In the fight against global warming, methane has flown under the radar for years as activists and scientists focused on curbing carbon dioxide emissions. But this odourless and colorless gas is about 80 times more potent than CO2 in the first two decades after getting released into the atmosphere, and in recent years it has jumped to the top of everyone’s climate to-do list.
President Joe Biden is considering singling out methane for significant reductions as he prepares to unveil an ambitious pledge to cut all greenhouse gasses. China’s five-year plan announced in March included its first-ever pledge to contain the gas. The United Nations and European Commission expect to publicly launch their International Methane Emissions Observatory later this year to speed efforts to tackle this problem around the world.
The need for action became evident earlier this month, when the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the increase in global atmospheric methane concentrations last year was the biggest on record – a sharp contrast to the pandemic-fuelled drop in carbon emissions.
One of the most effective ways to restrict methane is to stop energy companies from releasing it. It’s the primary component of natural gas, and producers have a lot of incentive to do their part – leaks from faulty equipment are both wasted product and a potential source of reputational damage.
For some oil companies, when emissions are a byproduct of the production process, there can be less urgency to contain them.
The big challenge in stopping these emissions, though, starts with identifying them in the first place.
Fortunately, detection devices have come a long way since the days when operators sprayed soap onto pipes or threw a tarp over equipment to check for leaks. Microwave-sized satellites and sensor-equipped cars are among the many innovations that promise a new era of climate transparency.
Satellites have been detecting large methane plumes for years, but until recently the images were no more than a blob spread over a wide area. A breakthrough came in October 2017, when the European Space Agency launched the Sentinel-5 Precursor. This effort enables more-refined images that can help identify the biggest leaks. The ESA also distributes its data for free, fostering a constellation of startups that analyze the output.
There are gaps in current satellite capabilities, such as when clouds are present or when facilities are offshore. Nevertheless, more advances are on the way, with the promise of ever-greater granularity.
Manufactured by Airbus SE
The ESA’s satellite orbits the Earth 16 times a day observing atmospheric concentrations of methane, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Sentinel‑5P observations were used to identify a gigantic plume of methane that drifted over Florida in May last year, triggering an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The project generates about 1 terabyte of data per day, which it gives away for free.
About a 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) field of view; 15 parts per billion per 5.5km x 7km pixel
€240 million ($283 million)
Iris and Hugo
Manufactured by GHGSat Inc.
Named for the children of scientists at the company, the twin devices orbit once every 15 days and produce fine-grained imagery that can identify the source of leaks to within 75 feet. Iris spotted a massive methane plume from energy infrastructure in Turkmenistan in 2019. After GHGSat raised the alarm through diplomatic channels, the leak was plugged. Others observed by Hugo in February may be ongoing, but confirmation is difficult because it’s been cloudy, says GHGSat founder Stephane Germain. The ability to pinpoint leaks from individual wells, pipelines, coal mines, and even landfills can provide a windfall for a range of end users. Investors, for instance, can use GHGSat data to assess whether an operator is abiding by environmental rules and managing raw materials properly.
About a 12-sq-km field of view; 18 ppb per 25m x 25m pixel
“Single millions” of dollars per satellite, Germain says
Manufactured by MethaneSat LLC, a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund
The launch in October 2022 will be the first mission to provide the leak rate from global oil and gas production. The data will enable investors and governments to track and compare emissions across a range of sources over time. EDF is already working with Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to analyze and present the data to the public in almost real time to spur quick action to contain leaks. Its goal is to cut methane emissions from the coal and gas industry 45% by 2025.
At least a 200km field of view; as low as 2 ppb from areas as small as 100m x 400m
Government agencies and independent researchers use airplanes and drones to scour for leaks with greater precision than satellites. Some oil and gas producers are using them to increase the frequency of surveys that would otherwise require significant time to drive out and inspect manually or with car-mounted devices. Although airborne gear may be better able to pinpoint leaks than fixed equipment, they have limits—surveillance can’t be done continuously, so there’s space for leaks to fester between flyovers.
Shell-Avitas drone and AI development program
Manufactured by Avitas, a venture of Baker Hughes Co.
