Fugitive Emissions - The Road to Best Practice
Life in a Covid-19 world is not much fun; something we can all attest to. One of the things I miss most is the opportunity to go to conferences. It is one of the few occasions where stakeholders from all sides of an industry converge in one place and discuss problems, execution, and best practice from their unique perspectives. Listening to opinions, experiences, and realities from contrasting points of view is important; without it, we risk formulating our ideas and opinions in a vacuum.
One casualty of a locked down world is the ability to form a group consensus regarding best practice.
I am in a very fortunate position in that my day to day role involves speaking with many of the stakeholders in the fugitive emissions world: asset owners and operators, engineering consultants, environmental experts and change-makers within the large oil & gas companies.
I thought it might be interesting to consolidate some of the best practice thinking relating to fugitive emissions programs, particularly considering some of the ambitious ‘net zero’ programs that ‘big oil’ is currently involved with.
Where to start?
I have discussed in previous articles how methane is a particularly pernicious greenhouse gas: over a 100-year period it is around 30 times more potent that CO2. Methane is also valuable, albeit that value is location dependent. If it is being squandered at a geographic location where it can be monetized, then this represents low hanging revenue for the operator.
Methane is emitted at every stage of oil and gas production. It is less expensive to reduce emissions upstream than downstream* but can be profitably recovered in all instances. Moreover, the wider stakeholder community now understands how harmful these emissions are and are insisting on improvements; investors are becoming activist.
Not addressing fugitive emissions is becoming a restriction on access to capital.
Consider a large oil & gas major adopting a ‘net zero’ carbon program. You have a collection of assets spread out around the world, perhaps numbering in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. A priority is to understand what you have out in the field and how much fugitive gas is being emitted.
There are several high-level things to consider: How do you accurately measure the emissions across the asset estate? How often are surveys necessary, to assess the improvement, or otherwise, of an emissions reduction program? What information should I make available to the stakeholder community to show that the issue is being taken seriously? How can I do all of this at scale and keeping costs realistic?
Best practice consensus suggests a four-step program: beginning with a baselining phase. Before any significant improvement program can begin, an organization needs to know how it is currently performing. Baselining is an expensive and time-consuming process but cannot be sidestepped.
The key to a worthwhile baselining stage is to use measuring processes that are similar across the asset estate and irrefutable in their accuracy and consistency.
The quantification of emissions should use modern techniques, not relying on outdated regulatory approaches. The wider stakeholder community should be able to see the approaches taken and the results of this baselining activity; it should stand up to scrutiny.
Monetizing and Monitoring
Once baselining has been performed, it should be clear which assets need to be improved to reduce fugitive emissions and which emissions can be monetized.
Monetization is an important step: it can be used to pay for much of the overall emissions reduction program. LDAR, the process of leak detection and repair, can be prioritized according to the baselining process in stage one.
Monitoring poorly performing assets is essential, else how can improvements be understood.
Monitoring technology tends not be as expensive to implement as the baselining technologies used in our first stage. Lower cost sensors and in-situ monitoring techniques can be used to detect differences in emissions over time. Data collected from these assets can be reported back to stakeholders, internally first and to a wider audience in time, showing how asset performance is improving.
The baselining and monitoring phases of this approach generate large datasets that can be used, with appropriate software, to predict each asset’s fugitive emissions over time.
Prediction is often overlooked as an important and relatively inexpensive approach to optimizing asset performance. Identifying offending assets in advance of leaks becoming real, reduces emissions, potentially reduces valuable product loss, and brings the organization closer to its targets.
The final phase is to demonstrate all the hard work, undertaken above, to the stakeholders who demanded it in the first place.
Having a target is a great start but without some way of demonstrating progress towards goals, it is difficult for stakeholders to have insight into whether these are being achieved.
If the baselining, monitoring, and predicting stages of this proposed approach are carried out appropriately, there will be plenty of good news to share with stakeholders. With real time monitoring of assets, reporting good news becomes a more interactive, involving process and will generate competitive advantage.
So, there you have it, the current blueprint for a successful fugitive emissions net zero campaign: baseline the current asset performance, assess the monetary value it has and use this to prioritize monitoring, use prediction to focus attention on likely emitters and communicate progress to stakeholders through the demonstration phase.
I stress ‘current’ best practice since, by its very nature, this will improve and adapt as it is collaborated on.
It will be interesting to check in on this in a year. Let us hope by then a little normality has returned to the world as well.
*IEA Methane Tracker 2019