Finding and Fixing Fugitive Bakken Gas Emissions

Even as North Dakota’s oil and gas industry gets up to speed on using thermal imaging cameras to spot and repair gas leaks, researchers are working on the next generation of technology that’s expected to be less expensive and more efficient.
By Patrick C. Miller | July 22, 2016

Even as North Dakota’s oil and gas industry gets up to speed on using thermal imaging cameras to spot and repair gas leaks, researchers are working on the next generation of technology that’s expected to be less expensive, more efficient and more precise.

Regulation Changes
There are two reasons why finding and fixing gas leaks have become an issue in the Bakken, both of which involve the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Last fall, the EPA notified several Bakken operators that it intended to start monitoring their operations for fugitive gas leaks. That caused the North Dakota Petroleum Council to form the Bakken Upstream Air Task Force to work with EPA and the North Dakota Department of Health which regulates air quality in the state.

According to Randy Neset, a petroleum engineer for Neset Consulting Services (NCS) who’s a member of the NDPC task force, the EPA’s action wasn’t a surprise. The agency used the same tactic with Colorado’s oil and gas industry before bringing its thermal camera to western North Dakota’s oil fields.

“It wasn’t like the EPA warned everybody that they had the camera and told everyone to get a camera to do their own inspections,” he explains. Instead, Neset says the agency’s approach was to find violations and then tell industry what it was up to—threatening several producers with fines and punitive action.

“It’s kind of how the EPA does business,” Neset says. “They like to collect the fines.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the North Dakota’s health department has primacy in regulating air toxics, national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants, new source performance standards and Title V air quality permits. The EPA experience caused some Bakken operators and consulting firms such as NCS to purchase their own infrared (IR) camera and train personnel to operate them.

According to Jim Semerad in the North Dakota Department of Health’s Division of Air Quality, the state soon followed suit, purchasing a $100,000 FLIR Systems thermal imaging camera and trained two people to operate it. Although methane, for example, is odorless and colorless, on the camera’s screen, escaping gas looks like colored smoke. The camera allows inspectors to examine and analyze if, when or where any kind of fugitive emissions are taking place.

The health department says producers currently operating their own thermal cameras include Whiting Petroleum Corp., Hess Corp., Continental Resources Inc., EOG Resources Inc. and XTO Energy Inc.

“The huge advantage of the FLIR camera is that you can see leaks from afar—200 feet away,” Semerad explains. “From the entrance to the oil well site, you can see leaks that are substantial from a distance. With the other instruments we use, often times you have to be right up to the leaking area to smell it or hear it or measure it directly.”

Through the Bakken Upstream Task Force, which relies on industrywide participation, the health department and NDPC worked together to address the EPA’s concerns and establish procedures for detecting and fixing gas leaks. 

“The FLIR camera can be very effective as an additional tool to find leaks,” Semerad says. “We’re working with industry right now to implement an additional quality assurance and a quality control program where they’re searching for leaks and fixing them if and when they occur.”

From NCS’s experience, using a thermal camera has helped the oil and gas industry better understand what it can do to detect and correct leaking gases.

“There’s a lot of different tank battery designs out there that really need to be redesigned or have some maintenance done on them or a little of both,” Neset says.

Sometimes the solution is as easy as remembering to properly close a tank hatch or a valve. Other times, it’s a stuck relief valve or a dried out seal that’s cracked and leaking. A line that’s not draining properly or a flare that’s not lit can lead to gas emissions.

“Everybody’s aware of this now,” Neset says. “There’s a lot more thought going into these tank gas vapors and how to properly handle them. Tank batteries in the future will be much better designed. As for the older batteries out there, there’s going to be some maintenance to be done.”

Through the NDPC task force—a model the organization has used to successfully solve other industry issues—a guidance document was developed for all Williston Basin operators in North Dakota. As Neset notes, the document provides information on how to properly design facilities, as well as how to properly do leak detection and repair.

“Part of the QA programs that the oil companies are going to be implementing this year is basically an education program for their workers on site looking for any sort of audible sound such as a hissing, any kind of an odor, any kind of sign that there’s a leak,” Semerad says. “In addition to that, they’ll be using FLIR cameras or other measurement devices. The beauty of the program is that even if you don’t have an instrument, you’re still paying attention and you’re approaching the problem from many different angles.”

The second EPA event occurred in May when the agency issued three final rules to reduce emissions of methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and air toxics under the strategy outlined in Pres. Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The EPA issued final updates to the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) that it says will curb emissions from new, modified and reconstructed sources in the oil and gas industry. The agency says the regulations provide greater certainty about Clean Air Act permitting requirements for the industry.

