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Find those leaks

I don’t care how.

A pair of state and federal government inspectors spent two weeks traveling around northern Colorado’s oil and gas fields in early 2012, filming with an infrared camera.

Air pollution was rising in the region, and attention was turning to the rapid increase in drilling activity. The inspectors focused on Houston-based Noble Energy, one of the state’s largest drillers with about 7,000 wells in the suburbs and countryside north of Denver.

With the naked eye, there was nothing to see at the nearly hundred sites they visited. But when observed through the infrared camera, again and again they saw plumes of gas radiating from the top of storage tanks near the wells.

“The infrared camera does not quantify emissions, but you can say that’s a small leak versus a big leak. And these were big leaks,” said one of the inspectors, Cindy Beeler, an energy adviser at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s offices in Colorado. “When we showed our findings to Noble, they were surprised.”

As the Obama administration accelerates its campaign to blunt the effects of climate change, federal regulators are turning to infrared technology to seek out emissions leaks in the country’s oil and gas fields. With state agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and environmental groups embracing the technology, drillers are increasingly finding themselves staring down the lenses of infrared cameras.

Beyond government inspections, many companies are worried they soon will be required to do their own infrared scans and make what they fear will be unnecessary repairs across the country’s more than 1 million oil and gas wells. Industry lobbyists are already challenging the devices’ effectiveness.

“Part of our concern is that it really locks us in to this technology at a point in time the understanding of these fugitive emissions is really in its childhood,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “The presumptive starting point for the EPA is requiring infrared.”

[…]

For decades, companies and government inspectors relied on hand-held sensors to tell them if gas was leaking. But without a means to see the emissions, one was left to guess where to hold the sensor on a drilling site that can run the size of a football field – “like trying to pin the tail on the donkey,” Beeler jokes.

Then in 2011, the EPA decided to try infrared technology, which uses variations in temperature and other environmental measures to form images – capturing everything from a mouse on the ground to escaping gas.

At the time, the primary mission was reducing the release of volatile organic compounds, a key contributor to smog, which has long been linked to asthma and lung disease in humans. But federal attention is now turning to methane, which makes up about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and has an impact on global warming 25 times that of carbon dioxide.

The oil and gas industry is pressuring the EPA to look away from infrared at other cheaper technologies, like methane sensors, that would automatically detect leaks as they occur but are still in development. In a memo to EPA in December, the IPAA raised several issues about the infrared devices, including concerns about whether smaller companies could handle the cost – $100,000 each – and whether they were reliable.

“The results of the camera, the ‘pictures,’ are difficult to interpret and subject to misinterpretation, e.g., what appears to be a leak could simply be a heat plume,” the memo stated.

EPA officials countered that infrared is one of a variety of tools for gathering evidence in emissions cases that often was supported by data from the companies themselves.

“Infrared allows us to see hydrocarbons,” said Apple Chapman, associate director of EPA’s air enforcement division. “It’s a faster screening tool and a faster investigative tool.”

I don’t care what technology gets used, as long as something gets used that can reliably detect these leaks. I doubt I have to explain why some kind of voluntary compliance program is worthless. If the industry has a viable alternative to infrared that they don’t mind being required to use, then fine. If not, then infrared it is. Whatever gets the job done.

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One Comment

  1. mollusk says:

    Crikey – it’s not an “either – or.” Infrared can be used to find where the anomaly is, and then whip out the hand held sensor to figure out whether it’s a pollutant, a heat plume or a mouse.

    Meanwhile, energy company executives and flacks wonder why their pronouncements are taken with a grain of salt the size of a basketball… (***sigh… and an eye roll that a middle school student would be proud of… ***)