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Methane rules for oil and gas sector spark innovation around measurement

In January 2020, new federal rules on methane measurement kick in, requiring every oil and gas company in Canada to have a system in place to meet the goals of a 2016 agreement with the U.S. and Mexico to control methane emissions.

The new regime has kick-started innovation in technology and equipment related measuring methane emissions, according to Jackson Hegland, executive director of the Calgary-based Methane Emissions Leadership Alliance.

In many ways, the Canadian sector is leading the world, Hegland told CBC News.

Canada’s oilpatch already has as many companies working in emissions measurement and control fields as the U.S., where the Trump administration is rolling back federal rules designed to meet the international agreement, though some states are still moving ahead with tightening methane emissions rules.

“This is a very good space for Canadian technology and service providers, and will become more so as the regulations become more clear,” Hegland said.

In natural gas production, everyone is dealing with very low-flow volumes. That makes it very challenging to measure.– Jackson Hegland, of the Methane Emissions Leadership Alliance

Solutions for tracking and containing greenhouse gases in the oilpatch have existed for some time. But innovators in the field are now creating methane-specific measurement tools and monitoring, Hegland said.

Methane is a damaging greenhouse gas — up to 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere — and leaks can be emitted at every stage in oil and gas production, from flares at the wellhead, through pneumatic equipment and pipelines, to tanks and processors.

Reducing methane emissions in oil and gas — as well as from other sources, such as landfills and agriculture — is important to meeting Canada’s commitment to combating climate change.

Production of natural gas, which consists primarily of methane, is particularly susceptible to leaks.

There is concern, however, about the amount of information companies need to collect to be compliant with the new rules, Hegland said.

“In natural gas production, everyone is dealing with very low-flow volumes. That makes it very challenging to measure,” he said.

The federal rules say that by January 2020, oil and gas companies must have a general inspection program to scan their systems three times each year for leaks or other operating problems, as well as undergo a compressor maintenance checkup once each year to determine whether there is significant deterioration of the emission control system.

Then there is a need to report to Environment and Climate Change Canada and to the provinces, many of which have methane rules aligned with the federal rules.

By January 2020, companies in Canada must have a general inspection program to scan their systems three times each year for leaks or operating problems, as well as a compressor maintenance checkup once each year. (Bloomberg)

Every oil and gas company, large to small, is investing in equipment to monitor methane leaks, said Jan Gorski, of the Pembina Institute.

“The reason why methane reduction has been put in place is it’s a very cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gases,” he said. “Half the battle is finding where the leaks are and then you just have to repair them.”

Venting from pneumatic systems

One of the problem areas is flares at the wellhead, often from the pneumatic systems or compressors used to run all the controls for the flow of oil and gas, said Henri Tessier, president of the Edmonton-based Calscan Solutions.

These compressors usually have no power source, other than fuel taken directly at the site, and will flare frequently, in part to prevent dangerous buildup of gases. 

Tessier estimates Canada could meet its commitment of a 45 per cent reduction in methane emissions entirely by controlling venting — the release of gas into the atmosphere — from pneumatic systems in the industry.

Calscan has created a control system for venting that runs on solar power or batteries, eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from the process. Companies are already adopting it for new wells. It also has a portable gas meter that can be moved from place to place to measure and record surface-level casing venting on pipelines and at wellheads.

“It’s a worldwide issue and Canada is the leader,” Tessier said. “All the companies around the world are looking at this; they’re working with their shareholders to control methane.”

Fugitive leaks widespread

New technology is also developing around fugitive leaks — small, unexpected leaks of methane from pumps, pipelines and equipment which can be intermittent and difficult to detect.

The Saskatchewan Research Council is experimenting with drones that detect fugitive leaks. A Montreal company, GHGSat, is using both satellites and aircraft mounted with sensors to pinpoint methane emissions.

Process Ecology has created an assessment tool to monitor and eventually capture fugitive leaks from all the different devices that make up an oil and gas company’s systems, before compiling that data so the company is compliant with the new reporting rules.

There is a big mix of different solutions to the measurement of methane right now, said Alberto Alva-Argaez, managing partner of Process Ecology, with some companies going into the field to try to do it themselves.

“I think people are going to find soon that the measurement is quite complicated and they’re going to need some assistance to accomplish it. Especially the small companies don’t have a lot of manpower to do the job, so it’s going to be difficult for them to keep everything in-house,” he said.

Eventually that same technology that detects leaks will help reduce emissions. Alva-Argaez said.

“As soon as something triggers in the output, it goes right into the system. The system takes in samples of the gases, and uses that information to provide real information of how much methane is coming out of the system.”

Software makes reporting easier

New software solutions are being geared to make for easier reporting to Environment Canada or the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

Gathering the data needed for reporting is a “pretty heavy” requirement, said Ted Hart, president of software company Envirosoft Corp., based in Calgary.

“A lot of methane is not monitored. There’s a lot of estimation required,” he said.

Ted Hart, president of Envirosoft Corp., is creating software to help oil and gas producers meet their methane-reporting requirements. (Sean Phillips/Riverwood Photography)

Companies are having to inventory methane output of devices in scattered locations, from high-emitting devices like pneumatic compressors, to pipelines and pumps that may have very small fugitive emissions.

The AER is demanding every company set up a database system for all its methane reporting, Hart said.

Envirosoft’s emissions software compiles methane estimates from across a company’s systems and combines it to meet the reporting regime. The company hosts the software at its Calgary location, so companies don’t need an IT department — just a web browser where they can monitor their status.

That will provide a baseline for change ahead of 2023, when venting limits apply that require oil and gas companies to start reducing methane emissions.

Every one of these innovators has an eye on 2023, with low-cost ways to capture emissions.

Hart’s company sees opportunities in the U.S. and Mexico for his fit-to-purpose software.

“Definitely every company is focused on large emissions reductions,” Hart said. “There is a target for substantial reduction and a lot of technologies are developing for it.”