Emission management

Tech Director’s Column: Thoughts About Waste Avoidance, Emissions Reduction, and Transitioning

An overview of methane emissions and the changes anticipated with the energy transition highlight resources available to SPE members and plans for cross-discipline initiatives.

Cross-discipline collaboration and sharing of expertise is the goal of proposed initiatives to understand methane-emissions reduction and provide guidance for its mitigation.
SOURCE: solidcolours/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As some of you know, I grew up in Liverpool, England, in the 1950s and 1960s and studied mining engineering at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. So, I know a little bit about

  • “Waste not want not” (A proverb dating back to 1770 or earlier, repopularized after WWII).
  • Periodic blankets of thick smog (fog made heavier and darker by chemical fumes and particulates).
  • The energy transition from coal gas to natural gas for domestic use and power generation.
  • The transition from dockers/stevedores unloading cargo to gantry cranes unloading containers.
  • The groups and individual artists featured in The Mersey Beat (a music publication) and appearing at The Cavern Club [the birthplace of the Beatles].

My first exposure to the energy business was as a high school student on a work experience assignment to a gassy coal mine in the Lancashire Coalfield. My recollections are that the National Coal Board was no longer able to sell its gas. However, the pit still generated much of its own-use power, using the grid as a backup supply. The gasification plant had been decommissioned and replaced by some giant boilers for a local area heating project (AHP). Note: Recent geothermal AHP proposals are a déjà vu moment for me, as was the coalbed methane (CBM) boom at the turn of the century, but I digress.

The mine manager explained these late-life investments in new equipment something along the lines of “Son, an engineer’s job is to try to avoid wasting any energy, even if it’s just a waste product.”

In project management process stage 2, the field development planning teams often spend an inordinate amount of effort looking at the options for monetizing or achieving the greatest benefit from the produced gas. However, in my opinion, not enough operating companies (OPCOs) revisit these studies periodically through the life of the project to assess whether new technologies or business models merit incremental investments on a revised methane management strategy.

My learning in maximizing the OPCOs use of associated gas may now be irrelevant, but over the years, I discovered that

  • Crestal gas drive, water-alternating-gas drive, or simultaneous water and gas schemes can increase recovery but may not always be as attractive as sales or long-term gas storage.
  • The electrification of anything that moves (compressors, injection pumps, service equipment, and actuators) increases flexibility and significantly reduces the offsite noise levels for the neighbors.
  • It may be more attractive to collect the low-pressure gas with node and central compression to supply a highly efficient centralized power module, or to a third-party power plant, rather than to run multiple in-field power-generation skids. However, that may have changed with the move to larger well pads and platforms and with the ability to lease small, skid-mounted generators.
  • It often takes a lot more time than you’d expect to get approvals for a substation and a connector line to the grid (a longer process than for pipeline approvals in some regions).
  • The bridging infrastructure to sell power is often incredibly expensive.
  • If nothing else will fly commercially, it is generally more efficient to sequester or incinerate low-BTU gas than to try to flare it, especially in locations with unpredictable wind conditions.

Over the years, I have made several questionable recommendations or turned a blind eye to dubious operating strategies to accelerate or sustain plateau production or to maximize the well deliverability with an aggressive cleanup strategy. Some of these activities would likely be seen as totally unacceptable in the current operating environment. For example, accepting the venting of low-BTU gas where there is no economically viable way to strip out and sequester the acid-gas components or to produce a stable blend for low-BTU turbines.

This had been justified in the turbulent 1960s for security reasons, in case terrorists or insurrectionists used the flares for nighttime navigation. However, improved nighttime navigation capabilities were available by the mid-70s, making the argument spurious. I mention this because we sometimes hang onto operating practices long after the original justification has become irrelevant. Moreover, it demonstrates the strong linkage between methane-emissions reduction and acid-gas management and/or carbon dioxide capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), for which SPE already has a technical section.

According to Wikipedia, in 1814, Ivan Krylov (1769–1844), a Russian poet and fable writer, published a story entitled "The Inquisitive Man," which tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things but fails to notice an elephant. Hence, the expression about “ignoring the elephant in the room,”—a favored shortcoming of mine. All too often, I have focused on attaining significant wins on the margins, while I procrastinate about tackling tough problems that could make a substantive difference. I can’t remember the behavioral science term, maybe it is “substitutional avoidance.”

