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How Gas Distributors Can Outline a Pathway for Lower Emissions

By Malvin Delgado - Picarro
Director, Sales and Client Engagement


Malvin Delgado By Malvin Delgado | Director, Sales and Client Engagement - Mon, 03/06/2023 - 10:00

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When properly combusted, natural gas is very well known as the most eco-friendly fossil fuel. It is abundant, cheap, easy to use, and it has the widest range of commercial, residential and industrial applications, and lately, natural gas has been cataloged as one of the pillars of the energy transition. 

Natural gas is made up of various components, among which the most abundant is methane (70-90%). Methane is commonly emitted into the atmosphere during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas. Methane emissions are the hot spot of the current climate crisis due to the enormous contribution of methane to global warming. Entities like the UN Environment Program, as well as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), say that methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, having about 86 times more negative impact on climate change than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years in the atmosphere. It accounts for up to 25% of historical warming that can be attributed to human activities and is considered the greenhouse gas most responsible for short-term warming.

Methane also represents a huge opportunity for countries around the world to drastically reduce their overall carbon footprint. This opportunity stems from the fact that much of the methane entering our atmosphere comes from sources that can be effectively mitigated.

In addition, due to the short lifetime of methane in the atmosphere (only 12-15 years versus over 100 years for carbon dioxide), a significant reduction in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can be achieved in a single generation. With the right protocols and technology, humanity can win the fight against fugitive methane emissions and thus drastically affect the warming trend of our planet. Reporting and reducing methane emissions is the biggest lever that can be pulled today to stop global warming.

ESG Goals: How Can They Be Achieved?

When considering fugitive industry methane emissions, it is important to note that the entire natural gas value chain (upstream, midstream, downstream, and distribution) is being mandated to accurately measure and report its emissions. In addition, they must produce and implement a plan to significantly reduce their emissions over time.

This mandate comes from world trade organizations, governments, regulators, communities, shareholders, and financial markets. Reducing methane emissions is an important environmental, social and governance (ESG) goal for many companies today, and those companies that are performing against these methane emissions reduction KPIs are finding better funding, being praised by the public and probably outperforming the market.

Gas Distribution System Operators (DSOs) that manage national, regional, and even local distribution networks are no exception to the mandate and are indeed instrumental in helping the broader energy industry to reduce methane emissions in an impressive way, since distribution represents an important percentage of the total emissions of the industry in Mexico, in Latin America, and the world.

Effectively Mitigating and Reducing Emissions — The Critical Mission

The key to understanding and addressing methane emissions is to identify, measure, quantify, and ultimately reduce methane emissions from our business activities. First, we know that some emissions are the inevitable result of natural gas systems and processes; it is critical to identify these sources so that they can later be mitigated or compensated. Design-based sources include things like flares or overpressure vents that are part of the natural gas processing and transportation value chain. The real culprit for the global warming impact of methane emissions are unexpected or fugitive emissions; these emissions are not inherent to the design of the natural gas system and are, therefore, not only hugely negative for the environment, but also represent lost revenue and profit. Fugitive emissions are a major contributor to global DSO emissions worldwide. Examples of fugitive emissions include a leak in our pipelines, a faulty valve, or an inefficient flare.

Identifying and measuring fugitive leaks is the first step in mitigating or reducing emissions. It can be very difficult to account for fugitive emissions in a distribution network that may contain millions of pipe segments and other assets that represent potential point emitters. There are many technologies on the market today that can identify leaky infrastructure, including handheld devices, advanced mobile leak detection solutions (vehicle and drone-based), aerial methods (LIDAR), satellite and continuous monitoring sensors.

Not all technologies are up to the task of measuring and reducing emissions on a natural gas distribution system; a good measure of suitability for use on distribution networks is the minimum detection limit (MDL).

In the Highwood Emissions Management technical report, Leak Detection Methods for Natural Gas Gathering, Transmission, and Distribution Pipelines,[1] the firm compares various technologies in order to provide some guidance to operators interested in using them for emissions measurement, reporting, and reduction programs. Using this report and other industry evidence, one could conclude:

  • Handhelds – generally not sensitive enough and too slow (not scalable for measurement of the entire network in a significant period of time), poor find rate.

  • Satellites – poor spatial resolution, ultra-high MDL.

  • Aerial-based LIDAR – expensive to implement, weather dependent, may not be able to gain access to all areas (Federal Aviation regulations, no-fly zones, etc.), high MDL.

  • Drones – good for specific use cases (mainly upstream and downstream processing, potential for midstream), high operational costs, limited range of operation.

  • Vehicle-based Advanced Mobile Leak Detection (AMLD) – Very low MDL (down to 0.01 SCFH using a PPB sensor), scalable to the entire network, cost-effective.

Clearly, vehicle-based AMLD may be the most powerful way to collect the emissions data needed to calculate an emissions estimate based on network-wide measurements. There are market-proven vehicle-based AMLD technologies and methodologies, which are used for leak compliance surveys in many countries around the world. Users of this technology can expect unmatched performance with >90% leak detection rate, <10% false positives and >90% field of view.

Additionally, using vehicle-based AMLD, a local gas utility company can cover its entire network on an annual basis, with high accuracy of measured methane concentrations, a clear understanding of which assets are leaking, and the ability to clearly report changes in their network performance over time and with significant granularity.

Defining a Clear Pathway for Emissions Reduction

If a distribution network can be surveyed every year, as many operators are doing today with vehicle-based AMLD technologies, it is possible to achieve full-scale enterprise emissions quantification. Annual measurement of the entire network enables an operator or local distribution company to manage its ESG objectives, shareholder expectations, and be ahead of future regulatory reporting requirements through a data-centric network emissions quantification and reporting schema. 

There is a clear pathway to take control of fugitive methane emissions for any DSO, and it is time to embark on the journey. Having the road map to success along with the right tools to support the effort is the way to go. For that, DSOs need to have a clear picture of the methane emissions problem, the path to implement a solution, get the right tools that could be used, and ultimately show value in the process.

Knowing the total volume of emissions from an organization is a critical step in being able to significantly reduce emissions and taking credit for those reductions. Measuring emissions, reporting the result, and reducing them over time is the only way to achieve a sustainable future for a DSO and for any business today.


[1] M. Strange, T. Fox, A. Hayman, B. Moorhouse (2022, January). Technical Report: Leak detection methods for natural gas gathering, transmission, and distribution pipelines. Highwood Emissions Management. https://highwoodemissions.com/reports/leak-detection-methods-for-natural-gas-gathering/ 

Photo by:   Malvin Delgado

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