As valuable as natural gas has proved itself to be as a clean source of energy, gas that escapes into the air is not only useless in the energy mix, but harmful.
Methane, wrote Robert L. Kleinberg of Columbia University in a white paper, is second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in its contribution to global warming. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that methane emissions are responsible for about 30% of the rise in global temperatures. The danger stems from the fact that methane’s emissions possess about 80 times the warming power of CO2 in the first 20 years after entering the atmosphere.
But that also makes the elimination of methane emissions one of the biggest opportunities in the effort against climate change.
Methane typically makes up about 95% of the natural gas pumped out of the ground, with natural gas liquids accounting for most of the rest. (Fossil fuels are not the only source of methane emissions. Others are landfills and wastewater treatment, natural wetlands, animal agriculture, biomass burning and wetland agriculture. America’s Natural Gas only addresses methane emissions in fossil fuel operations, particularly natural gas.)
To fix the climate issue, methane emissions must be reduced to less than 1% of the natural gas that is produced over a 20-year span, said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer of the University of Houston, along with a whole host of other mitigation strategies. Accomplishing that will keep the earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of countries signed on to the Paris Accords.
“And that is really one of the big challenges we have in the production, transportation and use of natural gas, which is a colorless, odorless gas, which is lighter than air and tends to escape fairly easily from valves, pipelines, etc.” Krishnamoorti said. “How do I make sure that I do not let natural gas slip?”
“With methane emissions … we don’t have the same sense of where, exactly, emissions are coming from on the natural gas side,” said Seth Blumsack, professor of energy and environmental economics and international affairs at Penn State. “There have been studies that have documented that, at certain sites, the level of methane being released into the atmosphere is a lot higher than we thought it was, but exactly where it’s coming from, whether it’s coming from leaky pipes or from tanks. That has been very hard to pin down.”
And the leaks appear across the natural gas value chain. Is it in the fields where drilling takes place? In the pipelines in which gas is transported, often across great distances? In residential areas where gas is piped into homes? That’s what natural gas companies need to know.
So Pete Roos figured out a way to tell them.
Roos’ company, Bridger Photonics Inc. in Bozeman, Mont., took the technology known as light detection and ranging (LiDAR) and developed a laser system that could measure distance and build 3-D images.“It turned out, the way we measured distance with a laser to create this image is very well suited to also measuring gas concentration,” said Roos, Bridger’s CEO. “That was the genesis of Gas Mapping LiDAR. We found that this was a fairly massive technical gap, a market gap, where the oil and gas industry wanted to know where their leaks were but they didn’t have a tool to do it. So, we developed Gas Mapping LiDAR, in which the intent is to make emissions reduction simple.”
Over five years, Bridger Photonics developed proprietary hardware that can be attached to the underside of a Cessna or other aircraft and flown over oil and gas infrastructure such as production sites, processing plants, pipelines, liquefaction facilities and refineries. The company launched the oil and gas part of its business with production site operations, but escalating demand for its services propelled Bridger quickly into the transmission area, including buried pipelines and compressor stations.
The pictures say it all. Brightly colored plumes locate the leak for the customer and Bridger’s Gas Mapping LiDAR algorithms calculate how much gas is leaking. The digital map that flows directly to the company’s geographic information system (GIS) pinpoints the source of the leak within six feet. After that, the customer can begin repairs.
The sensitivity of the equipment is such that the technology is not restricted to the wide open spaces of the oil and gas fields, but is effective in monitoring the intricate pipeline network of a major city, as well.
In August, the nation’s largest gas distribution utility, Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) contracted with Bridger to detect and quantify methane emissions throughout the company’s 24,000-mile service area in central and southern California. Helicopters equipped with LiDAR scan the utility’s 19.4 million feet of natural gas pipeline in 500 communities for leaks. SoCalGas uses this data to send out repair teams much more quickly than when the leaks were detected by foot patrols.
“This technology provides us with a critical early detection system that can help us mitigate leaks more quickly, while we also move to use more lower and zero-carbon fuels to increasingly decarbonize our pipeline system,” Gina Orozco, vice president of gas engineering and system integrity at SoCalGas, said when the contract was announced.