And so, when reviewing inadvertent methane emission, the project teams on which I have worked would document the lessons learned from our mistakes and discuss how we could reduce the environmental impacts if called upon to do something similar elsewhere. Next time, maybe we could

  • Have multiple options for relighting an extinguished flare and call out more propane in case of a low-BTU gas discovery.
  • Ask the contractors about cost-effective options for the well cleanup facility to facilitate switching to the blowdown or test separator with less-stringent flow-stream specifications.
  • Look at using a mobile incinerator for line blowdown, instead of a portable flare stack.
  • Install plunger-lift and node compression earlier, rather than relying on syphoning operations.
  • Use more solar-powered instrumentation and chemical-injection pumps to reduce winter hydrate risks and the resulting blowdown operations to clear blockages.
  • Increase the budget for vapour recovery unit inspection, maintenance, and upgrades.

However, we did not spend enough time looking at emerging technologies or the practices being used in other SPE regions or industries. The CBM boom (or coal-seam gas boom, as they call it in Queensland, Australia), has shown us how to cost-effectively collect ultralow-pressure gas at modest rates with ploughed in flexible lines, blowers, and screw compressors.

Similarly, there are likely learnings to be garnered from the downstream gas distribution system operators on how to minimize emissions during compressor maintenance and line inspections/repairs.

Nevertheless, the E&P sector does have a rich oral history of success stories about cost-effective and even profitable methane-emission reduction programs. Many of these have been reported and sometimes documented at SPE regional and section events, by our sister societies or joint ventures, such as the GPA Midstream and IOGP, and/or by government agencies such as the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the International Energy Agency.

Not surprisingly, the European and North Sea operators have often led the way, helped by their high natural gas prices. In the UK, the Energy Institute’s publications offer lots of guidelines and best practices for emissions measurement and reduction opportunities for various facility types. For example, HM 53: “Guidelines for the Management of Measurement of Emissions Streams Associated With Trading and Discharges in Offshore UKCS.”

The US DOE and Environmental Protection Agency have a well-established joint initiative to introduce the small and mid-sized producers to cost-effective methane-emissions reduction opportunities via the Natural Gas STAR Program. This was featured in a JPT article in June 2005 by Roger Fernandez et al.

The North American regulators have played a key role in leveling the playing field to reduce the disparities between the best and poorer operators through progressively more stringent and evolving regulatory frameworks and incentive programs.

At the tail-end of the ubiquitous natural gas supply chain, the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada recently held a 4-day conference, “2021 Net Zero & Methane Emissions Reduction.” Recordings of many of the presentations are available on demand (via YouTube).

Maybe, SPE can facilitate the “tail wagging the dog” by expanding the reach to these discussions across the three oceans that surround Canada. In many places, gas has no current apparent value or markets. Of course, this is already happening. I was fascinated to learn via SPE webinars about the efforts by Petrobras and its partners to sequester the gas that they cannot use for either power generation or to improve oil recovery.

Nevertheless, we need to extend the innovation network and provide those working at the asset levels with solutions that they could apply or pilot test. Low-BTU gas management has a lot of similarity to the produced-water management issues for which SPE has a Water Life Cycle and Strategy Technical Section.

SPE’s technical directors recently approved a motion to set up a cross-functional discussion group on Methane Emissions Measurement, Reporting, and Abatement to connect

  • Those in the Production and Facilities Community who are struggling to justify cost-effective solutions at the asset level and/or to introduce improved maintenance practices that could reduce methane emissions.
  • The completions engineers who would like to reduce their emissions but still need to clean up wells and recover highly erosive or corrosive completion or stimulation fluids.
  • The subject matter experts in the Gaia “Measuring What Matters” (MWM) Work Group and academia.
  • SPE management who are working on the high-level business drivers.

We are hoping that these discussions may follow a similar path to those of the Geothermal Discussion Group and receive the necessary approvals to set up a new, cross-functional technical section.
To me, the mission of this discussion group is an easy adaptation of the SPE mission:

To collect, disseminate, and exchange technical knowledge concerning the measurement, reporting and cost-effective abatement of methane emissions from oil and gas operations and related technologies for the public benefit; and to provide opportunities for professionals to enhance their technical and professional competence in this area.

However, others feel that the group should have a broader mandate looking at all emissions, and/or opportunities to improve our environmental, societal and governance ratings. And so, we can anticipate a lively kick-off meeting in December. Keep an eye on the Technical Community tab on SPE Connect for this new community and sign up to provide your thoughts and insights.

