Methane Sleuths Monitor Seeping Gases From Oil and Gas Drilling

Sharon Wilson checks for gas leaks using a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera.
Sharon Wilson checks for gas leaks using a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera.
Ocean 8 Films/Les Stone

Along the green, tree-lined country road, four large metal tanks tower on a gravel field, clean and tan-colored against a cloudless blue sky. But the breeze brings an odd metallic tang to the back of one’s throat, and the view changes through an infrared camera’s viewfinder. When the lens zooms in on a hatch atop one tank, the sky turns black and white fumes are pouring into the wind. A click, and the camera’s high sensitivity setting turns everything high-contrast and jittery. A whole array of gases appears, boiling out in black, gray and white.

Enervest operating company’s Cole gas well-site on Masch Branch Road northwest of Denton is leaking. What other gas wells and storage tanks are leaking, or purposely venting, around North Texas? It’s Sharon Wilson’s mission to find out.

The Earthworks investigator seeks the fumes that escape from hydraulic fracture gas wells and storage sites that pepper the Barnett Shale of North Texas by the thousands. There are tens of thousands more such facilities in other areas rich in shale around the state and the nation.

Wilson’s main tool for discovering leaks is a $70,000 forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera to spot the fugitive fumes. On this day in mid-March, she’s hauling the cumbersome FLIR around to see what’s in the air over the drill pads of Denton, Wise County and Arlington.

Oil and gas firm EagleRidge has a well-site directly across the street from University of North Texas’ new stadium. A previous valve failure and gas leak led to a building evacuation. On the UNT side of the road, wind turbines are turning. There are no plumes in the FLIR’s screen; no gas is blowing from the well-site today.

Another EagleRidge drill pad at Meadows at Hickory Creek sits amid rolling hills and small horse farms west of Denton. The Meadows homes are sandwiched between two drill sites. Line compressors fill lots directly across the street from the first row of houses, as close as neighboring homes would be, were there homes instead of a drill pad. The compressor is not running that day, and nothing is leaking.

But on West University, a tall “work-over” rig stands, with a 60-foot pipe attached to it, venting a trail of black smoke. This is the Baldinger site, leased by Vantage Energy and permitted for 10 wells. With the FLIR camera set for high sensitivity, the thin black line of smoke, probably diesel exhaust, expands into a broad, light-colored banner, blowing over the fence into the community.

The camera doesn’t analyze the components of the gas. However, extensive analyses of well emissions by the National Institutes of Heath and others around the U.S. show arrays of up to 20 or 30 volatile organic compounds and air toxins, including carcinogens, central nervous system poisons, asphyxiants and respiratory toxins. Any or many may be present.

These compounds, called VOCs, contribute to the layer of ozone that hangs over North Texas and makes the air quality here worse than anywhere else in Texas. Averaged over the previous three warm-weather ozone seasons by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s air quality monitoring agency, DFW’s air proved the worst of any Texas metropolitan area, worse than Houston’s, with its refineries, chemical plants and the Houston Ship Channel.

In April 2015, the American Lung Association gave the region an "F" for ground-level ozone exceeding EPA standards by 25 to 30 percent at times in the summer. The Dallas Medical Society sounded a warning for the effects on children, the elderly and anyone suffering from asthma, emphysema or coronary heart disease. A year later, ALA has downgraded Dallas’ ranking from seventh worst of 197 U.S. cities to 11th, and Houston’s to number 15. The “F” still sticks.

What is certainly being released here is methane, which is going from “the other greenhouse gas” to a major target for those concerned about global warming. Carbon dioxide sticks around longer, but methane is much faster at absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the atmosphere.

Methane is the main constituent of natural gas, and a highly potent greenhouse gas (GHG) with over 80 times the 20-year warming power of carbon dioxide. The EPA estimates GHG emissions annually, and estimates are revised as measuring improves. According to EPA’s April 2016 revision of its last emission inventory, the oil and gas industry accounted for 33 percent of 2014's total methane emissions. That makes oil and gas the nation's top methane source.

Next is “enteric fermentation” in the intestines of livestock at 22 percent, landfills at 20 percent, coal mining at 9 percent, “manure management” at 8 percent and 6 percent “other.”  The oil and gas industry released 34 percent more methane in 2014 than the year before, with total emissions of 9.8 million metric tons.

The gas, as well as the volatile organic compounds and toxic chemicals that escape from well-sites, are invisible to the human eye and odorless, but seen under the glare of infrared wavelengths, the FLIR captures the plumes as clearly as if they were smoke.

On Nail Road in Denton, a leak blows from the massive tanks on another Vantage site, during liquid offloading. This process is done on “wet gas” wells, when gas in the well occurs interspersed with water, similar to a drinking straw with air bubbles interspersed with liquid. The water has to be separated into another tank or it will block the flow of gas. Something in this offloading process isn’t properly sealed.

Across Pioneer Parkway from Arlington, Wilson visits the community of Dalworthington Gardens. Sandwiched between the offices and commercial buildings that line a block off Murphy Street is a large gas compressor station registered to the company DFW Midstream. A wooden fence partially conceals it, less than 25 feet from an internal medicine practice and other tenants. Two three-story storage towers loom over the offices. A compressor rumbles away.
Compressors are used to increase well production when it begins to decline, or if the well pressure is weak to start with. The eventuality of a compressor with its incessant stream of pollutants coming into a neighborhood well-site is not disclosed in well permits or real estate contracts, Wilson has observed. “I don’t consider the exhaust from compressor stations to be leaks,” says Wilson. “They know that’s going on, it’s not a leak. They’re just venting it … releasing it into the open air.”

The debate over the effects of fracking in North Texas has become extremely polarized, and it’s often forgotten that there is a broad array of energy companies in the world. Some are more responsible than others when it comes to preventing environmental damage.

Controlling emissions is no exception. Methane leaks are avoidable, and a few oil and gas operators are recognized for emission control efforts, including monitoring their equipment carefully and making quick repairs when something is wrong. These also tend to be the oil and gas companies that communicate with communities where they work and strive to follow best practices throughout the drilling and production processes.

It’s too bad they are not operating in North Texas.

Richard Liroff wasn’t willing to accept that oil and gas companies couldn’t do anything to stem emissions, so he responded to calls for help from people who could exercise the most leverage on oil and gas industry — their investors.

The 25-year veteran of advocacy and organizing for the international environmental group World Wildlife Fund founded a new organization in 2004 called Investor Environmental Health Network. IEHN communicates with top natural gas operators and evaluates their risk-reporting and their uses of best practices to investors. “A lot of the investor [groups] I work with can be characterized as faith-based investors. …They bring an ethical perspective to the management of their pension funds,” Liroff says. “The others are institutional social responsibility or sustainability investors. They are for-profit firms that believe that that you can both ‘do well and do good at the same time.’ They had a lot of natural gas in their portfolios.”

He uses the idea of “shareholder engagement” to include environmental concerns. An investor group sends questions to the energy company six to eight months in advance of its annual meeting. If the company’s response is incomplete or unsatisfactory, investors may develop a formal shareholder resolution, under rules set by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Several companies did not give positive responses to IEHN’s first rounds of questions. “Chesapeake was one, Exxon was another. They challenged us at the SEC to try to keep our resolutions off the [annual meeting] ballot, but they were unsuccessful,” says Liroff. Chesapeake Energy and ExxonMobil are two of the four top operators in North Texas’ Barnett Shale.

Contacted for this story, ExxonMobil and Devon, another top Barnett operator, declined to comment. Chesapeake did not reply.

In 2009, IEHN’s engagement process coincided with ongoing annual conversations between a sustainable investor group, Boston Common Asset Management, and Apache Energy. When the investor concern about fracking surfaced in 2009, Boston Common and Apache decided to use that existing vehicle as a way “to gather a whole bunch of companies and investors in a room and say, ‘OK let’s have a conversation about your concerns,’” Liroff recalls. “‘We’ll bring our technical experts in and make them speak to your issues. We can educate you, you can better understand what we’re doing from the company side, and understand what’s driving your concerns.’” 

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Those conversations have gone on since 2009, three times a year. The best practices that came out of these discussions were published as Extracting the Facts in 2011 by IEHN and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility.

Scorecards followed, rating the 30 largest U.S. natural gas producers for their adherence to those best practice. The 2015 edition, Disclosing the Facts 2015 (by IEHN, Boston Commons and As You Sow) rated companies on 39 best practices identified in the five-year collaborative process.

“What we were trying to do is highlight what some companies were already doing," Liroff says. “So we wanted to note the companies that seemed to be doing the right thing, and for those companies that might want to do the right thing.”

Four of the top-rated companies in the Disclosing the Facts 2015 scorecard operate in Texas: BHP Billiton, Hess, Apache and Anadarko. Another, Southwestern Energy, is based in Texas but operates in Arkansas, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

None of them operates in the Barnett Shale. In fact, the four largest operators here, Devon, Chesapeake, ExxonMobil/XTO and EOG, rate in the bottom fifth of the scorecard. Chesapeake and ExxonMobil/XTO rank in the bottom 10 percent.

In 2015 only five of 30 companies participating with IEHN disclosed their methane emission rates. The five highly rated companies operating/based in Texas reported that they followed half to three-fourths of the emission control practices in the IEHN standards that they helped develop.

One offshoot of the IEHN project may offer grounds for encouragement in North Texas. Four of the largest shale operators in the U. S. — and highest rated on IEHN’s scorecard — are throwing their weight behind an effort to drive best practices in the industry, starting with closing methane leaks.

Southwestern Energy is the kind of energy company that many environmental advocates don’t hear about, the kind that wants to protect the environment as much as possible.

“They seemed different from other companies … for their willingness to acknowledge issues,” Liroff says. They had collaborated with NGOs to develop model regulations for hydraulic fracture drilling, intended as examples for state regulators who were challenged to keep up with the revolution in drilling technology.
Six states or more reviewed and adopted portions of the model regs, including Texas in its Rule 13 governing well integrity.

