New technology enables action on CO2 emissions in the Oil & Gas Industry
By Lana Ginns
An International Energy Agency (IEA) report, “CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion Highlights,” estimated the energy sector is responsible for more than 40% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Gas flaring is one of the primary contributors to industrial emissions from the sector, and while gas is often flared for safety reasons, a large proportion is still flared as the main method of disposal for facilities that do not have the infrastructure to capture, transport and monetise it. In the last five years the industry has made significant moves to reduce emissions, implementing IoT and cloud technologies to accurately collect emissions information and provide insight that will streamline emissions heavy processes.
Now or never
Based on satellite data, it is estimated more than 150 billion cubic metres (or 5.3 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas is released into the atmosphere each year through natural gas flaring and cold flaring (venting) operations.
In September 2016, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory — the primary global site for atmospheric CO2 monitoring — recorded an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 400 parts per million (ppm). In winter, atmospheric concentrations are usually higher than in the summer months when plants absorb CO2 during photosynthesis.
A reading of 400 ppm in September 2016 — the month CO2 levels have historically been at their lowest — suggests the global atmospheric concentration of CO2 may not fall below 400 ppm again. Scientists estimate that 40% or more of the black carbon (soot) that is deposited on the Arctic snow and ice cap comes from flaring inside or near the Arctic Circle. This accelerates the melting of snow and ice near the North Pole.
The global approach
To reduce the effect of routine gas flaring on the environment, emissions regulation has intensified around in the world – but varies considerably between countries.
In 2016 Norway announced it was aiming to adopt a carbon neutral target for 2030. As an early adopter of emissions regulation, emissions to air from the Norwegian oil and gas sector are regulated through several acts including: the Pollution Control Act and The Greenhouse Gas Emission Trading Act; the CO2 Tax Act (offshore) and the Petroleum Act. Combined with Norway’s bountiful hydropower resources – that means the country’s electricity supply is already virtually fossil free – Norway’s regulation has significantly reduced emissions.
Despite being one of the most energy intensive countries in the world, Kazakhstan implemented emissions regulation far later than Norway. In 2015 Kazakhstan committed to the ‘Kazakhstan Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)’ which contains an unconditional target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 1990 levels by 2030, including emissions from land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF).
In the United States the focus on reducing emissions is unclear. Despite a long tradition of environmental legislation compared to other countries, the United States remains among the top flarers. Data released by the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR) in 2016 revealed an increase over the past five years in the amount of gas flared at oil production sites worldwide. The flaring increase was attributed to an overall growth in oil production, particularly in Iraq and the United States.
In addition to regulatory pressures, there are a number of external sources of pressure on oil and gas operators – such as environmental Non-Governmental Organisations and citizens’ rights groups.
A combined effort
Natural gas can be stored and transported instead of flared, but it is highly flammable. Between 2008 and 2012, there were 370 significant safety incidents at natural gas transmission pipelines. Transporting natural gas from a rig to homes and businesses is high risk, while the combination of high infrastructure costs and low gas prices has discouraged investment in on-site capture technology. Flaring has long been considered the lesser of two evils when compared to venting methane directly into the atmosphere.
The Oil & Gas Industry has come a long way in its recognition and reduction of emissions. However, under increased regulatory scrutiny, it is important that the flaring of natural resources is strictly limited and only takes place when absolutely necessary.
Support is growing for initiatives such as the World Bank’s Zero Routine Flaring (ZRF) to reduce the oil and gas sector’s combined routine carbon emissions. Launched in April 2015 with 25 endorsers, the ZRF initiative brings governments, oil companies and development institutions together to work toward eliminating routine gas flaring by 2030. The initiative has grown to 62 endorsers. Many governments and regulators are taking the initiative seriously and are increasing the pressure on companies to accurately measure and report flaring as well as to implement new ways of reducing flare gas volumes.
Signatories to ZRF have committed to eliminating flaring within existing operations, ensuring new sites incorporate gas utilisation solutions that avoid routine gas flaring or venting and publicly reporting flaring volumes on an annual basis. Connected technologies are now helping to measure and manage these processes more effectively.
To comply with national emissions regulations, oil and gas companies must adhere to strict rules around measurement accuracy. Whilst national regulation requirements may differ depending on country, global regulation in gas flaring is predicted to intensify over the next decade.
The Comisión Nacional de Hidrocarburos (CNH) – the independent body responsible for regulating fossil fuel production in Mexico – requires all gas and vent meters to be installed and maintained to manufacturer specifications, setting the maximum allowable measurement uncertainty for gas flaring at 3%. Russia also has stringent regulations covering flare gas measurement, requiring operators to maintain an uncertainty of just 5%. All measuring equipment must hold approval certificates and be registered with the State Register of Measuring Devices.
