The Future of Natural Gas Leak Detection


The quest for energy independence is one of the defining national ambitions of our time. It is hard to find a more impressive success than the “shale gale,” which began in 2008 with the emergence of new technology capable of extracting gas from previously unrecoverable sources.

Shale gas has the potential to transform the U.S. from a net importer to a net exporter of energy, but only if the industry can convince voters they meet environmental and safety challenges. While natural gas is recognized to be a cleaner burning fuel than coal, that is only true if the gas is contained or consumed.  Fugitive natural gas emissions anywhere within the supply chain quickly undermine green claims because pound for pound, methane causes more environmental damage on any scale than carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas (GHG) contributor.

With the Department of Energy identifying measurement and disclosure of methane emissions as a critical mandate for companies engaging in natural gas exploration and reclamation, natural gas producers and distributors require new ways of detecting and measuring leaks in wellheads and aging pipeline infrastructure.

Despite the various challenges, natural gas can be a viable and clean energy source. Bloomberg recently reported that according to the World Resources Institute, natural gas leaks must be less than 1 percent of total production in order to ensure that its climate impact is better than other energy sources like coal or diesel fuel.  A newly released peer reviewed scientific study put the leak rate from production in the Los Angeles Basin as high as 17%.  The EPA’s most recent estimate puts the emission at less than 2%.  Most analysts agree that anything over about 3% will wash out any potential environmental benefits of natural gas over coal. If there is one reality that everyone can agree on, it’s that any reported figure will be controversial.

Clearly, reconciling these disparities will be crucial to the long-term success of natural gas. International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven has stated that the technology and knowledge already exist for unconventional gas to be produced in an environmentally acceptable way. But she cautions that if the social and environmental impacts are not addressed properly, there is a very real possibility that public opposition to drilling for shale gas and other types of unconventional gas will halt the revolution in its tracks.

Monitoring gas emissions at the production site is an important proposition on a variety of levels. If energy companies implement technologies that are able to proactively and accurately detect leaks and leak rates, there is a significant opportunity for operational improvements—which results in recouping gas that flows into the atmosphere. Depending on the rate of leakage, this could attribute to millions of dollars in leaking profits. That’s good business. Being great in business, however, is also about knowing what others don’t. Regulators and do-gooders will eventually have access to this technology too. Transparency of emissions and pollution is coming sooner than you think. By implementing modern leak detection technology upstream at the wellhead before others do, the first mover gains the competitive advantage and the ability to demonstrate responsible fracking practices to naysayers.

But the challenges are not only upstream. Now more than ever, it’s essential that our aging pipeline infrastructure apply advanced and accurate leak detection. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) lists “enhanced monitoring and reporting requirements to give the public and regulators more information” about gas leaks as one of its five recommended policies for improving pipeline infrastructure. The widespread use of natural gas will continue to grow, and modernizing the infrastructure will help the environment, reduce rates, improve efficiency (and distributor profits), create jobs and improve safety.

Advanced leak detection will profoundly impact the way that utilities approach pipeline safety. According to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Administration, natural gas pipeline failures cause an average of 17 fatalities, 68 injuries and $133 million in property damage every year. Leaks also annually contribute to $3 billion of lost and unaccounted for natural gas—impacting the bottom line for companies both upstream and downstream.

Although it is critically important to safety, the incumbent technology is not effective at finding leaks. The most common methods for detecting natural gas leaks include manual inspection by using low sensitivity hand-held device. Using such devices requires highly trained individuals, and thus successful leak detection is largely a process that is subjective to the skill sets of a specific laborer and can contribute to undetected leaks due to human error.

Apply this potential for human error to the more than 500,000 wellheads, and the approaching 3 million miles of main and service pipelines and the sheer volume and expansiveness makes accurate and timely detection nearly impossible. The current model of using skilled laborers to monitor leakages with handheld devices is outdated. From a business perspective, new technologies need to be implemented into the current business model in order to assure that any leaks, small or large, are getting detected and assessed quickly and effectively.

Since immediate full-scale replacement is not feasible, proactive monitoring of segments is a more cost-effective approach. Finding the areas of pipeline that are failing and leaking and replacing or repairing these segments will improve efficiency, safety and demonstrate responsible environmental stewardship. Deploying this type of technology will provide utilities and energy companies with a window into the integrity of their pipeline, and enable them to roll out 2, 3 or 5 year plans of managing leak flow.

Traditional handheld detection devices measure gas at 1-5 parts per million, and cannot differentiate between naturally occurring methane, such as a sewer or landfill, and methane leaking from pipelines or wellheads. While modern spectral techniques have been developed that are capable of parts per billion sensitivities, these technologies have not yet been scalable for use on a routine basis.  In order to provide the utmost safety to natural gas customers, utilities will need to implement leak detection technologies that are able to monitor large areas quickly and efficiently.

There are four components that MUST be accounted for in order to make this technology adaptable to the industry.

  • Parts per billion sensitivity is essential for reliably detecting fugitive emissions or pipeline leaks and need to be able to distinguish them from other sources of methane.
  • Fast, efficient data collection is also important to enable near-constant, proactive monitoring of infrastructure.
  • Portability and mobility will enable monitoring at the most likely source of leaks-which can occur in a gas field at the source of production or along various routes of distribution pipeline. Mobility also provides scalability, which is instrumental in leak detection.
  • Easy implementation and radical simplification are required so that even non-experts can collect measurements. Making detection as easy as driving a car requires major scientific and technical advances so that natural gas producers and utility companies can turn accurate measurement of fugitive gas emissions or pipeline leaks into an actionable practice to pipeline safety.

The benefits of implementing advanced leak detection technologies with the aforementioned components include:

  • Provides transparency. In a market where the demand for transparency will become more and more prevalent, advanced leak detection technologies could achieve this both upstream and downstream.
  • Cost savings. Scrutiny will continue to escalate when more natural gas is extracted and exported. As previously mentioned, there is as much as $3 billion in lost and unaccounted for gas that could easily be recouped with advanced leak detection technology.

The essential part in this whole narrative is that there is a technology that is not only capable of measuring in parts per billion, is fast and efficient, is profitable and mobile, and radically simplified but is currently in use today. This existing technology is capable of vastly improving the natural gas industry to safely and dependably deliver product with minimal operational loss. At Picarro, we set the standard in advanced leak detection technology and we believe that natural gas is a natural win, but only if these existing technologies are deployed.