Bridger Photonics is one of many companies working in this area, but demand from an industry intent on finding and fixing methane leaks has accelerated its growth from no business in oil and gas in 2019 to operations in all major natural gas-producing regions in the U.S. by 2021.
“It’s like we’re a startup but we’ve got the experience [in LiDAR] since 2006,” Roos said. “In 2019, our GML business grew 100% quarter on quarter. Last year, it grew about 400%. This year, it’s going to grow another 300%. It’s on a rocket ship.”
Of course, finding individual leaks is not enough. Nooshin Behroyan worked in the utilities sector before founding Paxon Engineering & Infrastructure Inc. in 2016. A trained engineer, she focuses her company’s mission on the entire natural gas infrastructure.
“How do you work with existing infrastructure so that you modify the operations, you modify the maintenance procedures, you reduce the leaks—the existing leaks, the future leaks—and basically transmit gas more efficiently?” said Behroyan, who is also Paxon’s CEO.
The answer is innovating a new use for a technology already in practice known as recompression. Gas companies typically employ recompression to remove gas from a pipeline, treat it to remove impurities, then insert it back into the pipe.
Paxon’s approach handles the gas in the particular segment of a pipeline or natural gas facility with the leak that needs to be repaired. In the standard practice of repairs, the gas would be released or burned off (flared) or left in an uncontrolled state. The Paxon process allows customers to exert control.
“We draw down the systems to less than 1 psig (pounds per square inch, gauge), which allows us very safe management of the system, and also allows the workers in the area to mitigate the potential, and it also helps us give them better control,” said Lee Shouse, Paxon’s director of engineering.
Paxon moves the natural gas from the pipeline or facility and pushes the gas into a separate system. When repairs are complete, the gas returns to the main system as part of the air purge. While many companies have announced “net zero” emissions goals, this process exceeds that, resulting in zero emissions from the point of shutdown when repairs begin to when the gas operating system is returned to operation and system operations can continue.
“The environmentalists that we work with in the field love us because they like writing the zeroes in that column whenever they fill out their carbon emissions paperwork,” Shouse said.
Paxon’s operations have saved or recovered more than 11 million standard cubic feet of gas that would have escaped into the atmosphere and instead can be used for its intended purpose, as fuel. That figure will rapidly rise as existing customers expand their use of Paxon’s technology and the growing company adds new clients.
The process results in multiple positives: the methane that would have escaped now stays in the fuel supply, lowering costs across the board.
“We come in and we say, look, rather than burn it—which is flaring—or releasing it into the atmosphere, we have the technology which is really not that cumbersome, it’s more efficient, and from a safety standpoint, you’re not exposing folks in the field to natural gas, to ignition, to any of those scenarios,” Behroyan said. “We recoup close to 100% of that gas.”
On the fast track
Reducing methane emissions to less than 1% across the value chain isn’t just doable. It’s being done right now.
The ONE Future Coalition of 50 companies committed to lowering emissions to less than 1% by 2025 and actually beat that goal with emissions of 0.334% in 2019. The group includes some of the industry’s largest natural gas production, gathering and boosting, processing, transmission and storage and distribution companies in the U.S. Those companies represent more than 15% of the U.S. natural gas value chain and include giants such as gas producer Apache Corp., pipeline companies like Kinder Morgan Inc., and utilities like ConEd and New Jersey Natural Gas.
And Bridger Photonics and Paxon Engineering & Infrastructure are far from the only companies working to find and mitigate methane leaks. There are numerous competitors providing their own innovative technologies to combat methane leaks.
Bridger and Paxon are, however, representative of how the problem is being tackled. Both companies are relatively young and both are growing at a rapid pace as they provide solutions to a critical issue the natural gas industry is determined to resolve.
Methane needs to be in the energy mix, not the atmosphere. Thanks to innovative thinking and determination, that is what is happening.
- Methane is second only to CO2 in its contribution to climate change.
- The major challenges are to identify leaks in infrastructure and ensure that methane can no longer escape along the entire value chain.
- Relative newcomers like Bridger Photonics and Paxon Engineering & Infrastructure are tackling these issues head on, and their rapid growth attests to the determination of oil and gas companies to seek innovative technologies to resolve these stubborn problems.
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