Satellites helping the oil and gas industry reduce methane emissions

Jean-Francois Gauthier's picture
Jean-Francois Gauthier, Director, Business Development, GHGSat Inc.
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Throughout the week at Gastech 2018 in Barcelona, the importance for the gas industry to reduce its methane emissions was front and centre. On the opening day, Shell announced ambitious new methane emissions intensity targets of 0.2% by 2025 for all of its oil and gas assets. A few days later when the conference was concluding, US companies ExxonMobil, Chevron and Occidental joined the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) to bring its membership up to 13 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, now accounting for over 30% of the world’s total production.

Natural gas is a key driver in world energy markets and an important asset in addressing climate change because of its advantages over other fuels such as coal. The numbers vary depending on the specific studies, but the conclusions are universally agreed: natural gas emits about half of the CO2 compared to coal and doesn’t generate SO2, NOx and particulates. However, for gas to deliver on its promise, methane leaks from production to end users must remain below approximately 3% (exact figures vary slightly depending on the source). As Maarten Wetselaar, Shell’s Integrated Gas & New Energies Director, explained in his address at Gastech 2017 in Tokyo, “ (…)we’re at risk of undermining the credibility of the place of gas in the future energy mix if high levels of methane are emitted across the value chain of delivery of our product.”

Thankfully in recent years, several new technologies have made it easier for oil and gas operators to detect and quantify methane emissions so they can be better understood, managed and ultimately reduced. One of the most promising new technologies is satellite monitoring of methane emissions. Several systems are in varying stages of development, including wide-area monitoring systems such as Tropomi (this instrument launched on ESA’s Sentinel 5P spacecraft in 2017) and high-resolution systems such as GHGSat (a demonstration satellite called “Claire” was launched in 2016). 

Satellite systems offer several unique benefits for the oil and gas industry:

  • Upstream - Satellites help operators find big leaks from assets scattered across vast territories faster and at a far lower cost than any other technology.
  • Midstream - Older networks can be monitored without the need to install new equipment.
  • Downstream - Storage facilities can be routinely monitored without deploying personnel.

In all these examples, there is no need for site access and related health, safety or security considerations to review. Also, the ability to quantify emissions from satellite monitoring can differentiate unusual emissions from those due to normal operations.  

Different satellite systems can also work together to serve the oil and gas industry. For example, a proposed satellite called MethaneSAT (planned for launch in 2021 by the Environmental Defense Fund) can “tip and cue” high-resolution systems like GHGSat. Since GHGSat’s satellite is specifically designed to monitor greenhouse gas emissions directly from industrial sites, it has a relatively small field of view (approximately 12km by 12km). As GHGSat adds more satellites to its system, it will soon be possible to revisit sites daily if required. GHGSat will also be able to use MethaneSAT’s wide-area coverage to enable it to focus its resources on high-risk areas.

Once data is acquired by these satellites, analytics can be applied to provide more actionable insights to customers. GHGSat has a multi-year head-start in developing such algorithms given the launch of its demonstration satellite in 2016 and has publicly announced the development of artificial intelligence algorithms based on its unique data.

What about smaller leaks? Satellite systems such as the one now being demonstrated by GHGSat are capable of detecting over 50% of the total volume of methane emitted by oil and gas sites in the form of the medium to large leaks which are of most concern to operators from an environmental, safety and loss of revenue perspective. In order to also identify the smaller leaks in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible, weekly or bi-weekly affordable satellite monitoring can be combined in a tiered system with more costly quarterly aircraft campaigns and yearly optical gas imaging (OGI) camera surveys. 

In September 2018, GHGSat announced a round of funding with a group of investors led by the OGCI. The company has two additional satellites in construction for launch in mid-2019 and early 2020 as well as an aircraft variant of its sensor scheduled to be operational in the summer of 2019.

Altogether, the future of satellites serving a key role in monitoring methane emissions appears bright.

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Image courtesy of GHG Sat Inc.