Tracking Down Methane Leaks and
other types of GHG. Bloomberg reports.
The World’s Big Hidden Polluters
As reported by Bloomberg.
Illustrations: Maria Chimishkyan for Bloomberg Green
The Tech Tracking
Down Methane Leaks
satellites to drones to cameras, here’s the gear helping scientists,
activists, and regulators crack down on harmful methane leaks around
By Naureen S Malik and Aaron Clark April 16, 2021, 9:01 PM PDT
In the fight against global warming, methane has flown under the
radar for years as activists and scientists focused on curbing
carbon dioxide emissions. But this odourless and colorless gas is
about 80 times more potent than CO2 in the first two decades after
getting released into the atmosphere, and in recent years it has
jumped to the top of everyone’s climate to-do list.
President Joe Biden is considering singling out methane for
significant reductions as he prepares to unveil an ambitious pledge to
cut all greenhouse gasses. China’s five-year plan announced in March
included its first-ever pledge to contain the gas. The United Nations
and European Commission expect to publicly launch their International
Methane Emissions Observatory later this year to speed efforts to
tackle this problem around the world.
The need for action became evident earlier this month, when the U.S.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the increase in
global atmospheric methane concentrations last year was the biggest on
record – a sharp contrast to the pandemic-fuelled drop in carbon
One of the most effective ways to restrict methane is to stop energy
companies from releasing it. It’s the primary component of natural
gas, and producers have a lot of incentive to do their part – leaks
from faulty equipment are both wasted product and a potential source
of reputational damage.
For some oil companies, when emissions are a byproduct of the
production process, there can be less urgency to contain them.
Explore dynamic updates of the earth’s key data points
The big challenge in stopping these emissions, though, starts with
identifying them in the first place.
Fortunately, detection devices have come a long way since the days
when operators sprayed soap onto pipes or threw a tarp over equipment
to check for leaks. Microwave-sized satellites and sensor-equipped
cars are among the many innovations that promise a new era of climate
been detecting large methane plumes for years, but until recently the
images were no more than a blob spread over a wide area. A
breakthrough came in October 2017, when the European Space Agency
launched the Sentinel-5 Precursor. This effort enables more-refined
images that can help identify the biggest leaks. The ESA also
distributes its data for free, fostering a constellation of startups
that analyze the output.
There are gaps in current satellite capabilities, such as when clouds
are present or when facilities are offshore. Nevertheless, more
advances are on the way, with the promise of ever-greater granularity.
Manufactured by Airbus SE
ESA’s satellite orbits the Earth 16 times a day observing atmospheric
concentrations of methane, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.
Sentinel 5P observations were used to identify a gigantic plume of
methane that drifted over Florida in May last year, triggering an
investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The project
generates about 1 terabyte of data per day, which it gives away for
About a 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) field of view; 15 parts per
billion per 5.5km x 7km pixel Cost €240 million ($283 million)
Iris and Hugo
Manufactured by GHGSat Inc
for the children of scientists at the company, the twin devices orbit
once every 15 days and produce fine-grained imagery that can identify
the source of leaks to within 75 feet. Iris spotted a massive methane
plume from energy infrastructure in Turkmenistan in 2019. After GHGSat
raised the alarm through diplomatic channels, the leak was plugged.
Others observed by Hugo in February may be ongoing, but confirmation
is difficult because it’s been cloudy, says GHGSat founder Stephane
Germain. The ability to pinpoint leaks from individual wells,
pipelines, coal mines, and even landfills can provide a windfall for a
range of end users. Investors, for instance, can use GHGSat data to
assess whether an operator is abiding by environmental rules and
managing raw materials properly.
About a 12-sq-km field of view; 18 ppb per 25m x 25m pixel
“Single millions” of dollars per satellite, Germain says
Manufactured by MethaneSat LLC, a subsidiary of the Environmental
The launch in October 2022 will be the first mission to provide the
leak rate from global oil and gas production. The data will enable
investors and governments to track and compare emissions across a
range of sources over time. EDF is already working with Harvard and
the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to analyze and present the
data to the public in almost real time to spur quick action to contain
leaks. Its goal is to cut methane emissions from the coal and gas
industry 45% by 2025.
At least a 200km field of view; as low as 2 ppb from areas as small as
100m x 400m
Cost $88 million.
Government agencies and independent researchers use airplanes and
drones to scour for leaks with greater precision than satellites. Some
oil and gas producers are using them to increase the frequency
surveys that would otherwise require significant time to drive out and
inspect manually or with car-mounted devices. Although airborne gear
may be better able to pinpoint leaks than fixed equipment, they have
limits—surveillance can’t be done continuously, so there’s space for
leaks to fester between flyovers.
Shell-Avitas drone and AI development program
Manufactured by Avitas, a venture of Baker Hughes Co.
