PODCAST: Taking the lead in methane cleantech

Scientist Arvind Ravikumar discusses a competition to develop methane detection innovations and how it could help Canada become an oil and gas cleantech leader.

When methane is released in the atmosphere, it becomes a strong greenhouse gas (GHG). One way Canada’s natural gas and oil producers are working to reduce GHG emissions associated with their operations is by reducing, and eliminating where possible, methane emissions at their sites.

Innovation is a key aspect of this goal. Producers are searching for new technologies that can measure and monitor methane emissions in an accurate and cost-effective manner—technologies that can work in the real-world, including under different seasonal conditions.

Professor Arvind Ravikumar of Harrisburg University discusses how Canadian oil and natural gas producers are helping to innovate new tools to measure and monitor methane emissions through the Alberta Methane Field Challenge—and how this could be a stepping stone for Canada into a global $23 trillion cleantech industry.

Full transcript of podcast

Tonya: Hello and welcome to another edition of Energy Examined, the podcast where we talk about some of the biggest issues facing Canada’s oil and natural gas sector with industry insiders in the know. I’m your host Tonya Zelinsky and I do think today’s show is going to be a very special treat for anyone who is interested in environment and innovation, particularly here in Canada when we’re talking about oil and natural gas development. I am joined by Arvind Ravikumar, associate professor of energy engineering from the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. Thank you so much for joining me here today Arvind.

Arvind: Thank you for having me.

Tonya: You are here – right now we’re in Calgary – you’re here working on a special project that is spearheaded by the Alberta Upstream Petroleum Research Fund called the Alberta Methane Field Challenge. Now, although we are in fact recording this at the beginning of June, the project itself will be running between June 10th and the 21st near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. And it’s basically a great big challenge to test new technology for detecting methane, is that correct?

Arvind: Right, that’s correct.

Tonya: Well, okay, so that’s my – that is, you know, my Coles Notes version of what it is, but why don’t you tell me a little bit more about the project itself? What exactly is the Alberta Methane Field Challenge?

Arvind: Sure. So, there’s been a lot of interest in figuring out ways to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. And because there are new policies in place, both in Canada and the United States, companies are looking for the most cost-effective approaches to reduce methane emissions. And one of the things that has happened in the past five years is that there’s been a lot of new technologies and start-ups that are developing new systems, not just traditional systems where you go and check for leaks in your facility, but sensors that are now put on trucks or drones or planes, and a whole host of new platforms to detect methane effectively and efficiently.

And so the question now is, there are all of these great technologies out there – how do we know that they work? How do we know that they actually detect methane emissions so that we can reduce them in the future? And so, this Alberta Methane Field Challenge is sort-of the first of its kind study where we bring in about eight to ten technologies, various platforms, and put them on an actual oil and gas site to see how they detect methane emissions–because a technology can work great in a lab setting, but getting it out into the field and having it operate under real conditions with constraints of oil and gas operations, of weather, and a whole host of other issues is critically important to understand how this technology works and how cost-effective it will be compared to current approaches.

Tonya: So, now you said there are eight or nine different technologies, and to be clear, these are not just technologies developed by one innovator. These are a variety of different groups that are testing different technologies.

Arvind: Right.

Tonya: Different teams.

Arvind: Right, exactly. And this is why I said it’s sort-of first-of-its-kind study because we solicited applications through a competitive process and we received about 20 to 30 applications, and we had to select eight or ten because of the constraints of having a field campaign. And so, these are different start-ups from the U.S. and Canada, and they are going to come here for this two-week period for this field survey. There have been some tests before. I conducted one last year called the Mobile Monitoring Challenge, which was to test some of the new technologies in a controlled setting, but this is the first time we are getting these technologies out into the field to test how they perform when oil and gas operations are ongoing.

Tonya: So, now how large of an area is this? You said it’s an active operation. So are you able to comment on how large this area is because I’m thinking eight or nine different technologies – it could get awfully crowded out there.

Arvind: Right, so we have selected a total of about 50 sites spread around about 20 to 30 kilometres and typically we have a schedule where a technology is maybe with five to six sites a day. And because there are 50 sites and seven or eight technologies, they’ll be spread out over these 50 sites. There’s also the fact that a lot of these technologies are very different. For example, we have plane technologies that fly over and measure emissions, so they don’t affect operations on the ground. There are fixed technologies, so you just put them on a site and they continuously measure and you don’t have to do anything to that technology. And then you have trucks, and then you have drones, so they’re all very different, so that they all don’t end up on the same site in terms of having a traffic jam so to speak.

