How fixing methane leaks from the oil and gas industry can be a game-changer – one that pays for itself
This decade could be the one where methane emissions from the oil and gas industries are eliminated once and for all.
Reducing methane emissions from the energy sector may be one of the most effective methods for preventing further environmental damage. However, levels are not falling fast enough. Despite pledges to act on leaking pipelines and other failing infrastructure, the fossil fuels sector has so far failed to address the growing problem of methane escaping into the atmosphere.
However, as technology advances, the industry has access to more and more tools that can help it not only seriously reduce emissions but do so for minimal cost. By helping refineries detect and act on methane leaks in a cost-effective way, laser absorption spectroscopy may be the solution suppliers need to make a real difference in the fight against climate change. All that is needed is the will to act.
What action is being taken on methane emissions?
Methane leaks in the energy sector are one of the biggest environmental problems facing humanity.
The energy industry is responsible for around 40% of all methane emissions produced by any human activity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 135 million tonnes of methane were released into the atmosphere by energy companies worldwide last year, and despite some progress in reducing emissions from the peak observed in 2019, levels are not falling quickly enough. This is particularly true in oil and gas operations, which account for almost 15% of all energy-related greenhouse gases.
The oil and gas industry alone has the potential to reduce methane emissions by 75%.
This should be cause for concern. Methane has caused approximately 30% of the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, but its inherent properties mean that action to address it should be relatively cheap and simple to take.
Cutting methane emissions is one of the most cost-effective options available for limiting global warming in the near-term. With the benefits of modern technology, the oil and gas industry alone has the potential to reduce methane emissions by 75%, requiring an investment of less than 3% of their total income worldwide in 2022. As more and more energy businesses achieve record profits, addressing this ticking environmental time bomb would require at most a small allocation, as major gains are possible for essentially zero cost.
Minimising temperature change
Although methane is often spoken of in the same sentence as other pollutants such as CO2, the two substances differ markedly in their environmental impact. Methane's molecular structure makes it better at capturing heat in the form of infrared radiation than other substances, trapping up to 100 times more heat than CO2 when released into the atmosphere.
This negative is offset somewhat by methane's comparatively short lifespan. Typically, it breaks down in the atmosphere after just 10-12 years, while other gases like CO2 can last for centuries. As a result, acting on methane leaks is one of the most accessible and effective methods businesses have for limiting global temperature change.
More than 150 countries have promised to reduce their methane emissionsm by a minimum of 30% by 2030.
Governments worldwide are recognising the gains that can be made here. More than 150 countries have promised to reduce their methane emissions by a minimum of 30% by 2030. The IEA is more ambitious, calling for a 60% reduction in emissions by oil and gas companies over the same period - above the 45% reduction that the United Nations claims is necessary to keep global warming below the targets set by world leaders.
A cost-effective solution
Successfully reducing methane emissions will require the industry to demonstrate its commitment to action while employing the latest technology to identify where the biggest leaks are occurring. By doing so, not only will oil and gas companies reduce their environmental impact, but they will also be able to achieve significant cost savings.
Although leaks from oil and gas operations are being monitored, the scale and frequency of this activity is insufficient to address the problem at hand.
Methane emissions in this sector can be broadly broken down into intentional and unintentional leaks. Intentional leaks during upstream production, often in the form of venting, are technically monitored but these records are rarely accurate. Researchers have found that across the oil and gas sector, the true scale of methane emissions released over the last decade is far higher than existing data says it should be.
In the downstream segment of energy production, emissions are even harder to detect. Failing storage and pipeline infrastructure often leads to unexpected methane leaks and given the scale of the pipe networks in operation, anyone trying to locate a leak may have to search over a vast area.
Leaks like this matter because they waste potential profit. Repairing them and preventing the escape of methane means more of the gas can be captured and sold, bolstering profit margins. The problem is in detecting where the biggest leaks are occurring. Regulators and energy suppliers alike would benefit from a more accurate overview of the level of methane being released – and this is where laser absorption spectroscopy comes in.
