Establishing a baseline for methane emissions before implementing reductions

·7 min read

Saskatoon – If you have to make cuts, shouldn’t you know where you’re starting from before you swing the axe? How can you possibly cut something if you don’t know where you’re starting from? These are key points as the provincial and federal governments move to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production.

Methane is a key greenhouse gas, and is the principal component of natural gas.

From the provincial government’s perspective, it’s important to know just how much is being emitted in the first place, before implementing emissions reductions.

That’s why, on March 15, the Government of Saskatchewan announced funding for two projects with the Saskatchewan Research Council, worth $500,000 in total.

It’s been an area of particular concern to Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre, who has been talking about this issues for many months now.

She said by phone from Saskatoon on March 16 that gas conservation makes common sense, and Saskatchewan’s approach to reducing methane is less prescriptive than the federal government’s, but more effective. Saskatchewan reached an equivalency agreement on methane reduction with the federal government last September. But what Saskatchewan has not been able to get out of the feds is a full explanation of how they got their numbers. The province has tried for a long time to ask Environment and Climate Change Canada for the data being used, and have only received portions of it.

Eyre spoke of frustrations with the federal government over data sharing. Noting it’s very technical, she said, “But now, which data do we rely on? Whose data do we rely on? That really plays into this, because, in terms of the federal data, we feel that Ottawa-centric science and studies that have been done haven’t even taken into account Saskatchewan’s characteristics, around our geology, and our reservoir’s uniqueness.”

“It’s something we must collaborate on, because if there are assumptions being made about methane collections in the province of Saskatchewan, but the studies being relied on, have never looked at our specific plays and geological characteristics, we feel there's a real issue,” Eyre said.

She pointed out that the forecasting model the federal government is using is based on assumptions that are not reflective of Saskatchewan’s realities. “But those parts are based on assumptions from studies that weren't actually performed in Saskatchewan on actual oil and gas sites.”

Thus, the announcement on March 15 goes towards addressing these issues.

There are two projects. The first, with a $300,000 contribution, will look at methane emissions in the heavy oil region of western Saskatchewan.

Mike Crabtree, president CEO of the Saskatchewan Research Council, said by phone from Saskatoon on March 16, “The first one is really geared to getting an understanding of the baseline data on methane emissions in the province from heavy oil wells.”

It will start in the next few months to collect baseline data and evaluate it in cooperation with the Alberta-based Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC). He noted it’s an Alberta-Saskatchewan project, where the SRC will be providing specific support for the project.

“It’s about understanding what the emissions are from systems; the well, the flow line, and the tank being a classic one,” Crabtree said. “It's about looking at these different systems, different types of heavy oil wells and systems and determining what their methane emissions profiles and creating that baseline data.”

Asked why just heavy oil, he pointed out Saskatchewan is predominantly a heavy oil-producing province, not a gas producing province. “I think that that is where the data needs most effort, in terms of coming back with an accurate emissions profile,” he said.

“The challenge here, when it comes down to it, is the federal government wants to apply the emission standards, but they taking a very broad brushstroke thing. They're looking at the looking at the types of systems; tanks pumps, wells and applying factors. And I think that we, as a province, are uncomfortable with the level with the factors that those are that they're not necessarily based on the systems that we're operating.”

For example, their may be X number of tanks emitting Y amount of methane, so they want to see Z amount of reduction of emissions. Crabtree said, “What is the actual methane emissions from these types of these types of systems? So, let's get a correct baseline, before we start talking about what the reduction of that baseline could or should be.”

The project will last about a year. That’s important, because weather factors, like temperature and atmospheric pressure, day and night, all impact emissions. There’s a difference between when the temperature is -40 C and + 40 C.

“We're not going to obviously test every tank in the province, but we want to do is we want to make this study broad enough to be able to understand the different types of systems that we've got in, Saskatchewan, and then start to apply some steps, in terms of numbers,” Crabtree said.

The gas-oil-ratio (GOR) from wells can be quite different, ranging from a GOR of 1 or 2 to as much as 15.

“Now that is going to react differently in the day tanks. So, understanding what the gas oil ratio is, whether it's day or night, what the outside pressure and temperature is, is also going to affect what the what the ratio is,” Crabtree said.

Some of the infrastructure is connected to pipelines, and others are collected in tank and hauled by truck, all of which impacts methane emissions. “Just saying this well has a GOR of 10, therefore all that gas is emitting through the tank, is erroneous,” he explained.

The technology for this monitoring exists. “It’s a question of putting the process in place to establish these baselines,” he said.

Wide area network monitoring

In collaboration with SaskTel and private Saskatchewan oil and gas operators, the second portion, with $200,000 allocated, is meant to develop in expensive sensors that last an exceptionally long time on batteries, and are connected through SaskTel’s new long range wide area network (LoRaWAN). This allows sensors to report their telemetry as far as 20 kilometres from a cell tower, meaning that much of southern Saskatchewan, including much of the oilpatch, would be within range.

“It’s based on the development of some new, very long range, low-powered chipsets,” Crabtree said. Adding they have very long battery life.

“In parallel to that, we and other folks have been developing ultra low power, long battery life sensor systems for things like H2S, methane, temperature, pressure, even things like ground salinity. So what we are seeing here is the opportunity to have a sensor net in key areas, both environmentally sensitive areas, and oil and gas, and in industrial areas, that can capture data 24/7.”

It could be something smaller than a shoebox, which could go on posts in the middle of a field, attached to trees, stacks, or on oilfield equipment.

“It raises the opportunity to create a fantastic integrated network of sensors that can look at everything from air pressure, weather, rainfall, through to both anthropogenic and natural sources of methane, hydrogen sulfide. You could put it on well sites that have been abandoned, and make sure you have no leaks of methane or salty water; these sorts of things,” Crabtree said.

The SRC is looking at building out prototypes. “If they’re as effective as we hope they are, then there will be a commercial build out of them. But certainly, we'll be we'll be building out the prototypes with the other members of the of this partnership.

“One of the really, really cool things about this is that this data net, this the sensor net, will bring in vast quantities of data. And we're going to run that data through artificial intelligence,” he said, noting Microsoft Azure will come into play.”

The second project is a research and development project, he noted. “It’s not a slam-dunk.”

The first project will establish the baseline for the second project.

This all builds on work under the provincial Methane Action Plan (MAP) and the methane equivalency agreement signed with the federal government in September, 2020.

Brian Zinchuk, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Estevan Mercury