Tonya: So how did you – you said you had over 20 different applications – how did you narrow it down to these specific groups?

Arvind: That’s a very good question. We had a lot of different criteria to select these technologies. One is, how advanced the technology is– is it ready for field deployment? Then, the business aspects of the technology, whether they’re ready to scale if it gets approved in the next few months. We used all these criteria, but the main thing was that these technologies should have some form of testing done beforehand, at a controlled facility.

Tonya: So these aren’t just right out of the lab and onto the site?

Arvind: No, it’s not, because when you start getting into an oil and gas facility, you have to think about operational issues and safety concerns. And so getting a technology right from the lab into an oil field can pose a risk both for the technology provider, as well as the operator, where activities are going on. And so we wanted to make sure the technologies we bring here have some form of testing done beforehand and that we know they can do this measurement in an oil and gas facility.

Tonya: Is two weeks enough time to really measure this or is this just Phase One of this project?

Arvind: Right. This is Phase One of the project. One of the most important concerns, especially in Canada, is how these technologies perform under different weather conditions. For example, summer is very different from winter. You have certain cameras that look at methane emissions. The problem is those cameras might not work if there is snow on the ground.

Tonya: Well, you’re in Alberta. That could be any time of year here.

Arvind: Exactly!

Tonya: You could get snow, rain, sun – you name it here. So, welcome to Alberta!

Arvind: Exactly. And so that’s a big part of having this as Phase One of the field project. We are testing it under summer conditions, summer-ish conditions, I guess. But we would also want to do it in winter conditions. And so when you talk about innovation and technology and all these companies, it’s not that all of them will be applicable all the time to detect methane emissions. It may be the case that some technologies are used in certain conditions and in certain facilities, while other technologies are used in different conditions. That’s the whole advantage of having a lot of different technologies. You can suit the problem to the right solution.

Tonya: So I know you touched on this before when you were explaining the challenge itself, but why are we seeing so much methane detecting technology being developed? Is it because there’s been so much interest to improve our environmental footprint? Does it have to do with the Paris Agreement? Or is this just the evolution of industry?

Arvind: There are a couple of different reasons why it’s becoming a big deal now. One is concerns over climate change and its impact on daily life is increasing all over the world. You just saw wildfire smoke all over Alberta a couple of weeks ago. And things like that are at the top of people’s minds. And so this reflects on what companies do in terms of their social license to continue operating oil and gas facilities right here in Alberta. That’s definitely part of it. The other side of it is technology development and innovation. Methane detection, methane sensors have sort-of gotten stuck in the 1970s in terms of technology for a very long time.

Tonya: So, I’m sorry – you said 1970s?

Arvind: Yes.

Tonya: Why is that? I’m sorry to interrupt you there. But why would it be stuck in 1970s technology?

Arvind: Because there was no incentive to actually develop these – there was no policy to reduce methane emissions. So there was not a market for all these new sensors. But now public perception is changing. Companies are thinking about their sustainability and social responsibility. And therefore, with all these policies in place, there is a lot of interest in developing more cost-effective methane technologies. And that innovation is what you’re seeing in all these different companies that are being developed and started. Right now there are about 20 to 40 companies in the U.S. and Canada working on these things and it’s a good thing because the oil and gas industry is very diverse. What works for a pipeline might not work for a large processing plant. And so you have all of these different technologies that are best suited for certain types of facilities or certain environmental conditions. And it’s great both for the operators as well as the regulator that there are so many technologies so you can choose the most cost-effective option for your facility and your conditions.

Tonya: So, you bring this to an interesting area because one thing I wanted to ask you is, do you feel that there is this misperception out there that oil and natural gas industries aren’t doing anything when it comes to trying to reduce their emissions? Or, they’re just doing the bare minimum? Is that accurate or is this, in fact, a step change – a project like this – and I’m stumbling over this, so let me rephrase this question here. Is there a misperception that the oil and natural gas industry is not doing enough, or just the bare minimum to help reduce their emissions?

Arvind: I think it’s a great question. I would say yes and no. A lot of this work – the Alberta Methane Challenge – is being championed by the [oil and gas] industry and that’s a great thing. And this is the sort of thing that industry should get out in front of to say, ‘hey look, this is what we are doing. We want to be sustainable, we want to reduce emissions in our facilities, and we want to do it in a cost-effective manner.’ And so the oil and gas industry – it’s not a monolith though people tend to talk about it as a monolith – but there are very good companies whose operations are very clean and they have far fewer emissions than average. But there are also not-so-good operators whose emissions are much higher, whose maintenance practices may not be state-of-the-art. And so, there’s this wide diversity within the industry that sort-of muddles the message of where the industry is and where they want to go.