As Johana Dunlop, the former HSES TD and SPE Gaia chair, has pointed out, if you want a whistle-stop tour of the methane space, it's worth giving some time to the four-part series from SPE Live last year.

This year, there were a couple of interesting follow-up webinars, including

The Production and Facilities Advisory Committee (P&FAC) and the Gaia MWM Work Group are discussing a further series for 1Q22 with the SPE Virtual Events Team that now manages the SPE LIve and On-Demand Events Program. We are also hoping to persuade vendors and service providers to sponsor TechTalks about technology innovation in this space.

As chief scientist with a major gas and LNG producer, Neil Kavanagh, the regional director for the Asia Pacific Region, has been pressuring the technical directors and SPE Gaia MWM Team to commit to developing and publishing a technical knowledge-sharing book and/or guidelines on how to estimate/measure, verify, and reduce fugitive emissions from natural gas facilities.

  • I believe that the knowledge-sharing component can be addressed by us collectively and individually by upgrading the current materials in PetroWiki. It is a wiki, let’s just do it!
  • Several organizations and regulators have already published best practices for estimation, measuring, and reporting emissions. But there may be a role for SPE and our sister organizations to act as the consolidators, custodians, and trainers, as we do with Resources and Reserves Evaluations and Carbon Dioxide Storage Estimates via the PRMS and SRMS guidelines.
  • As a publisher of technical books and PetroBriefs, the SPE Publication Committee can facilitate subject matter experts getting their words of wisdom into the hands of a broad spectrum of SPE members, academics, students, and young professionals. Moreover, some senior managers and policymakers are keen to find a way to quickly get up to speed on the state of the art in emissions reporting and abatement.

A quick superficial search via the SPE Research Portal on the SPE homepage and the OnePetro search engine, shows that there is plenty to read, including

  • A nice introductory article in the June 2005 JPT by R. Fernandez et al., “Cost-Effective Methane missions Reductions for Small and Midsize Natural Gas Producers.”
  • There are also lots of papers on methane monitoring to add to my year-end reading list, including

    • SPE 205467 Application of Long-Endurance UAS for Top-Down Methane Emission Measurements of Oil and Gas Facilities in an Offshore Environment by C.A. Tavner et al.
    • SPE 206181 Development of Methods for Top-Down Methane Emission Measurements of Oil and Gas Facilities in an Offshore Environment Using a Miniature Methane Spectrometer and Long-Endurance UAS by B. Smith et al.

I picked these two papers to bring us back to my last rant about revitalizing the Unmanned Systems Technical Section (USYSTS).

SPE also offers a 1-day short course on Methane Emissions Measurement & Mitigation

There is currently quite a bit of discussion about the significant discrepancies between bottom-up estimates of methane emissions from oil and gas operations and top-down spot measurements by aerial surveys. Personally, I am not surprised. The production and operations teams are focused on meeting the business plan in a safe manner and on adding asset value by driving down operating expenses, while keeping the environmental impacts and risks “As Low as Reasonably Possible” (ALARP). But many of us aren’t quite sure what ALARP means and underestimate the magnitude of nonroutine emissions, especially during facility turnaround operations. To me it is reasonable to assume that the funding to explain and resolve the apparent discrepancies needs to come from the HSES or Community Relations Department budgets. Once again, these competing priorities and tensions have a lot of similarities to produced water management issues for which SPE has a Water Life Cycle and Strategy Technical Section.

In closing, a few words about preparing for the energy, digital, and career transitions. I believe that it is naïve to assume that some production and facilities roles won’t disappear with increasing automation; or that the unmanned systems won’t take over some jobs previously performed by oil and gas workers, including professionals. But in the process, exciting new and expanded roles will emerge for those who can quickly adapt and prepare to embrace the changing operating environment.

To that end, the P&FAC is working on a green paper to look at the anticipated changes in our roles and responsibilities in the decade from 2025 to 2035. We held a Special Session at the 2021 Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition (ATCE) in Dubai to report on Phase 1 and to collect additional input. We are planning to seek further input from regional events in the first half of 2022 and with another Special Session at 2022 ATCE in Houston in early October. The final report should help my successor and the incoming P&FAC to advocate for additional continual professional development services and events to help position our community members and incoming graduates to excel in this new and rapidly changing environment.

Wishing you all “Happy Holidays and All the Very Best for 2022.” Much to celebrate this year!