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Getting methane management right

  • Posted on August 31, 2021
  • Estimated reading time 7 minutes

When it comes to methane emissions, persistent difficulty in finding a consistent solution tells us that it may be time to rethink the challenge and the data behind it.

For instance, which numbers are right? On the one hand, a UN report issued in May 2021 claims that methane emissions are under-reported and, in fact, leading to thousands more deaths per year from air pollution and faster rising global temperatures than previously thought. And according to a February 2021 report from researchers at the University of Rochester, methane emissions are much higher than reported. But just this August, Forbes Magazine published an article claiming that extreme worry is unnecessary.

At any moment, there’s a group out there with one data set arguing with another group with a very different data set. Which data should an oil company executive act upon?

The devil is in the details and the oil and gas industry is plagued by an invisible demon – methane emissions and the unique problems associated with finding, measuring and containing them. At any given moment, methods being used include satellites, aircraft, drones, sensors, field workers with handheld devices and even specially outfitted Toyota SUVs - mobile methane sniffers. On top of that, the DOE just announced the availability of $35 million in funding for technologies to reduce methane emissions – including detection – so more leak identification methods are yet to come. Everyone knows it is a big problem

Still, no one method is perfect and it is likely a combination of detection tools will be needed. The next big issue is how to make sense of these many streams of disparate data. Only then can we get methane management right, move quickly to mitigate any leaks and report issues in a timely, accurate manner.

Meanwhile, this is all taking place under increasing pressure from company boards, consumers, communities, corporate investor watchdogs and activists – all of which may respond in an unhelpful way if given faulty data. Demands for increased transparency and “democratization of information,” are well and good unless that information is inadvertently inaccurate. With so much data flowing from so many different sources – including those with room for human error – inaccuracy is inevitable. The biggest lever for decarbonization improvement may not simply be better detection but better, more efficient digital gathering, integration, analysis and distribution of data.

Is your data right?

A recent survey of Oil and Gas industry executives by risk management consultancy DNV found that, “Some 78% of respondents say they are going to be working to improve data quality and availability in 2021, which is an 11-percentage point increase on last year.” One of the main data problems the study showed was that historically, “The data produced is fragmented, when it should be one set of data that is more enriched. The challenge is to unify it.”

Responsible oil and gas production is an immediate imperative and digital transformation of energy company’s enterprise systems is one of the fast tracks forward. This three-part blog series will focus on technology’s role in enhancing responsible energy resource production programs throughout the oil industry, specifically managing data related to fugitive emissions and reducing energy intensity. In particular, the series will reflect on the innovative solutions Avanade has created in partnership with Microsoft.

Detecting the problem

For the Oil and Gas industry, a big step toward more responsible resource production starts with effectively curbing fugitive emissions. Some emissions are inherent in the production process and can be scheduled, tracked, and managed. Fugitive emissions, on the other hand, are often due to the inevitable flaws in the structure of the physical plant – methane, other gases, and vapors inadvertently leaking from mines, wells, and apparatus in oil and gas fields around the world. By their nature, these can be quite hard to detect – a pipe joint may perform perfectly in the heat of the day but leak when the pipes shrink in the cooler air of the night.

The EPA estimates that fugitive emissions from oil and gas make up 10% of greenhouse gases. In contrast, the entire transportation sector accounts for 28% of greenhouse gases and a 2019 USDA study showed that the cattle industry was responsible for something in the range of 3.3%. The 10% associated with fugitive emissions is particularly harmful as most of it is methane, a pollutant that is 27x more potent than CO2. Its net effect is equivalent to 40% of total CO2 emissions from coal combustion worldwide.

There are three stages to dealing with fugitive emissions – detection (and data intake), mitigation (data-driven), and reporting (data-shared). We will address mitigation and reporting in a later post, here we’ll take a look at the challenges around detection and the related in-take and analysis of data and the ways that the digital revolution can help.

Even more data is needed

Although plumes of fugitive methane are visible in infrared images taken from hundreds of miles above earth’s surface, translating those images into actionable items is the real challenge.

Satellites track methane across three different measures – time, space, and concentration. Each of those measures has technical limitations, and each of them is subject to practical limitations, including everything from the availability of the satellite to tree foliage near a particular source of methane.

Pinpointing the source of a fugitive emissions requires a lot more data. Fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, and drones are deployed often for detection in the field, but they can be expensive and the data can be quite limited. In practice, it can be quite hard to determine how much a particular emitter is actually emitting. Most often, emissions are not measured but estimated. The assumptions those estimates are calculated on can be make-or-break for a company that may be facing a fine for fugitive emissions.

With the specter of further regulation looming, it is in each producer’s interest to be able to track and report hard numbers whenever possible, and to have a mechanism to mitigate those fugitive emissions. That starts with understanding what emissions look like. And, where measuring is a challenge, understanding how one can model these emissions based on point in time observations.

Data innovation creates a new solution

IoT sensors are one of the more innovative solutions to detection being explored. Project ASTRA, a consortium of operators and non-profits lead by The University of Texas with help from Microsoft is piloting the use of inexpensive IoT sensors throughout the Southwest’s Permian Basin, the location of much of North America’s oil and gas extraction. Those devices offer constant monitoring, sending a cascade of environmental data to Microsoft’s Azure cloud. The platform’s artificial intelligence compiles the data and helps determine the location of the source of any emission.

Piecing together a complete picture

IoT sensors, satellites, drones, aircraft, and on-the-ground inspectors each present a partial image of methane emissions in an area. Collecting that data into a coherent picture is where artificial intelligence can compile a super resolution model, a tool that can really make a difference. Comparing that data with outside info is also key. Aligning known occurrences of intentional incidents—an emergency venting, for example—with reported emission spikes can help eliminate unneeded inspector visits.

Compiling that data into a clear picture of emission concerns is also key to efficient dispatch and scheduling for inspection and mitigation crews. Federal reporting requirements around fugitive emissions are certain to step up as regulations are brought to bear necessitating additional recordkeeping around discovery and mitigation efforts.

Conclusion

Over the last decade, climate change has gone from the next guy’s problem to everyone’s problem. Like the satellite picture of a methane plume spilling out over a Texas plain, the problem sometimes feels too big. With the proper digital tools and diligence, though, we can home in on the problem, descending out of the stratosphere down to the source of the issue where we can apply some elbow grease and make a real, substantial difference. Avanade and Microsoft can be part of that solution.

We recognize that the challenges of responsible production and sourcing are unique to each energy company and the nuances of their infrastructure and processes. There are no one-size-fit-all solutions. Contact us and share your organization’s specific challenges with responsible production and let’s explore together whether and how digital solutions might play a role. We look forward to finding ways to rethink your approach to emissions management and to help you save time, money, and our environment.

If your company has committed to net zero by 2035, how are you measuring your footprint? How confident are you in the data that you are collecting, analyzing, and acting upon? What does your emissions taxonomy look like? Reach out to us as we would love to have a conversation with you.

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