Chevron Corp. is in a bewildering bind when it comes to the federal government’s acceptance of new methane detection technology.
Much of the newest and most effective tech developed to find methane leaks was spurred on by the U.S. Department of Energy. Yet new technologies continue to be turned away by federal regulatory agencies.
Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have denied approval of technology Chevron and others have developed, in effect limiting the deployment of new detection equipment.
Speaking at Hart Energy’s Carbon & ESG Strategies conference in Houston on Aug. 30, Vanessa T. Ryan, Chevron’s manager of methane reduction for methane, said the company has been telling every regulator who will listen about the importance of new technology.
As new rules are written that will last decades or more, regulatory agencies need to incorporate “frameworks that allow us to continue to evolve in the technology space,” she said.
The EPA recently released a draft of its Subpart W rule, which governs emissions sources in 10 segments of the petroleum and natural gas industry, she said.
“We’re really disappointed to see that the technology subset that they allow for quantification of methane emissions is really limited in not taking advantage of the best [technology] ... out here today in terms of what methane detection is available,” Ryan said.
Likewise, pipeline regulator PHMSA put out a rule recently that “really restricts the kinds of technologies that will be available,” she said.
“We’ve developed industry-leading or globally industry-leading technologies and methane detection—primarily spurred on by Department of Energy. We are really hoping that the rest of the federal government will develop rules that allow us to take advantage of those technologies going forward,” Ryan said.
Plugging leaks in the Permian
Ryan touted Chevron’s record of reducing emissions, particularly across its upstream segments. The company has set a goal of 2 kg of CO2 per boe by 2028, which would represent a 53% reduction in the company’s methane intensity compared to its operations in 2016.
In 2022, Chevron’s U.S. production sector emissions were 64% below the U.S. production average on methane intensity, according to EPA data. And since 2016, Chevron has reduced oil production Scope 1 and Scope 2 carbon intensity by nearly 40%.
For commercial and environmental reasons, Chevron’s “rule is quite simple. We want to keep it in the pipe.”
Chevron has done so by designing and operating facilities to prevent methane emissions and employing detection technologies that serve to validate its performance.
“Chevron has made a commitment to design, where possible, all new upstream facilities without routine methane emissions,” she said.
In the Permian Basin, the company’s strategy starts with facility design. The company uses standard designs for tank batteries and compressor stations that include redundant vapor recovery units.
The units gather small, low pressure quantities of gases to be reused or sold rather than emitted.
The company has also deployed real-time autonomous optimizers, or RAOs, that continuously monitor facilities and well conditions to help prevent flaring, venting and well shutdowns.
RAOs can throttle back production when detecting a problem and resume when conditions improve.
“Our 2020-2021 pilot of the RAO technology showed an 80% decrease in flaring and venting emissions from upsets at sites and a 40% reduction in well shutdowns,” she said. “After that pilot, we’re working to scale the RAO technology across our unconventional operations and share the learnings globally.”
The company has also contracted aerial flyovers of Chevron’s 2.2 million Permian acres across Texas and New Mexico.
Chevron is also helping spearhead Project Astra in the Permian. Chevron and two other operators are participating in the pilot project, which is led by the University of Texas. The project aims to use a network of shared, continuous methane monitors at multiple sites to detect and measure methane and pinpoint the exact source of a leak.
“In a typical setting, each operator has their own site and they treat their own site as a perimeter of the sensors,” Ryan said. The sensors are usually placed based using predictable wind patterns and where equipment could potentially emit.
“What Project Astra is doing is looking—instead of just one site—at a whole area that includes multiple operators … the sensors on our sites talk to the sensors on other sites and they’re analyzed in a cumulative fashion,” Ryan said.
With a successful large-scale deployment, operators would need fewer sensors and they could be used to triangulate from sensors “installed on a Pioneer [Natural Resources] or Exxon [Mobil] site nearby,” she said. “So we would need a lower sensor density.”
Offshore operations pose different challenges.
“Where it differs is in the detection space. Detection is really hard,” Ryan said. “Offshore, the winds are a challenge. The ocean or the water in the background is a challenge. The density of equipment of multiple heights and layers, that’s an area we are very much still in the space of looking at and trying to find solutions.”
The right technology
Ryan said that new technologies continue to make impressive strides, particularly since methane detection is far more difficult than, for example, an oil spill that can be seen or even smelled.
In the field, “methane is a colorless, odorless gas. …So, you need an advanced tool to be able to see what’s there. When I started working in this space, the opportunities we had to do that were really limited.”
Five years ago, only a couple of technologies for methane detection existed.
“Today, I believe we have 50 different technology opportunities in our database at Chevron,” she said. “So, when we talk about our industry’s focus on this, it’s not just the oil and gas operators, but the community of technology providers that have also drastically grown the options that we have to detect.
“And the more we detect, the more we’re able to mitigate.”
Still, for a company “just waking up tomorrow and saying, ‘what do I do about methane?’ I probably wouldn’t tell you to go out and get the fanciest detection tool.
“I’d tell you to go talk to your field operator and to get out a schematic of your site and just start circling with a highlighter.”
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