Innovation helping producers achieve methane emissions reductions

Some new approaches to emission detection are literally out of this world.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) in the atmosphere. With a strong commitment to continuous improvement and improving environmental performance, Canada’s natural gas and oil producers have a laser focus on addressing methane emissions — and that includes innovative technologies like orbiting satellites that can detect and quantify methane emissions here on Earth.

Industrial methane emissions within the oil and natural gas sector can come from a variety of sources, such as venting and flaring (planned, controlled releases) and fugitive emissions (leaks, unplanned or irregular releases). While Canada is a world leader in reducing emissions from venting and flaring, detecting and addressing fugitive emissions can be challenging. Current methods of measuring fugitive emissions are expensive and time-consuming processes that don’t allow measurements over longer time periods or in different seasons to gain a better understanding of variations in emissions. 

Collaboration and innovation: vital to emissions reduction

Addressing methane emissions is nothing new for Canada’s upstream petroleum industry. Regulatory targets for emissions management were first introduced in 1998. In 2010, Alberta introduced a requirement for leak detection and repair programs at natural gas plants and compressor stations. Both Alberta and B.C. have introduced methane reduction targets that are aligned with the federal government’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change agreement, which includes a target to reduce oil and natural gas methane emissions by 45 per cent from 2012 levels by 2025.

Rendering of GHGSat satellite measuring methane emissions on the ground.

In response, more effective and efficient technologies are in rapid development to ensure industry can achieve that target on time. The oil and natural gas industry has been collaborating with researchers, entrepreneurs, and with each other to develop new approaches, including:

  • GHGSat, developed by a Montreal aerospace company that specializes in satellite technologies. In 2016, GHGSat launched the world’s first emissions-detection satellite system in collaboration with Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and other companies across several industrial sectors, to test a new approach for measuring GHG emissions coming from industrial facilities and operations around the world.
  • In contrast to ground-based detection and monitoring, GHGSat can take readings from any location, in near real-time, once every two weeks. Readings can be taken in varying weather conditions, and in all four seasons. To date, the system has demonstrated that measurements can be performed with 100 times higher spatial resolution than NASA or other national space agency satellites provide, in order to measure emissions from individual facilities. In the oil sands region, where existing methods to measure fugitive emissions are expensive and require on-site measurements, GHGSat estimates its solution can reduce costs to the operator by more than 50 per cent while offering 12 times more measurements per year.
  • The Alberta Methane Field Challenge is a collaborative venture between industry, the Alberta government and the Alberta Energy Regulator to field-test a number of the most promising new methane detection technologies to see which work best under real-world conditions. The technologies being tested include hand-held and fixed sensors, plus sensors mounted on drones and trucks. Phase one of the challenge was held in June 2019 at a site near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Subsequent phases will be held in fall and winter, allowing the technologies to be tested under a variety of weather conditions.

But wait, there’s more

  • In 2020, GHGSat plans to launch another satellite focused specifically on methane emissions from sources such as oil and natural gas wells, coal mines, power plants, farms and factories around the globe. The orbiter will be equipped with an enhanced spectrometer that can quantify emissions by site every two weeks. GHGSat plans to have 10 satellites of this kind up by the end of 2022 to increase the frequency of data collection.
  • Following in GHGSat’s footsteps is Bluefield Technologies, Inc. which wants to install its optical emissions sensors in a backpack-sized micro-satellite. The company’s proprietary sensors can detect methane “fingerprints” in sunlight reflections, enabling the sensors to pinpoint and quantify methane from emitters around the world. The satellite would provide detailed information on emissions from sites such as well pads, pipelines and refineries with a resolution of 20 metres.
  • Like a rolling lab on wheels, a new technology developed by researchers at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, and licensed and commercialized by Calgary-based Altus Geomatics, consists of commercially available measurement hardware mounted on a truck. The collected information is analyzed to identify type and volume of emissions from a well site, including methane. Operators can use this technology as a screening mechanism to cost-effectively determine which sites need leak repair, by identifying larger emissions that require quick repairs and eliminating the need for costly optical gas imaging.
  • While Canada has pledged to reduce methane emissions by 45 percent by 2025, the goal of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) is to increase industry technology capacity by 45 percent by 2021 at a reasonable cost, helping producers to meet the 2025 target. PTAC anticipates accomplishing this goal will create 2.300 industry jobs while saving the Canadian oil and gas sector $550 million per year. PTAC’s long-term vision is to increase technology capacity by 90 percent by 2030. There are a number of initiatives underway to develop technologies to achieve this goal, such as replacing pneumatic valves with electric equipment to eliminate methane emissions; a large-scale deployment of an analytics platform that will maximize methane emissions reductions, minimize costs, and optimize regulatory instruments; and further work through the Alberta Methane Field Challenge.