That’s one part. But the second part is in its messages. The oil and gas industry – I speak with operators a lot, both in Canada and the United States and I know that many of them, if not all of them, are concerned about sustainability. They want to reduce emissions from their operations and they are for sensible regulations to limit emissions. But that message is not going out as the industry speaks as a whole. For example, things like, you know, carbon tax – a moderate carbon tax – privately, many companies might be okay with that, and they would welcome that to move the company in a certain direction. But the industry as whole should come out and say, ‘hey, we want a carbon tax, we are okay with it and we care about sustainability in Canada. This is what we want to do to help the industry.’ And not just near term. This also helps in the long term because when Canada – when Trudeau or someone else – goes to international planned agreements and talks about the efforts Canada’s undertaking to reduce emissions, he or she can say, ‘ look, Canada’s having a carbon price. Our products are getting cleaner by the day, and so if China or some other country does not have carbon emissions constraints on their products, we will have to impose broader carbon adjustments.’ To basically say, ‘we are doing our part here, so let’s all come together and get this fixed.’

Tonya: It’s more a question of public image. Industry as a whole just needs to be more vocal about what it’s actually doing. And, in this project, as I said, this was launched through the Alberta Upstream Petroleum Research Fund, and that is essentially a huge collaboration of the Government of Alberta, the Alberta Energy Regulator and you said, industry, so groups like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada, and so forth–they’re all contributing to this project, right?

Arvind: Yes. And that’s great. Those are the important things. As much as the oil and gas industry has contributed to climate change through the years in terms of emissions, they’re also best positioned to have the most advanced technologies and innovation out into the market and deployed at scale and reduce their costs. And so, it’s sort-of a real opportunity here: concerns about climate change as well as increasing natural gas operations, for example, you have Shell Canada starting its LNG facilities. And so there’s a real opportunity to bring innovation into the market, deploy these new technologies here, have these companies start their operations right here in Calgary or somewhere else in Canada and this will create good jobs.

These are not something that can be done remotely. These are actual physical work that you have to get on facilities, develop these drones, planes and sensors. These are all high-tech, good jobs that can come here. And it’s going to be a huge industry. The question is, who does it first? If Canada does it first, if there’s a policy that says you can use drones or you can use planes or you can use this innovation across industry, companies are going to set up shop here in Calgary. But if some other country does it first, they’re going to set up there, and just have field operations out here into Canada. So the question is, who moves first? I just read a report that said the innovation industry for sustainability and clean technology is about $23 trillion.

Tonya: Oh, that’s huge!

Arvind: Yes, and Canada’s economy is about $2 trillion. Even if you get a fraction of that $23 trillion industry right here in Canada, that would be a huge boost to the Canadian economy.

Tonya: So then, who is doing it first? As you said, this is the first challenge of its kind that’s been done, but are we the first? Are we among the first that are trying to develop this technology?

Arvind: Yes, at least at this scale. There’s been a lot of work in the United States that I’m involved with. We are actively looking at new technologies. In fact, we are also working with state regulators trying to advance new technologies and get them to a place where they can be used in regular methane mitigation policies. But Alberta, AER and this project is the first time where we are bringing in a lot of different technologies to be tested right out in the oil field. And I think that’s something new. There have been oil and gas companies that have done it privately, but the results are often not public. It’s for their own company’s use. And doing this study in a manner that’s public is critical, not just for the industry and AER, but also to talk about how big of an opportunity this is in terms of getting these new technologies and innovation into the market.

Tonya: So needless to say, at $23 trillion forecast, that there is definitely a market out there for a wide variety of technologies that are targeting methane leak detection. Now, the teams that are involved in the Alberta Methane Field Challenge, are they North American based or Canadian based?

Arvind: Yes, they’re mostly Canadian and U.S.-based. I think it’s about half and half right now, but I’m not exactly sure. I’ll have to go check on that. But it’s half-Canadian, half-U.S. based companies. But the oil and gas industry is very integrated between the two countries, so often, companies that are headquartered in the U.S. have separate Canadian operations, Canadian wing of their operations that’s being handled out of Calgary. And so, it’s a little different in terms of answering where they are located, but we have a good mix of both Canadian and U.S. operators.

Tonya: Well, turning things around a little bit on more of a personal note. I was reading a little bit of your bio, of course, before we spoke. And you’re self-proclaimed that you are – I’m getting this wrong so let me start again. I was reading your biography and that you said you believe that climate change is the biggest existential threat facing humanity. So what exactly do you mean by that?

