Innovation in methane detection is booming amid tightened state and federal standards for oil and gas drillers and targeted research funding. Technology developers, however, may see their market diminished by a regulation-averse Republican Congress and president. Senate Republicans are expected to attempt to complete a first strike against federal methane detection and emissions rules as soon as this week.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for an estimated one-fifth to one-one quarter of the global warming caused by humans since the Industrial Revolution, and oil and gas production puts more methane in the atmosphere than any other activity in the United States. Global warming, however, is not a moving issue for Republican leaders or President Donald Trump, who reject the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.
What moves them are complaints from industries that “burdensome" regulations unnecessarily hinder job growth and—in the case of methane rules—domestic oil and gas output. The House of Representatives got the methane deregulation ball rolling on 3 February, voting along party lines to quash U.S. Bureau of Land Management rules designed to prevent more than a third of methane releases from nearly 100,000 oil and gas wells and associated equipment operating on federal and tribal lands.
The House vote is one of the first applications of the hitherto obscure Congressional Review Act of 1996, which gives Congress 60 legislative days to overturn new regulations. If the Senate concurs and President Trump signs, the resulting act will scrap the bureau's ban on methane venting and flaring and its leak-monitoring requirements. It will also restrict the bureau from ever revisiting those mandates.
Next up on the Republican agenda for methane: Environmental Protection Agency rules that govern methane venting and leak monitoring at all new oil and gas operations across the United States.
Experts say the proposed rollbacks are heavy-handed and could have longstanding effects. “A huge mistake,” is what Mark Boling calls them. Boling is executive vice president for the Houston-based natural gas producer Southwestern Energy and says he prefers stronger voluntary action by industry over regulation. But Boling says Congress is at risk of overreaching.
Boling predicts that tying regulators’ hands on methane monitoring will have “unintended consequences” for oil and gas technology. “If we don’t have a requirement that industry…do something to improve the way it conducts its operations, then a market will not be created to drive innovation,” he says.
Aileen Nowlan agrees. She manages the Methane Detectors Challenge launched by the Environmental Defense Fund, a New York City–based advocacy group. Eliminating monitoring mandates would penalize the minority of oil and gas producers that have really stepped up leak detection and repairs, says Nowlan, as well as the technology developers striving to give them better tools.
“The sign from the government that methane is less of a priority could dissuade entrepreneurs from putting their focus here,” says Nowlan. Technology development could well shift to other countries as a result, she predicts.
That would be a shame given that U.S.-based sensor developers have made strides recently, thanks to spreading mandates and the financial support from both Nowlan's challenge and the comparable MONITOR program funded by the Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (the U.S. Department of Energy’s tech incubator).
Consider the continuous leak detection system from Longmont, Colo.–based Quanta3, which recently entered pilot testing in January at a Texas drill pad owned by Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil. Quanta3 uses relatively inexpensive near-infrared tunable laser diodes developed for fiber-optic telecommunications, according to company founder Dirk Richter, a laser spectroscopy expert at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Richter says methane monitoring via Quanta3’s systems will be “a couple of orders of magnitude” cheaper than via today’s commercial spectrometers, which can run US $75,000, or via handheld infrared video cameras that are labor intensive and relatively insensitive. (Under windy or cold conditions, IR cameras may detect no more than 10 percent of methane releases, according to Stanford University research.)
A few states such as Colorado and California have their own methane-emissions mandates that will continue to provide regulatory pressure, even in the event of federal rollbacks. Both Richter and Boling say they hope states improve those regulations, which generally specify regular inspection via infrared cameras, by speeding up the process for approving newer technology such as Quanta3’s.
Richter, meanwhile, says his firm is preparing to survive under deregulation. Quanta3’s impressive 20-parts-per-billion sensitivity can reveal very small leaks, catching deteriorating equipment before a larger failure that could interrupt production or squander economically significant quantities of natural gas. "We want to provide something that provides value even in the absence of regulations,” says Richter.
Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.