Brought to you by the American Petroleum Institute

How Tech is Helping Reduce Methane Emissions

New innovations make it possible to produce more energy with fewer emissions

article teaser

December 22, 2022

Reducing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is a global concern gy, with countries and companies naming it as a priority.

What is methane? Dan Zimmerle, the director of Colorado State University’s Methane Emissions Program, explained, “Methane isn’t the leading contributor to climate change, but it’s a potent short-term greenhouse gas. In terms of global warming potential, methane in the atmosphere is 80 times more powerful in its first two decades than CO2. That’s why methane is a good target to improve the environment in the next decade or two.”

Where Does Methane Come From?

There are many sources of methane emissions, some naturally occurring, others caused by humans. Soggy soil in wetlands, for example, accounts for approximately 30% of global methane emissions[1]. The agriculture and waste management sectors emit more than half of all methane emissions in the United States.

“There are many other people-driven sources of methane, including cattle, landfills, rice farming — the list goes on. If you go after methane from the natural gas industry, you’re only going after part of it, though it is the part that has the easiest knob to turn,” Zimmerle said.

New Innovations

New technology — ranging from drones to smart sensors — is making it more efficient and effective to turn those knobs. And, because natural gas is a critical part of our energy mix, accounting for 24% of global energy consumption[2], ensuring cleaner production and distribution can further help mitigate the effects of climate change.

At production sites across the United States, natural gas and oil companies use cutting-edge technology to detect unwanted emissions toccasionally occuring in the production and transportation of natural gas. The detection data provided by these technologies allows companies to both further expand and refine their processes to reduce emissions even more. It also enables companies to direct investment in programs they know are effective at reducing emissions and facilitates and enhancess energy producers’  proactive maintenance to prevent emissions from ever happening.

Energy companies take a surround-sound approach to monitoring — examining their production and transportation sites from the ground, sky and everywhere in between.

  • Smart sensors. ConocoPhillips, for example, uses a system of smart sensors to record methane emissions continuously. Three to four sensors placed on poles around the production facility measure the amount of methane in the air every few seconds. Any spikes in methane emissions are quickly addressed.
  • Intelligent pipeline coating. As part of the Intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program, Hess has partnered with the University of North Dakota, and the North Dakota Industrial Commission to test a pipeline coating that detects leaks. The pipeline coating contains a polymer that swells when it encounters natural gas. A sensor detects the swelling and alerts a command center for review.
  • Satellite systems. ExxonMobil recently teamed up with Scepter, Inc. to deploy new satellites that enable real-time methane emission monitoring across the globe.

“This collaboration will enable multiple industries to identify the sources of methane emissions around the world in real-time, so that leak repairs or mitigation solutions can be deployed rapidly,” said Bart Cahir, senior vice president of unconventional at ExxonMobil. 

  • Drones. Many energy companies use drones equipped with cameras to identify potential problems. The tech helps to prevent leaks from occurring — and reduces risk to employees by giving the operations team better insight about the condition of facilities in advance.

Companies feed the data collected from their wide variety of smart sensors into supercomputers for analysis. The insights generated from this analysis are helping companies make proactive repairs or replace equipment before it unwanted emissions can occure. This work can help prevent emissions from ever occurring.

Devon Energy, for example, uses real-time, higher-quality data and imagery to constantly monitor its Powder River Basin operations in Wyoming. They use the information to make proactive repairs. Since starting remote surveillance, flaring, spills and downtime have all decreased at the Powder River Basin.

“If we can be more proactive and predictive in terms of when things might go wrong, we have fewer likely incidents, more controlled deployment of spare parts, less travel for people to come to the site, less hot-shotting of spare parts. All of those things have a CO₂ impact,” Dan Jeavons, who works in Shell’s data science department, told Forbes.

Methane Emissions Decline

Analysis and new tech are showing real results. The average methane emissions intensity, a measure of how much emissions relative to production, has fallen by nearly 60 percent across all seven major producing regions from 2011 to 2020. This means American companies are creating more energy with fewer emissions.

One emissions-prevention program, The Environmental Partnership was so successful it now reports only a 0.05% leak occurrence rate on the 100,000 sites it surveyed. The Environmental Partnership is a group of over 100 of the nation’s top energy companies taking action from coast to coast to reduce methane emissions through leak monitoring and repair, installing new low-emissions technology and deploying new processes.

The Environmental Partnership’s flaring program has been effective as well. Flaring is a practice when natural gas is burned instead of used to generate energy because of a lack of capacity, maintenance needs or to safely alleviate pressure. Companies participating in The Environmental Partnership’s program reduced the volume of gas flared by 26% compared to the previous year, even as the number of companies participating in the program grew by 40%. Government approval of new pipelines will help to further reduce flaring by making it possible to transport more gas.

U.S. Leading in Cleaner Production

Thanks in part to these initiatives, natural gas produced in the United States is often cleaner than energy produced abroad. America reports lower methane emissions intensity, than major energy-producing countries like Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.

And U.S. natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, making it a far cleaner option. In contrast, Russian gas transported by pipeline to Europe produces more greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

Russia’s natural gas industry is also far less efficient than the United States. Multiple peer-reviewed assessments have found the U.S. system has a fugitive leak rate of 1% or less, while Russia’s fugitive leak rate is at least 5 to 7%, and like higher since their government has systematically underreported emissions for years.

Peer-reviewed analysis shows that achieving a 1% leak rate could have immediate greenhouse gas reduction benefits, meaning the work the industry is doing — and its already low emissions rate — are vital efforts. New technology will help us continue to build on these advances.

[1] Understanding and Predicting Wetland Methane Emissions

[2] bp Statistical Review of World Energy

Was this article educational?