carolina Machado Miguens, senior researcher, at Statoil aimed to solve. Knowing the challenge was too big – and too important – to tackle alone, Statoil decided to collaborate with an organization that some might consider an unlikely partner, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). 

Dr. Desikan Sundararajan
Principal researcher, Statoil
Andrea Carolina Machado Miguens
Senior researcher, Statoil

TURNING TO TECH

In 2013, a University of Texas methane study, involving nine oil and gas producers and EDF, revealed that unintentional releases (or “fugitive leaks”) of methane were higher than official government estimates. The finding highlighted an opportunity to lower production emissions with improved field performance and leak maintenance practices, where industry has both an environmental and economic incentive to fix leaks. Fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas operations result in a significant product loss – a Rhodium report estimates that industry loses $30 billion a year in natural gas due to methane emissions. The problem is partly due to the lack of a method to continually monitor for leaks. 

“About 25 percent of today’s warming is driven by human-caused methane emissions, of which the oil and gas sector is a large contributor,” said Ben Ratner, EDF director. “We knew that if given proper attention, there must be a more effective way to detect and address these fugitive emissions.”

Methane is invisible to the human eye and odorless – so how could oil and gas operators even know they were losing this natural gas? Currently, many oil and gas companies check for leaks throughout the year, but round-the-clock monitoring isn’t available. Infrared cameras can see leaks where humans can’t, but while useful for periodic checks, they are not commercially viable for fixed deployment in oil fields with thousands of wells spread across thousands of miles.

Oil and gas operators needed to implement an affordable technology that could help them identify and quantify methane leaks in near real time – but this technology didn’t exist yet.

We saw this as an opportunity for emissions reduction across the industry. We wanted to deliver something that we knew we could use.

Dr. Desikan Sundararajan, principal researcher, Statoil

Knowing the power of cross-industry collaboration, EDF saw their opportunity. “We brought together a diverse group of stakeholders – not only oil and gas players, but others such as technology companies – and challenged them to jointly solve the methane emissions problem,” Ben said. And so the Methane Detectors Challenge was born.

Statoil publicly stated its ambition to be the most carbon-efficient producer in the world, so when EDF invited Statoil to join the Challenge, there was no doubt of the answer.

“We saw this as an opportunity for emissions reduction across the industry,” said Desikan, “and our end goal was practical application. Our position in joining the Challenge was more toward driving the projects – getting them out into the field as opposed to just existing as a hypothetical. We wanted to deliver something that we knew we could use.”

And what did this cross-sector collaboration deliver? Something out of “Star Wars.”

we are in a race against time to address global climate change

Ben Ratner, EDF director

 

PINPOINTING THE SOLUTION

The company which ultimately brought forward the technology that worked most effectively was not an oil and gas company, but rather a sensor company – Quanta3. Their technology has an open-back laser sensor port where samples of ambient air passing through the sensor box continuously run past a laser. The laser is able to detect the exact number of methane molecules within each sample.

The Quanta3 sensor is an autonomous system placed in the most dominant wind area of a well pad. It uses solar power, has back-up batteries and continuously uploads the detection data to a cloud server via its own modem.

“With these sensors, we can now address fugitive methane problems, once identified, in real time as opposed to what previously could take weeks or months,” Andrea said.

Statoil is the first energy producer participating in the Methane Detectors Challenge to actually implement the new detection process. While the detection process is still in testing, Statoil is planning to roll out this method on a broader basis in the first quarter of 2018.

When it comes to the future of our planet, there’s no advantage for one company over another to solve this – it’s a global community issue

Dr. Desikan Sundararajan

MORE TRIALS AHEAD

“The fundamental fact about a sustainability challenge is that it is not unique to one particular operator,” Desikan said. “What each company does affects broader air quality of a region and has a perpetual effect globally. It is therefore immensely important that all oil and gas industry partners learn from these challenges instead of competing over results.”

“And we are in a race against time to address global climate change,” Ben added. “Statoil is able to detect methane emissions up to 99 times faster than its competitors at this point. And through Statoil and others’ demand signals to the marketplace, we will see healthy competition heat up in the market for continuous monitoring solutions.”

The implementation of the new laser approach gives Statoil a competitive edge over its industry peers, but it’s an edge they’re willing to concede in favor of transparency and sustainability.

“We’re working to complete this ahead of any regulations because it’s the right thing to do,” Desikan said. “Within Statoil, we don’t debate climate science or the politics around it. We know we have to tackle climate change head-on through collaboration.

“When it comes to the future of our planet, there’s no advantage for one company over another to solve this – it’s a global community issue.”