Arvind: That’s a very good question. So, as people, we know of different threats. We look at road accidents. We look at earthquakes and things like that. We’re aware of the risk associated with it. When I say climate change is an existential crisis, what I mean is that it starts to affect the everyday things we take for granted. For example, buying homes is a sure-fire way of getting into the middle class. So when we buy homes, we look at the quality of local schools, the quality of the infrastructure around the house. We don’t think about what’s going to happen if my house floods every two years. What’s going to happen if there is a massive forest fire that’s going to burn my house every three years. And those are all being exacerbated by climate change. They are more intense, they start earlier and they grow for far longer than they used to.

So these are things that start affecting our way of life. And so it becomes a pervasive problem that’s on the back of your mind. And that’s why it’s an existential crisis because these are things we never cared about when we were buying a house or when we are thinking about where to live. And then you have droughts, and then you have diseases that get worse as the climate warms. It’s especially intense in Canada because Canada’s warming twice as fast as the global average because of its latitude. And therefore, as we keep seeing more and more impacts of climate change affecting our daily life, it’s something that we can’t ignore. It’s always there. At that point you have to do something.

I mean, it’s really important to start now because everything you can think of in terms of infrastructure – your roads, your buildings, your bridges, your LNG terminals – if you build them now, they’re going to be there 30 years later. So people talk about mid-century de-carbonization, so reducing emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 – 2050 is only 30 years away and everything you build now, LNG terminals, houses, roads and bridges will be there in 2050. So the question is now how are we going to be sustainable and reduce emissions by 2050, the question is it’s what are we doing now, so that by the time we get to 2050 we are at a much better place in terms of tackling climate change?

Tonya: So basically looking at it from the long-term before we hit that point when we are in crisis mode.

Arvind: Right.

Tonya: Well, going back to the challenge itself. It’s a two week-long challenge. What are the steps after that? I know that you talked about different climates and so forth, understanding how methane emissions are detected, but is there a hope that from this information, it might help influence or impact government policies, regulations, how the energy sector does its business? What is the expectation?

Arvind: Absolutely. That’s the best part about working with the industry and the regulator at the same time. Often, when you look at academic research, what happens is, someone does the research, publishes a paper and then takes it to the industry or the government, saying ‘hey, look, this is what we found. Adopt this.’ And there’s a big problem there because there’s been no trust involved. For someone to adopt your suggestions or your solutions, people should trust each other – groups: industry, academia and the government.

And so, having all of them involved right from the start, it’s a great way to get to a place where once we know what the right answer is, the industry and the regulator will be ready to adopt those solutions. And so, what’s going to happen in this challenge is that, once we finish this, we are going to look at how the teams performed, and we’ll give a report to – there will be a publicly available report – and a paper and we’ll work with the industry and the regulator and talk about what worked and what didn’t work in terms of what the technologies are doing well, where they can improve.

This is important for the technologists as well because they need to know what’s the best thing they need to do for their technology to be effective at these facilities to detect methane. At the same time, operators and regulators will get an idea of what are these new things, how do they work?

Right now, if you say we are going to use a drone at an oil and gas facility to detect methane, most regulators cannot even imagine what that looks like because they haven’t seen that before. And so, this is a great way to familiarize people with all the innovation that’s happening in this field. And I think that’s really critical for any of these technologies to be adopted in a policy framework and used in widespread deployment.

With methane, there’s always a chicken and egg problem. The regulators used to say, ‘we can’t approve this new technology because we don’t know what it is and we don’t know if it works.’ And operators will say, ‘If you don’t approve this, there’s no point in us paying for these technologies to come and look for methane emissions in our facilities.’ And so, this project sort-of solves that chicken and egg problem. We all come together and say, ‘okay, let’s test all of these things, let’s see how they work. And let’s see what the future for these new technologies is going to be in the oil and gas industry.’

Tonya: Well, I’m really interested to see how this does work out. Anytime I hear that there’s a challenge, I get very excited. It makes me think of The Amazing Race. I don’t know why – no one’s racing to do this. Although I suppose in a way, Canada is trying to race and be among the first to develop this type of technology.

Avind: Right, right.

Tonya: Thank you so much Arvind for joining me here today. If anyone wants to find out more information, they can go to auprf.ptac.org/albertamethanefieldchallenge. Thank you for joining me Arvind. Good luck when you’re out there in the field and I hope that maybe you’ll come back and share some of the results with us.

Avind: Definitely. And thank you very much for having me.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Arvind Ravikumar Associate Professor of Energy Engineering, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Pennsylvania