Laser absorption spectroscopy
Due to methane's infrared-trapping properties, infrared spectroscopy sensors can easily detect trace gases and determine their atmospheric concentrations, often at the range of parts per billion.
In laser absorption spectroscopy, an emitter is used to produce infrared light that is passed through a sampling chamber containing a filter that only allows wavelengths absorbed by methane to transmit. This means only those wavelengths will reach the detector, and measuring the intensity or attenuation of those beams enables the precise quantity of methane to be monitored.
By using different filters, users can change the wavelengths of light that reach the detector, meaning that the technology can also be used to detect different gases and particles.
Recently, some suppliers of gas analyser instruments have enhanced the technology by mounting laser diodes on to thermo-electric coolers. This change enables the laser's wavelength to be tuned to the specific absorption wavelength of different molecules. By exploiting their high-frequency resolution, which provides enhanced sensitivity and discrimination, this technology lowers the risk of false alarms that can plague other common gas detection systems.
Not only do these more advanced laser absorption spectroscopy systems provide faster response times, they also offer users more accurate results without requiring any additional gases to operate. With modern systems including the capability to continuously monitor for combustible gases and vapours, and with immunity to sensor poison, contamination, or corrosion, laser absorption spectroscopy offers an ideal tool for improving the safety of oil and gas industry sites.
Knowledge is power
Through a network of localised methane sensors across oil and gas infrastructure, energy companies can improve the picture of where emissions are occurring and inform government action on the environment.
In business terms, the data collected by laser absorption spectroscopy can be essential for ensuring compliance with environmental regulations, and in improving overall operational efficiency. Leaks may go undetected for months or even years at a time, causing significant costs – a study of one site in the US found that 9% of all methane produced was leaking into the atmosphere, with potential profits literally vanishing into thin air. Better leak detection would enable increased sales of the captured gas, which in turn would mitigate the cost of fixing the leaks in the first place.
In preventing such losses, this technology could even quickly recoup the cost of investment. Researchers have found action with no net cost alone in the oil and gas sector could reduce emissions to 50% below today's baseline by 2030 - essentially, halving emissions for free. If all available technologies are employed, this could rise as high as 80%.
The expense of methane leaks is not limited to lost revenue or damaged energy infrastructure. Research from 2022 found that in the previous decade, gas leaks in the US were responsible for more than $4 billion dollars' worth of damage, and the deaths of 122 people. The ability to detect these leaks before a disaster occurs could prevent incalculable costs to human life and significant fines to the businesses responsible. Worldwide, the UN estimates that cutting methane emissions 45% by 2030 would avoid 255,000 premature deaths per year and save 73 billion hours of lost labour caused by extreme heat.
At Umicore, we specialise in helping companies build dependable climate strategies by enhancing their data sets. Our custom infrared designs, informed by more than 35 years' experience in thin film design and manufacture, mean we can offer a range of bandpass optical filters that enable high-performance gas detection and analysis.
As the deadlines to reduce global temperature rises rapidly approach, it becomes more important than ever that the oil and gas industry can take effective action on methane leaks. However, without a solid foundation of accurate, actionable data, any measures they can take will be limited. The sector needs a clear picture of where methane emissions are occurring – only then will suppliers be able to take the action that is needed to make a difference.
Laser absorption spectroscopy is the tool that industry needs to improve its data on methane leaks. By embracing this technology, suppliers can identify where emissions are occurring, and take action to prevent untold environmental damage, at essentially zero cost to themselves.
Mark Naples, Managing Director at Umicore Coating Services Ltd.
Robust environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies have become integral to day-to-day operations. Functioning as more than just a risk management exercise, ESG is not something that modern companies can afford to neglect. From investors using ESG strategies to evaluate potential investments to assuring the public that they are acting responsibly, companies that prioritise their ESG goals demonstrate that they care about their people and the planet and may also enjoy greater profits, as data shows that those with long-established ESG policies have outperformed their competitors.
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