The final rule was published in the Federal Register June 3, giving a 60-day comment period. Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, said in June that his division was reviewing EPA’s rule and considering whether the state would take legal action.

“It doesn’t fit with our rules at all,” he explained. “We’re going to have some jurisdiction problems.”

In testimony in July before the U.S. House Energy and Power Subcommittee, Helms noted that the state was already involved in litigation with the EPA on three other agency actions. He said the EPA’s methane regulations directly interfered with the state’s ability to regulate the oil and gas industry.

“Environmental regulators will be deciding when and where oil wells are drilled rather than the industry,” he said.

Technology Upgrades
Rather than using IR cameras that spot gas leaks based on the difference between the air temperature and the gas temperature, laser sensors can accurately pinpoint small leaks by identifying gas molecules. And don’t be surprised if those sensors are far less expensive and mounted on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that can quickly cover a broad expanse and rapidly analyze the data they collect.

Heath Consultants Inc. and Physical Sciences Inc., both headquartered in Andover, Maryland, are partners in developing UAS-based and ground-based laser detection systems. They will be among at least eight companies participating in a three-year, $3.5 million U.S. Department of Energy research project set to begin at Colorado State University (CSU) that evaluates methane-sensing technologies.

“We’re putting laser sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can detect small leaks, precisely locate them, quantify the amount of gas escaping and automatically notify a repair crew,” says Paul Wehnert, Heath’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

“What we’re trying to get out of this is a proof of concept to show that we’ve taken existing technology, miniaturized it to fit on a UAV and then have the performance be similar with lower costs, more flexibility and more convenience to the operator,” he explains.

Wehnert believes a laser detection system has a real advantage over a thermal imaging camera.

“Once the gas temperature and the ambient air get close to the same, you can’t see the leak; so you miss the leak,” he says. “With the laser, temperature doesn’t matter because it doesn’t operate off temperature differential. It actually sees the methane molecules. The difference is that you can see much smaller leaks—very, very small leaks—where a camera would never see them.”

Dan Zimmerle is director of the Electric Power Systems Laboratory at CSU which will be running DOE’s project to test a variety of methane detection technologies. He notes that one of the primary goals of the 30-month research project is to cut costs for methane devices by one or two orders of magnitude.

“You’re talking about a $20,000 instrument now being in the cost range of $2,000,” he says.

Zimmerle expects anywhere from eight to 11 companies to participate. In addition to Health Consultants, some will use UAS-mounted methane detection devices, bringing their technologies to CSU’s test center at Fort Collins. “We will be helping them to prove their technology in the run-up to the official testing,” he says.

That testing will be conducted at various shale plays around the U.S., including the Bakken, according to Zimmerle. In addition to laser- and IR-based devices, he says there are variations on spectrometry and other better known technologies, but “several of the solutions are completely new takes on detection.”

“There are things like carbon nanotubes that are sensitive to different types of gas products,” he explains. “Those are a lot farther out in terms of technology. They have the potential for having a sensor that’s down in the range of tens of dollars at very high sensitivity—electronic noses, if you will.”

One aspect of methane detection not being tested in CSU’s project with DOE are the analytics programs which examine methane leak patterns over large areas.

“Some of the monitor technologies are really focused on the analytics,” Zimmerle says. “You could put up several high-fidelity towers in a basin, pinpoint leaks efficiently, calculate where the leak is by looking at large amounts of data and wind direction to zero in on the specific leak. Some of the software that goes along with that is at least as challenging as the sensor itself.”

What Zimmerle finds most exciting about the research project are technologies that lend themselves to the continuous monitoring of methane leaks. Combined with analytics programs, they can almost immediately inform an operator of a potential problem via an email or text message. 

“It’s really the best way to cut down emissions between the time of a problem and a fix,” he said. “I think it’s the thing that makes it very interesting. Sometimes the fix is as simple as going out there and closing a hatch or cycling a dump valve or switching which engine you’re running. Sometimes the immediate fix can be quite quick. It’s just alerting people that it’s happened.”

Industry’s Plan
Neset says he understands the importance of reducing oil and gas industry emissions.

“I live here and my family lives here. I want clean air to breathe,” he notes. “On the environmental side, I want this to be a good place to live.”

He believes that by having industry work together with the North Dakota Department of Health and the EPA, the problem will be solved in the same manner that the industry has tackled other challenges.

“There’s a little bit of work industry needs to do to come into compliance,” he says. “We plan on helping with the inspections and getting things fixed and making sure North Dakota has clean air. We have a few tweaks to do. We can handle this. We’ll get it figured out.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine