The Methane Emissions Technology Evaluation Center in Fort Collins, Colorado is like a movie set for the oil and gas industry, complete with wellheads that leak on command. It’s where companies test new products.
CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.
“The companies, sometimes we don’t tell them where the leaks are and they come in to try to find the leaks and then they try to estimate the leak rates and we can tell them how well they’ve done,” said Anthony Marchese, a Colorado State University Professor of Mechanical Engineering who helps direct the center.
On one recent morning, a team from FLIR, a company that specializes in thermal imaging, was trying out a new optical gas imaging camera.
“We’re always trying to make our products better, make them lower cost to the industry demands,” said Craig O’Neill, the Director of Business Development for FLIR’s Optical Gas Imaging division. “And so we’re looking at some next-generation technologies.”
Stray methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and a prime component of natural gas, is a major headache for oil and gas companies. According to one study, two percent of natural gas produced in the U.S. escapes directly into the atmosphere.
“It just has a lot of opportunities to leak out,” Marchese said. “And it’s a gas. It doesn’t want to be confined in these pipes.”
Methane leaks mean lost revenue for oil and gas producers. Methane is also subject to environmental regulations. So many companies are turning to technology to identify and plug the leaks, which can be very hard to find. Nowadays, there are lots of options.
“Our technology allows for 100 % capture, very reliable, very effectively,” said Mike McMahon, EcoVapor C.E.O. He was referring to his company’s ZerO2 Vapor Recovery Solution, a system that pulls methane vapors directly from oil storage tanks, where he said most emissions are typically found.
“All the vapor that’s generated in the storage tanks can be captured and sold, none sent to flare,” McMahon said.
LongPath Technologies uses laser beams that bounce off reflecting mirrors to find methane plumes, often at very long distances.
“This laser emits hundreds of thousands of colors of light all through the infrared and so we can detect not only methane but CO2 and water,” said Greg Rieker, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Colorado Boulder and Longpath’s Chief Technology Officer. “We can use a single device and spread the cost of that device over a large number of potential leak sites.”
A variety of other high-tech methods are being deployed against a problem made more challenging by the natural gas boom and the more than one million wells and kilometers of pipeline in the U.S. The recent Trump Administration proposal to drop federal methane emissions regulations was disappointing, Marchese said.
“Well obviously I don’t think it’s a great idea,” he said.
But many states have their own restrictions in place and Marchese pointed out that the big players in the oil and gas industry remain mostly on board in a methane fight that’s always resisted an easy fix.
“They’ll tell you that they’re doing this anyway and in a sense they are, so I think that’s good,” he said. “It’s good to have some checks and balances.”