Andrew Aubrey knows a lot about how to find methane. As a doctoral student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, he developed instruments to hunt for methane and other organic compounds in lifeless environments like the Atacama Desert, Antarctica, and remote Australia. As an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he helped design sensors to detect methane on Mars.
Now he’s taken the same methane-sniffing technology, put it on a commercially available drone, and is flying it around oil and gas operations around the world. Customers get a 3D report indicating where, when and how much methane is leaking.
It’s not just about cutting down on emissions. Aubrey says his customers are saving money. That’s because a methane leak is essentially a natural gas leak, a sign that the company is letting its product escape into the atmosphere. By spotting those telltale releases, companies are getting a handle on where bigger problems might arise. Methane leaks indicate when old pipes or joints may be about to break, for example, or when something has gone wrong in a storage tank. Larger oil and gas firms that keep their industrial equipment in good shape are the ones monitoring their methane. (Some smaller operators, with their narrower economic margins, may find it more of a nuisance to do so.)
Of course, catching and fixing methane leaks also means the planet benefits as well.
“Nobody likes leaks,” says Aubrey, CEO and co-founder of the Austin-based SeekOps, which detects methane releases for oil and gas clients in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Reducing methane emissions “is a shared goal between industry and regulators,” Aubrey adds.
That goal may not be shared by the Trump White House, which this week announced plans to curtail methane regulations on US oil and gas operations. The energy industry contributes about one third of all domestic methane emissions, followed by landfills and agricultural operations such as large dairies.
Reducing methane is important to slowing global warming because methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, although it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere.
EPA officials say an Obama administration 2016 rule on methane was “a burden” to the industry and is proposing to throw it out. That would save the domestic oil and natural gas industry $17 million to $19 million a year, according to the EPA. That’s a tiny fraction of the industry’s annual revenue, which exceeds $280 billion annually.
Environmental groups fear the EPA rollback will give a green light to smaller oil and gas operations that have had a problem in tightening leaks. In 2018, researchers at the Environmental Defense Fund along with scientists at 12 universities and two federal agencies published a paper in the journal Science concluding that the amount of methane leaking from oil and gas operations was 30 million metric tons per year, or about 60 percent more than EPA estimates. The peer-reviewed paper found the industry wasn’t accurately estimating methane because EPA rules instructed them to use a formula rather than actual measurements.
“One thing we found in our study is a large proportion of emissions come from a small number of sites,” says David Lyon, an Austin-based scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The flip side is most sites have very low emissions. If oil and gas operators are doing things correctly, they can operate at a zero leak rate.”
Lyon says that in recent years, oil and gas operations have installed vapor recovery units to capture methane, much like the devices that capture gasoline fumes at your local filling station. Operators are also using thermal imaging cameras that can see invisible plumes of methane and other hydrocarbon gases. “It gives you a black-and-white video and you can see the plumes of pollution come out,” Lyon says. “Before, you would have to touch each piece of equipment with a sensor.”