Fugitive emissions – the accidental release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as methane – from oil and gas sites are a significant contributor to climate change. In the past, these emissions were accepted as a “cost of doing business” in the industry. Recent legislative changes, however, in the US and EU, market conditions and environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals have forced gas infrastructure players to be more concerned about the costs of fugitive emissions.
Methane emissions are the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide and 80 times more warming. The amount of methane that leaks from industrial sites into the environment is enormous. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 2-3% of gas in the gas supply chain is lost to leaks – but industry sources and studies suggest that actual leak rates are far higher, reducing business efficiencies.
One of the aims of last year’s landmark US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately one billion metric tons by 2030 and significantly reduce particle pollution from fossil fuels. The Act offers industries new or enhanced tax credits for decreased-emission or emission-free technologies, while also introducing a significant fee on methane emissions, starting at $900 per ton and growing to $1,500 per ton by 2028.
The IRA has shifted the onus of monitoring and reporting to oil and gas producers, while imposing strict penalties for non-compliance. This significant tightening of regulatory oversight has oil and gas players taking a long, hard look at how they’re mitigating fugitive VOC gas emissions today and how they can quickly and dramatically improve the results of their efforts to ensure their business can continue to securely operate.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) claims that the largest source of methane emissions is oil and gas operations – which lost over 120 megatons of methane in 2021. Interestingly, the quantity of methane lost – if recaptured and sold – would cover Europe’s shortfall following the recent changes in gas supply following the Russo-Ukrainian war. This means that even before the IRA came along, industries had a powerful incentive to reduce methane emissions.
Traditionally, leak detection and repair (LDAR) monitoring has involved either fixed-sensor or manual roving surveys, which rely on probes carried by workers. These manual inspections are time-consuming, resource-intensive, costly, lengthy and subject to human error. While this method can have limited efficacy for oil and gas facilities in which production equipment is concentrated in one area, it is not viable for checking transmission pipelines or other geographically distributed downstream equipment.
In addition, legacy inspection methods at oil and gas facilities can place employees in harm’s way. Monitoring fugitive gases requires workers to get up close and personal with potentially toxic and explosive materials or climb to dangerously located equipment. Accessing such equipment – if even physically possible – may require costly equipment shutdowns. Even newer monitoring technology like handheld optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras, which allow employees to maintain a modicum of safe distance from hazards, still require some proximity and thus risk.
More advanced methods moving towards the mainstream include a wide-angle Fabry Pérot (WAF-P) imaging spectrometer, which is mounted on low Earth orbit satellites to measure the absorption of sunlight by methane at high spectral resolution. At a lower altitude, some companies offer methane monitoring via fixed-wing aircraft flying over sites and using LIDAR to measure atmospheric methane concentrations around production regions and along transmission pipelines.
The major limitation of orbital or high-altitude solutions is that they excel at indicating geographic areas in which there are leaks and perhaps the extent of those leaks. However, they cannot pinpoint specific leak sources to facilitate immediate remediation.
One promising solution for oil and gas companies is autonomous drones equipped with gas sensors and AI algorithms that can detect and classify fugitive emissions quickly and accurately. These drones can operate without human intervention, providing consistent and frequent monitoring of equipment in remote or hazardous locations, reducing the need for personnel to be exposed to dangerous environments. Autonomous drones equipped with the necessary sensors and AI algorithms can pinpoint specific leak sources to facilitate immediate remediation.
The benefits of using these solutions to detect fugitive emissions at oil and gas sites are numerous. For one, they can save time and money compared to traditional monitoring methods, thereby improving business resilience. Autonomous drones can operate around the clock and AI algorithms can analyze the data they collect in real-time, quickly identifying sources of fugitive emissions. This means that companies can take immediate action to prevent further emissions, reducing the risk of non-compliance with regulations and the associated financial penalties.
Using autonomous drones can also help reduce safety risks for personnel. As they are unmanned, there is no need for workers to enter hazardous environments to conduct inspections. Additionally, autonomous drones can access hard-to-reach or remote locations, reducing the need for personnel to travel to these locations.
Another benefit of autonomous drones is their ability to improve the accuracy of monitoring. AI algorithms can quickly and accurately detect fugitive emissions at oil and gas sites, even in areas where traditional methods might miss them. This means that companies can identify emissions that might have otherwise gone undetected, reducing the risk of compliance issues and associated fines.
Autonomous drones equipped with sensors and AI algorithms have already been tested in the field with positive results. Delek US is an energy company that operates refineries in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Its refining segment has a crude refining capacity of 302,000 barrels per day and includes renewables operations with an annual biodiesel production capacity of about 40 million gallons.
To enhance safety and efficiency, Delek US adopted Percepto’s autonomous drones and AI-based Autonomous Inspection and Monitoring platform (AIM) to collect and manage data from its refineries. This provides Delek US with a unified view of each refinery, generating reports and insights that are automatically disseminated to relevant stakeholders on mobile devices. This enables routine inspection, anticipates trends and prevents environmental and operational failures.
Delek US adopted Percepto to perform remote, programmable and autonomous aerial inspections across its entire refinery operations. Leveraging an autonomous gas emission detection solution at its refinery in Tyler, Texas, Delek US later expanded this solution to its refineries in El Dorado, Arkansas, Big Spring, Texas and Krotz Springs, Louisiana.
Autonomous drones and AI-powered data analysis offer a new level of monitoring fugitive VOC gas emissions, enabling oil and gas companies to find and plug leaks faster and more efficiently, ensure employee safety and dramatically lower regulatory liability – to overall ensure business continuity. This shift in priorities is crucial as emerging legislative initiatives, such as the IRA, continue to place fugitive emissions mitigation front-and-center for executives at oil and gas companies.
Percepto is an autonomous inspection and monitoring solution provider. The company’s AIM platform fully automates visual data workflows from capture to insight, leveraging the Percepto Air drone-in-a-box portfolio, alongside other robots and visual sensors. Using advanced machine learning and AI, Percepto AIM provides an end-to-end autonomous inspection and monitoring solution to assess risk, minimize downtime, drive efficiency, increase safety and reduce operational costs.
This article was originally published in the May edition of Security Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.