Drone-mounted infrared cameras
capture images of methane plumes, which are then analyzed by
artificial intelligence to identify problem spots. In January, Avitas
notified Royal Dutch Shell Plc, one of its key customers, that it had
detected a potential leak from a hatch atop a high-elevation storage
tank at its central production facilities in the Permian Basin. These
types of spots are difficult to assess, but in this case, Shell was
able to deploy its maintenance team immediately to investigate and
repair the leak.
Can survey 500 acres in 15 minutes, potentially visiting 30 to 50
sites a day; can catch leaks as small as 2 standard cubic feet per
Cost $50,000-$200,000, depending on the payload
Visible-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer–Next Generation, aka Aviris-NG
Manufactured by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
A plane such as a King Air
B200 hauls NASA’s next-generation spectrometer over a range of sites,
from oil and gas fields to farmland. As part of the California Methane
Survey, which ended in 2018, the plane identified more than 550
leaks—and determined that only 10% of these were responsible for the
majority of emissions in the survey. The same system has also been
used to survey land ice levels in Greenland and the impact of smoke
from wildfires on vineyards in Sonoma, Calif.
1.8km field of view when flown at an altitude of 3km; 9 ppb per 3m x
Cost More than $5 million
On-site devices are great for spotting some of the smallest leaks,
down to a single faulty valve or tiny pipeline puncture. The
granularity of their findings highlights how uncovering fugitive
methane is a matter of layering information from space, air, and land.
Energy companies and utilities are among the key users of this gear.
But disclosure of data from this surveillance can vary, particularly
as variations in reporting rules may let some operators keep
information private. Some environmental groups have successfully used
handheld devices to scan oil and gas sites, but their ability to
monitor these locations may be compromised by restrictions on their
access to private property.
Picarro vehicle-based sensor
Manufactured by Picarro Inc.
system uses a technique called cavity ring-down spectroscopy to detect
the presence of methane. Picarro then uses atmospheric models and wind
measurements to help determine a leak’s origin. Detectors are mounted
on vehicles, which are then driven along pipeline distribution
networks. Utilities such as California’s Pacific Gas & Electric are
using Picarro’s technology to identify and halt releases on their
distribution networks. The approach was pioneered as a way for
utilities to comply with safety regulations but has since expanded to
quantify fugitive emissions.
As far as 150 meters; as small as a half cubic foot an hour
Cost Varies according to equipment used and distribution network size;
can be in the low 10s to a few 100s of dollars per measurement per
Manufactured by Project Canary
solar-powered devices are installed around well sites to create a
network that—along with analysis of local wind speed and air
pressure—can detect and pinpoint the source of excess methane. Each
device uses cellular networks and cloud servers to transmit instant
alerts of leaks to operators. So far they’ve been installed at well
sites in Colorado and Pennsylvania. EQT, the largest U.S. natural gas
producer, will try out Canaries on two of its well pads in Appalachia.
Operators using Canaries can get a TrustWell ranking, an industry
indicator of compliance with environmental standards.
Scans once per second; detects 99% of typical onshore upstream leaks
within 12 meters, 85% of leaks within 100 meters, down to 250 ppb
Cost $387 per device, per month
FLIR GF620 andQL320
Manufactured by FLI R Systems Inc.
GF620 is an optical gas imaging camera, able to detect gas compounds
in the infrared light spectrum. The QL320 is a quantitative optical
gas imaging tablet, which can record and quantify leaks the camera
detects. Both are handheld, allowing pipeline operators and service
personnel to carry them into remote or hazardous locations and
accurately pinpoint leak rates in seconds. The Bayernoil refinery
complex in southern Germany uses FLIR’s imaging system to detect gas
discharges, particularly from its piping systems.
More than 30 meters; less than 1 gram per hour
GF620 camera, about $100,000; QL320 tablet, $25,000
Trained by K9 Pipe Inspections LLC
of Malinois, Dutch shepherds, and German shepherds head out into the
field with their human handlers—primarily in the Permian Basin and
Bakken shale drilling regions—to sniff out a proprietary tracer
odorant injected into a pipeline. After a new pipeline in Texas failed
a hydrostatic test early last year and digital detection devices
failed to locate the problem, a K9 unit discovered two microleaks. The
dogs can work in the wind and rain, and at night, and are useful when
conventional instruments aren’t sensitive enough. Their ability to
find microleaks from buried lines can save companies the cost of
excavating large areas to assess equipment.
Teams typically cover about 8 to 12 miles a day and can detect leaks
from lines buried as deep as 12 feet; leaks as small as 1 ppb
Cost At least $15,000 to fully train a dog, plus toys and treats
Green Play Ammonia™, Yielder® NFuel Energy.
Spokane, Washington. 99212
509 995 1879 cell, Pacific.