Southwestern now spearheads One Future Coalition, a collaboration of eight top natural gas companies, to reduce methane emissions across the country. One Future Coalition’s goal is to reduce methane emissions from the entire natural gas supply chain to 1 percent or less of gross natural gas production. Hess, Apache, Southwest and BHP Billiton are the four “upstream,” or production, companies.

Mark Boling, the company’s president for development and general counsel, heads the coalition. He’s easygoing, personable and possibly the only fossil fuel executive to have a YouTube talk titled “Why I Care about Climate Change.”

At the outset of the coalition’s ambitious goal, Boling has to address a huge wrangle going on about natural gas as a fuel, brought on by numerous new studies that show methane’s increasing. Is natural gas “clean” or not? That’s the industry’s rallying claim. Eminent scientists, such as Dr. Robert A. Haworth of Cornell University, vehemently contradict it.

Who’s right depends on whether the focus is on methane itself, or the entire natural gas system as it currently stands, leaks and all. With methane emissions from the oil and gas industry at 9.8 million metric tons a year, the industry’s results can’t be called clean.

“Dirtier than coal,” Haworth calls natural gas.

Boling focuses on methane itself. “If you look at the chemistry of methane … the fact that we have one carbon atom [GHG source] for every four hydrogen atoms [energy source] means that it’s going to be the best when burned, for energy production.” He is staking his all on making natural gas not just chemically cleaner than other fossil fuels, but clean to use.

The One Future Coalition is contracting ICF International, a large company with more than 30 specialties in research, science, engineering and analytics, to help update previous work in leak measurement and control technology.

“ICF has done a lot of work in greenhouse gas emissions … primarily in methane emission reduction technologies,“ Boling says. In 2014, ICF completed an Environmental Defense Fund-contracted study to measure the flaws in the natural gas supply chain that appeared to leak or vent the most methane, and then to identify technologies available at the time to reduce those emissions. “One finding was that a relatively small number of emission sources are responsible for a disproportionately large volume of emissions,” Boling says.

The coalition’s strategy is to allocate portions of the reduction goal to sectors of the industry and follow a performance-based focus to identify and eliminate the defects in equipment, processes and practices. Capturing methane has the cost incentive of getting more of it to market, rather than losing it to the atmosphere.

“The real challenge is the whole area of leak detection and repair,” Boling says. “Right now, they have technology — optical gas imaging, FLIR cameras. They’re expensive, so the key is to apply the next generation of technology to make it much more inexpensive.”

Tuneable dialed lasers at wells, connected to a supervisory control system that communicates to a remote monitoring site, would enable real-time leak detection and immediate response. “You’re able to monitor what’s going on at all these remote locations from one central facility,” he explains.

Boling says Southwestern’s new leak system saved the company money in its first year of operation. The second year, savings fell because, after the first year’s leak reductions, there was less new income from captured methane. “It was still cost-effective,” he notes.

Mid-sized and small operators, unlike Southwestern Energy, don’t have a large number of wells producing, over which to amortize technology costs. And, like Southwestern, they’ll experience less new methane capture in subsequent years. For those reasons, as well as the differing requirements of “dry gas” versus “wet gas” operations, and differing facilities in various geological gas basins across the country, technology design and cost reduction demand research. 

The Department of Energy now funds a number of advanced research projects seeking better technology that could make gas monitoring more inexpensive and palatable to energy companies. The research will continue “for at least the next year or two,” Boling says, “until a technology has been identified that you can deploy it in the field and, by monitoring results, get to that next generation of technology for real-time monitoring on a cost-effective basis.”

Cheaper gear would put advanced leak detection in the hands of mid-sized and small companies. But those firms in the Barnett Shale may be facing tighter controls anyway.

In March, the EPA made the decision to regulate existing facilities. Previously, only new and modified sources were regulated, and existing ones were subject to voluntary guidelines. According to Boling, EPA’s initial intent was to improve reductions at existing sites through expansion of voluntary programs. The agency will now regulate existing sources — eventually.

EPA will mandate emission reductions but make recommendations to the states as to technologies to mitigate methane and VOCs. The technology will be defined to the states via guidelines. Those recommendations are “way down the line,” according to Boling, because the agency has only now issued its information request. He says it could be two years before the regulations are published.

Without actual enforcement, regulations are meaningless. For example, the open venting of emissions is restricted by regulation but appears to go on, unchecked — as seen in the viewfinder of a FLIR camera.

So only time and vigilance will tell if the efforts of the EPA and the energy industry improve air quality in the Barnett Shale. In the meantime, Sharon Wilson takes the FLIR camera back to Lake Arlington Baptist Church, where an April 2015 blowout at a Vantage Energy site resulted in the evacuation of 115 homes.

At other Vantage sites she saw plumes of gases escaping during operations. At this one, she captures a careful, completely leak-free liquid unloading. No traces of gas on the camera. “Maybe they’re learning something,” she says.


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