Methane Emissions - A Data Problem

The old adage "You cannot improve what you do not measure" is a phrase you hear a lot when it comes to working with methane data. But it really does  encapsulate the current state of methane emissions from the Oil and Gas industry.

While the International Energy Agency estimates that current methane inventories underestimate actual emissions by roughly 70% (Source: IEA), our analysis of internal data at Orbio Earth reveals a more complex picture. Through our methane intelligence platform we found that many operators actually under-report emissions by around 30%, while some publicly listed companies under-report by as much as 90%. Additionally, we found some operators over-reporting emissions, possibly to create a false impression of positive declining trends over time, further complicating the calculation of total methane emissions.

Unpicking why there are these discrepancies involves looking at the nature of the industry, the properties of methane itself and existing practices currently in place.

The scale of the Oil & Gas Sector

Estimates suggest there are between 7-12 million oil and gas facilities worldwide, including wells and processing facilities (Source: IOGP) . This highlights the amount of space the industry occupies on the earth's surface. Making the industry one of the largest industrial sectors in terms of physical footprint globally. In addition, the industry's structure varies widely between countries. For example, In Qatar, the majority of the country's oil and gas operations are located in a single gas field, the North Field/Dome, which spans approximately 6,000 square kilometers (source: QatarGas). Whilst in the US, the industry is spread across large, sporadic areas spanning 93,000 km² (Source: Bureau of Land Management).  Meaning some facilities can be located in remote locations that are difficult to access, making it challenging to consistently monitor and measure emissions such as methane.

Graph 1 - Oil and Gas drilling intensity - source:  IHS Energy Group

An inability to deal with the scale

Methane emissions are usually monitored through manual data surveys, involving hand-held cameras on a site. These surveys are done on average once a year, making it difficult to track emissions over time, identify the most significant sources of emissions, and assess the effectiveness of emissions reduction measures (Source: EDF). This data is then used to inform emissions reporting. In reality because of the size of the industry some facilities can go unmonitored for years i.e. a pipeline in the middle of the desert. Often operators deal with this by collecting a sample set from their portfolio and then extrapolate figures across the total portfolio. Therefore there are gaps in the process when reporting on portfolio emissions.

The nature of methane emissions

Methane is one of the main components of natural gas. As a result emissions can occur at any point in the natural gas supply chain. Methane is invisible and odorless making it particularly challenging to detect and monitor. The industry typically uses handheld Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) cameras, which come at a high cost of around $100k, and require individuals to be exposed to the noxious gas during the monitoring process.

The industry's large physical footprint, coupled with the sporadic data collection methods, make it difficult to obtain reliable data on methane emissions. As a result, the data on methane emissions in the industry is often limited and of poor quality.

How the industry is tackling these issues

The industry relies on fairly generic emission factors that are used to report to regulators on emissions. These emission factors range from generalized factors just looking at production data, to more granular estimations of emission intensities for different equipment on site. A common thread with these emission factors is that they assume an asset to be functioning normally. This obviously isn’t always the case  in the real-world and so often these factors will not account for leaks/fugitives in gas infrastructure, venting events from and even incomplete combustion from a flare (Source: CATF) .

Generally these figures miss out these larger, what the industry calls, ‘super-emitters’. Essentially these large methane emission leaks are the Achilles heel of the emission factors methodology and accounting for them is a major challenge for the industry, given that traditional approaches to monitoring methane may not be effective in identifying and mitigating this type of emissions. Some companies, like Orbio Earth with its Methane Intelligence Platform are exploring new methods to pair satellite data with emission factors to ultimately reconcile emissions on a global scale.

The oil and gas industry is facing a significant methane data problem due to the combination of factors mentioned above. Stakeholders across the industry rely on methane emission data to report to regulators, assess the intensity of their energy portfolios, and identify potential emission risks. However, the unreliable nature of methane emissions data makes it difficult to accurately manage these workflows. This is particularly important as natural gas is considered a transition fuel in the move towards a net-zero emissions future. Therefore, addressing the methane data gap is crucial to achieving this goal.

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