A build-up of debris, ice or condensation in the pipes and a change in gas composition could all affect reporting accuracy. The breakdown of a meter could even lead to complete plant shut down, delaying environmental reporting altogether. Inaccuracies and reporting breaches can lead to significant fines, penalties and even imprisonment in many parts of the world.
Maintain to sustain
Using emissions data for insight will only prove helpful if the data being collected is accurate and assets are performing to their full potential.
Oil and gas operations can often take place in extreme environments: in the middle of the ocean or in extreme heat or cold. Monitoring assets in hostile environments is crucial for risk reduction, but these punishing conditions can make maintenance difficult. Consider the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a semi-submersible, mobile, floating, drilling rig that operated in waters up to 10,000 feet deep. Sea water could impact asset performance, underwater debris could affect flow and cold deep-water temperatures could freeze equipment.
A poorly maintained flare gas meter will inevitably lose accuracy over time, which could result in companies misreporting important environmental statistics. With regular maintenance, the effect of hostile environments can be counteracted. This means potential issues can be identified and dealt with before they become a high-cost, time intensive problem for operators.
IoT and emissions measuring
Historically, recording and sharing emissions data would have involved recording the volume of gas flared locally and sharing data on a periodic basis. However, connected measurement technology means that now this information can be monitored and measured in real time through secure hosting in the cloud.
By using cloud technology to record gas flaring, companies can build a better picture of trends over time and use this insight to drive new emissions strategies. For example, on an offshore oil rig where flaring may only happen after certain maintenance procedures, real-time data can provide insight to more effectively manage the flaring process – reducing the amount of wasted gas. Over an extended period of time organisations will begin to see patterns emerging that enable them to more effectively predict which rigs will flare more gas than others.
Condition based maintenance (CBM) – enabled by remote monitoring – reduces the risk of major equipment failure by identifying potential problems before they come to fruition. CBM involves continuously monitoring the condition of an asset – including its components – so maintenance can be carried out as soon as there is an indication that a device or its components may not be functioning effectively. CBM compares actual performance with average performance, or with a pre-programmed range. When device parameters move beyond what is acceptable, it signals the need for maintenance. In addition to component failure, CBM data feeds can alert management if software needs to be changed or updated, if sensors need cleaning because of ice or dirt, or when equipment needs calibrating for accuracy.
Data can be collected from on-site equipment and streamed to a central location for analysis via the internet. This helps to reduce cost and minimise the requirement for on-site engineers, but can also improve the efficiency and accuracy of emissions reporting.
Cloud technology and internet everywhere
Cloud technology and the availability of internet connectivity has driven significant change in remote asset management. Cloud infrastructure enables the constant monitoring and storage of data on remote servers anywhere in the world in real time via IoT. Monitoring equipment installed on local assets transmits information to software that is stored on central servers, rather than physically on an oil and gas site. When real-time data is fed into software such as a continuous emission monitoring system (CEMS), organisations can collect, record and report data remotely.
Providing they are connected to the internet, businesses can access CEMS data and analyse it using any connected device. With internet connectivity available almost anywhere, businesses can access the real-time data feeds of remote assets from multiple sites anywhere in the world. It is not necessary to store and run the software on a machine on-site, which reduces cost and removes the need to have on-site staff.
Employees working for offshore oil and gas operations were found to be seven times more likely to die on the job than the average U.S. worker, according to a study released by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).The CDC tracked fatalities from 2003 to 2010 and found that 128 people had died while working at offshore operations. With advances in remote monitoring technologies, fewer engineers will need to work in hostile or dangerous environments such as offshore rig locations.
However, the most significant use of CEMS data will be through its access to improved information in real time, enabling oil and gas companies to make more informed business decisions.
The technology effect
Flaring may be largely used for the safe disposal of excess natural gas, but the burning process is damaging. Measuring flare gas is important for reducing environmental impact but is one of the most challenging types of gas flow measurement. Connected technologies are helping to refine maintenance procedures, deliver more accurate emissions information and provide insightful data to advance on-site emissions strategies through the cloud. IoT connectivity enables organisations to accurately report pollutants from gas flaring and manage gas flaring processes more effectively in offshore locations. While traditional industries have been slow to realise the potential in technology, oil and gas companies are finally considering its transformational role.
Lana Ginns is the Marketing Manager at Fluenta