For Chris Slubicki of Modern Resources, the vision to be an industry leader in environmental stewardship isn’t just a guide for how to run a business; it’s how this Calgary-based company’s employees and managers live their lives.
“When we started the company in 2012, our view was ‘let’s do things better’,” says Chris Slubicki, president and CEO of Modern Resources Inc.
There’s no better example than the company’s approach to lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
“One area that needed improvement was methane emissions at our well sites. Since most natural gas sites don’t have power, they run valves and pumps off the pressure of the methane, which is then released. Given the present concerns around greenhouse gases such as methane, we needed to find a better way,” said Slubicki.
That need led Modern’s team to the concept of MULE, which stands for Modern Ultra-Low Emission. MULE is a new approach to well site technologies that takes methane out of the equation.
From NASA tech to solar panels: MULE kicks into gear
“The idea for MULE was born several years ago when we were introduced to Trido Energy Inc. and their electric pump,” says James Martin, manager of operations at Modern. “The electric motor won a NASA award for powering the fastest solar-powered device to climb a 100 foot cable, so it has a highly efficient motor.”
“We were intrigued, because we needed an alternative to natural-gas driven pneumatic pumps.”
When Martin and his team tested the electric pump against the pneumatic version – the latter accounting for half the methane emissions on a site – the electric version worked so well they decided to use it exclusively going forward.
By opting for electric-powered pumps, Modern Resources significantly reduced its on-site methane emissions. But their sites were not emission-free yet, and “doing things halfway” is not Modern’s company culture, notes Slubicki and Martin. So they looked at other sources of emissions to see what else could be done. A key area of focus was the valves and controls that regulate the movement of gas through the pipes and tanks at the site.
“I talked to Pam Sherwood, a salesperson at Calscan Solutions [an instrumentation and control company in Edmonton],” notes Martin. “She said they could help us eliminate our methane emissions and power our valve actuation with solar panels. I told her we would need too much power for solar panels to handle, so it wouldn’t work. But she said ‘try me.’ I did, and she was right.”
The last piece of the puzzle was adding methanol-based fuel cells as a backup power supply. Martin’s team found this technology at Simark Controls Ltd. in Edmonton.
“When operating at full capacity, the methanol cell releases fresh water and the same amount of carbon dioxide as a sleeping baby,” notes Slubicki.
With this set of advancements, a near-zero methane emissions site had just gone from concept to reality. The combination of creative minds, environmental commitment and cutting-edge technology made MULE the perfect complement to an oil and gas company evolving to meet the challenges of a low-carbon future.
“It all started with our CEO,” says Martin. “Chris is passionate about the planet and believes in innovation. He was very supportive and allowed me the scope to spend what was needed and get this off the ground. From there, Trido and Calscan were obviously major players, and Simark’s ultra-low emission methanol fuel cell was critical.”
Modern’s low-emissions quest was also aided by a government carbon credit program and Modern West Advisory Inc., which helped them navigate the carbon credit application process.
Also key was the use of SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) communication technology, a core component of the company’s site monitoring system.
“All our sites are remote, and SCADA gives us excellent control and data capture for every site,” says Martin. “Qualifying for carbon credits involves an audit that focuses primarily on data integrity. I believe our advanced SCADA system is vital to that integrity, and thus a big part of securing those credits and making these projects economically viable.”
So just how viable are the MULE sites? For three well pads on a natural gas site, MULE has enabled a reduction of 1,743 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. For oil sites, that figure is 1,036 metric tonnes for three wells. Combined, the total GHG reduction on six wells is equivalent to taking close to 600 cars off the road.
Of the company’s 8 to 10 complete sites, three oil and three gas sites are now fully equipped with MULE, while the remaining ones are at various stages of implementation. Modern notes that from here on, any new wells started by the company will be completely outfitted with MULE.
Upsetting the apple cart: from the boardroom to the field
Bringing MULE to fruition involved a lot of moving parts and late nights, so it helped that the project aligned perfectly with Martin’s values and those of his colleagues.
“Our people are driven by curiosity and not afraid to upset the apple cart. Challenging the status quo is just my way, which is why I’m not in the army anymore,” says Martin. “Modern Resources seemed to draw like-minded people together by making environmental leadership its top priority. Combine that philosophy with a bunch of disruptive innovators, and you get MULE.”
Though success is its own reward, actual awards are nice too. Modern Resources was the 2017 winner of the EPAC Award as Top Private Emerging Producer, and captured the 2018 Environmental Excellence Award at the Global Petroleum Show. As part of the Daily Oil Bulletin’s first annual Energy Excellence Awards this year, MULE was named category champion for “Operational Excellence: Oil and Gas”.
Of course, this kind of success requires team buy-in, and that includes those in the field who play a critical role in testing and refining the technologies at the site, so that they can work in real-world conditions.
“I have a keen interest in forward thinking and pushing the envelope,” says Mike Morris, field superintendent for Modern. “I’m always looking for ways we can do things better, cheaper and more efficiently. From an industry perspective, everyone is responsible for the global emissions issue, but it has to start somewhere. Somebody must take the lead on this, and if it happens to be us, that’s a plus.”
Part of a Canada-made cleantech revolution?
“Modern Resources may be a small piece of the oil and gas sector in Canada, but MULE shows that as a company and an industry, we are progressive and we care about the environment,” says Jim Strange, Senior Facilities Engineer for Modern Resources. “When you look at the emissions we’re saving with our well packages and multiply it by thousands of production facilities across the country, our small contribution could make a huge difference if all of industry gets on board.”
While greenhouse gas emissions from the consumption side of society must still be addressed, Martin sees MULE as a significant step from a production standpoint, and an example he hopes others will follow.
While some of the technologies underlying MULE are new, the key has been the can-do attitude and commitment to environmental innovation emblematic of Canada’s approach to oil and natural gas development. Modern was able to source it’s technologies from a burgeoning clean-tech services sector in Western Canada. And other companies including Shell Canada are developing their own take on low-emissions sites. Modern hopes the approach can continue to spread with Canada leading the charge globally.
“This system can be directly adopted by other companies with no modifications needed,” says Martin. “It may even have potential in other industries. For our sector, however, eliminating methane emissions on well sites is critical to us moving forward as a viable industry. As a result of climate change and global warming, anyone producing oil and gas in Canada will be forced to do better. We must get there as quickly as possible, and MULE is a key component, so let’s get on with it.”
Now that MULE is firmly entrenched with Modern Resources, the road seems inevitable; yet Martin recalls it differently.
Martin notes, “Trying something new in the oil industry takes a bit of courage and the ‘can do’ attitude of the Canadian Prairies, as retrofitting a well is very expensive.
“Conversely, if you’re putting it on a new well which is of higher value because it producers more oil and gas, failure will put your production at risk, and that’s where the courage comes in. I could have been known as the guy who built something that didn’t work and killed our cash flow, so it’s one of those ‘hero-or-zero’ moments.”
Martin’s “buck-stops-here” attitude is one CEO Chris Slubicki admires, and it’s why he strongly supports the effort to make MULE possible. As an avid outdoorsman who “goes north on vacation while everyone else goes south,” Slubicki is intent on protecting the environment today and preserving it for tomorrow, and he’s proud of MULE and his team’s role in that.