Drone-mounted infrared cameras capture images of methane plumes, which are then analyzed by artificial intelligence to identify problem spots. In January, Avitas notified Royal Dutch Shell Plc, one of its key customers, that it had detected a potential leak from a hatch atop a high-elevation storage tank at its central production facilities in the Permian Basin. These types of spots are difficult to assess, but in this case, Shell was able to deploy its maintenance team immediately to investigate and repair the leak.
Can survey 500 acres in 15 minutes, potentially visiting 30 to 50 sites a day; can catch leaks as small as 2 standard cubic feet per hour
$50,000-$200,000, depending on the payload
Airborne Visible-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer–Next Generation, aka Aviris-NG
Manufactured by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
A plane such as a King Air B200 hauls NASA’s next-generation spectrometer over a range of sites, from oil and gas fields to farmland. As part of the California Methane Survey, which ended in 2018, the plane identified more than 550 leaks—and determined that only 10% of these were responsible for the majority of emissions in the survey. The same system has also been used to survey land ice levels in Greenland and the impact of smoke from wildfires on vineyards in Sonoma, Calif.
1.8km field of view when flown at an altitude of 3km; 9 ppb per 3m x 3m pixel
More than $5 million
On-site devices are great for spotting some of the smallest leaks, down to a single faulty valve or tiny pipeline puncture. The granularity of their findings highlights how uncovering fugitive methane is a matter of layering information from space, air, and land. Energy companies and utilities are among the key users of this gear. But disclosure of data from this surveillance can vary, particularly as variations in reporting rules may let some operators keep information private. Some environmental groups have successfully used handheld devices to scan oil and gas sites, but their ability to monitor these locations may be compromised by restrictions on their access to private property.
Picarro vehicle-based sensor
Manufactured by Picarro Inc.
The system uses a technique called cavity ring-down spectroscopy to detect the presence of methane. Picarro then uses atmospheric models and wind measurements to help determine a leak’s origin. Detectors are mounted on vehicles, which are then driven along pipeline distribution networks. Utilities such as California’s Pacific Gas & Electric are using Picarro’s technology to identify and halt releases on their distribution networks. The approach was pioneered as a way for utilities to comply with safety regulations but has since expanded to quantify fugitive emissions.
As far as 150 meters; as small as a half cubic foot an hour
Varies according to equipment used and distribution network size; can be in the low 10s to a few 100s of dollars per measurement per well site
Manufactured by Project Canary
The solar-powered devices are installed around well sites to create a network that—along with analysis of local wind speed and air pressure—can detect and pinpoint the source of excess methane. Each device uses cellular networks and cloud servers to transmit instant alerts of leaks to operators. So far they’ve been installed at well sites in Colorado and Pennsylvania. EQT, the largest U.S. natural gas producer, will try out Canaries on two of its well pads in Appalachia. Operators using Canaries can get a TrustWell ranking, an industry indicator of compliance with environmental standards.
Scans once per second; detects 99% of typical onshore upstream leaks within 12 meters, 85% of leaks within 100 meters, down to 250 ppb
$387 per device, per month
FLIR GF620 and QL320
Manufactured by FLIR Systems Inc.
The GF620 is an optical gas imaging camera, able to detect gas compounds in the infrared light spectrum. The QL320 is a quantitative optical gas imaging tablet, which can record and quantify leaks the camera detects. Both are handheld, allowing pipeline operators and service personnel to carry them into remote or hazardous locations and accurately pinpoint leak rates in seconds. The Bayernoil refinery complex in southern Germany uses FLIR’s imaging system to detect gas discharges, particularly from its piping systems.
More than 30 meters; less than 1 gram per hour
GF620 camera, about $100,000; QL320 tablet, $25,000
Trained by K9 Pipe Inspections LLC
Teams of Malinois, Dutch shepherds, and German shepherds head out into the field with their human handlers—primarily in the Permian Basin and Bakken shale drilling regions—to sniff out a proprietary tracer odorant injected into a pipeline. After a new pipeline in Texas failed a hydrostatic test early last year and digital detection devices failed to locate the problem, a K9 unit discovered two microleaks. The dogs can work in the wind and rain, and at night, and are useful when conventional instruments aren’t sensitive enough. Their ability to find microleaks from buried lines can save companies the cost of excavating large areas to assess equipment.
Teams typically cover about 8 to 12 miles a day and can detect leaks from lines buried as deep as 12 feet; leaks as small as 1 ppb
At least $15,000 to fully train a dog, plus toys and treats