Gas Industry Eyes Next Giant Leap for Methane Monitoring

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Several US natural gas companies are shooting for the stars — literally — to uncover technologies that will take their methane monitoring efforts forward by leaps and bounds. Their focus: satellite technology, which they say will lead to greater transparency on how much their assets emit.

EQT CEO Toby Rice told Energy Intelligence on the sidelines of the recent CERAWeek by S&P Global that his company — the largest US gas producer — was evaluating about six “satellite-as-a-service” providers, and EQT General Counsel Will Jordan said the Appalachian Methane Initiative (AMI) would decide this year whether to outsource or develop satellite technology internally. The AMI, made up of EQT, Chesapeake and Equitrans Midstream, was formed earlier this year to undertake basin-wide monitoring, consisting of both aerial and satellite surveys.

Interest in the project is growing among other players in the region, Jordan told Energy Intelligence. “We expect we'll be making an update to our membership here in the next couple of months,” he said.

Satellite technology has improved in recent years as non-governmental organizations and nonprofits have taken the lead on using them for methane detection. Some satellites are global mappers that can track emissions over large areas, while others are point-source detectors that can measure small emissions events. However, the Environmental Defense Fund and others are aiming to bridge the gap with the ability to detect small sources of methane emissions over wide areas.

Gas producers and transporters are generally trying to get a hold on their actual emissions figures amid calls from the market for greater transparency and lower-carbon fuels, as well as a patchwork of proposed state and federal regulations. But Appalachian operators such as EQT and Chesapeake are hopeful the data can also influence policymakers and the public and potentially clear the way for approval of needed pipeline capacity in the region.

AMI’s efforts would be “sector-agnostic,” meaning not focused on any single industry or operator, Jordan explained. “The aim there is to build the transparency to allow us to have an alarm bell,” he said on the conference sidelines. “If there were a super emitter happening, we would know about it instantaneously, we'd have the ability to let any operator know about those emissions and be able to stop it. So within this geographic region, we will have the ability to eliminate super emitters, whether they're from coal, natural gas, or what have you.”

The Uncertainty Principle

Antoine Halff, chief analyst for satellite data provider Kayrros, said the industry is doing the right thing by outsourcing this technology, at least for now.

"Image processing is a complex scientific discipline and it is unclear that oil and gas companies can muster the in-house expertise to extract all the value from raw satellite images," Halff told Energy Intelligence. "So the move by some oil and gas companies to build their own satellite resources shows how seriously they take the task of reducing their methane footprint but also shows that they may not yet be ready to really lift the veil on their emissions and to submit their operations to the kind of transparency and verifiability that the market will increasingly require. And that can only be provided by independent, third-party monitoring instruments and analysis."

Many shale operators have already implemented monitoring programs that include satellite data, aerial surveys and ground sensors. But there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to methane management, according to Cody Hays, Permian greenhouse gas program manager at Exxon Mobil.

“I think that that error band is wider than we would like it to be,” Hays said at the conference. “But that's the reason that we're so supportive of progressing continuous monitoring and also continuous methane quantification. Ultimately, this problem is going to be solved by technology and we're going to be progressing technology development in the Permian, amongst other places.”

The US-based supermajor plans to launch 24 satellites over the next three years with partner Scepter, with the first lift-off targeted by year's end.

Hays also said that while continuous monitoring technology is progressing “fairly well.” more work is needed on the back end when it comes to aggregating and translating the data into a solid number. He also noted that some technologies failed to deliver on vendors’ promises when Exxon screened them.

“It's a mixed bag,” he said. “We ran across a number of technologies that just fundamentally failed to deliver on what the vendor said they could do, and also to our own internal performance criteria. And I'd also say is that we had some successes as well.”

Gas: The Next Generation

Meanwhile, midstream giant Williams has invested in two satellite technology companies — Satlantis and Orbital Sidekick — and plans to launch its first satellites this year. The satellites will monitor Williams facilities and data will be processed by the company’s emissions tracking software.

It’s part of Williams’ NextGen Gas initiative, which tracks and certifies the emissions footprint of natural gas at both the wellhead and along the midstream chain, although third parties verify the certifications.

“I think of it as like a multi-lane highway,” said Chad Zamarin, Williams' executive vice president of corporate strategic development. “There are going to be lanes across which you have very low carbon emissions, there might be lanes that have higher emissions. What you're going to do is have customers now not just thinking about geography and price, for some customers it’s going to be how can I put value on getting the cleanest product moved through the cleanest path delivered to my particular location?”

This story was originally published in Oil Daily sister publication Natural Gas Week.

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