Is remote monitoring the key to cutting methane emissions?

William Powers - PixController

In this week’s interview we talk to Bill Powers, President and CEO of PixController. A recent winner of the Ben Franklin Shale Innovation Awards, PixController were recognized for their self-contained, real-time methane detection and monitoring systems. With regulations pending by the Environmental Protection Agency, that would require the shale industry to reduce methane emissions 45% by 2025, remote monitoring could be key.

Monica Thomas (Shale Gas International): One of the reasons we became interested in your company is that it was one of the four technology companies which won the Ben Franklin Shale Innovation Awards. I understand that you were recognised for the methane detection solutions, but that this is not the only thing that PixController does, can you maybe tell us a bit more about what the company does in general?

Bill Powers (President/CEO, PixController): Sure. In general we develop wireless technology that lets people connect to devices in remote areas that don’t require power or internet. And that’s kind of what our niche in the market is, so with that we are able to connect not just sensors but we can connect cameras and monitor in ways that you typically cannot do with the current technology.

A lot of technology that is currently used today – especially in the gas industry – is legacy technology that they’ve used since the 1970s and they try to innovate a lot of these big, antiquated solutions but they just don’t work well in remote areas.

Our forte is being able to take smaller technologies and more current technologies and apply it to not just to the gas industry but also to other environmental monitoring, also wildlife monitoring.

MT: When I did research on your company I found something about Bald Eagles?

BP: Yes, we got a chance to stream bald eagle cameras – the first time that eagles were nesting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in over 200 years.

Pittsburgh, as you know, was a very industrialised city at the turn of the century, all of the way through the 60s and 70s and it pretty much destroyed the city environmentally so when we had this opportunity, when bald eagles came back, we were able to stream that and it went viral. It became a big national event here in Pittsburgh. It was an interesting opportunity.

MT: I did have a look at the camera but unfortunately the eagles were not there.

BP: Yes, we had a bad spring this year and they only laid two eggs and they were not viable – both eggs broke, so last year there was a big event; but this year nature kind of took over.

MT: That’s such a shame. Coming back to shale gas and your methane detection system; can you maybe tell us a bit more about why methane emissions are a problem? Is it a concern with active wells or is it across the board with abandoned wells as well?

BP: Methane is becoming a big issue because it is a big greenhouse gas. The concern before was carbon dioxide, but methane itself is twenty-one times more potent than carbon dioxide is, so the Obama administration in the United States has now put together what they call a “Climate Control Action Plan” and the public will get to see the first regulations this summer.

These regulations are going to go into effect next year, I think, so they are really trying to curb the oil and gas industry in the United States because it is such a methane emitter and it’s unregulated at this point in time.
Remote Monitor 4 - Methane Sensors
What they are trying to do is cut emissions by 45 per cent from a study they did in 2012. So, they’re going to try to monitor that and figure out ways to cut the emissions by 2025.

A lot of techniques that are used today are basically manual methods; you send a linesman out, he monitors a site to look for emissions and you get one data-point. Whereas our technology, which is much cheaper for the industry to afford, gives you a lot more data and it really shows you what the true emissions are. It gets you real finds, because a lot of the controversy is that the study that was done wasn’t done properly because it used methods that don’t really give a true idea of what the current methane emissions are.

Our technology lets the gas industry and environmental firms monitor emissions in real-time. We also take into account the environmental and atmospheric conditions because methane gas moves with barometric pressure, temperature, maybe even humidity, so we record all this data so they can get a lot of correlation. I think that scientists in general are going to learn a lot from being able to study methane emissions in real-time with our technology.

MT: Do you also do baseline monitoring, before exploration takes place, or only during exploration and production phase?

BP: Yes, that’s a great question. You do baseline monitoring beforehand because if you don’t then there is no way of proving that the shale gas provider actually caused the problem, or if it was a naturally occurring problem.

A lot of methane is naturally occurring, especially in some areas in the north-east of the United States. You have old abandoned wells that cause problems, you have migration from shale layers up into the aquifers that might be naturally occurring so there’s no way of proving of whether drilling for shale gas actually caused the problem. So a baseline definitely has to be done and it has to be done as a continuous process – probably a couple of years after the well has gone from the place.

MT: So before actual exploration takes place, do you just take one set of measurements? I remember being told by a monitoring company that to do it properly you should do it over twelve months before actual exploration takes place, because seasonal factors can affect the measurements, is that correct?

BP: Yes, that’s correct. The problem is that the regulations here only require three or four months, but you’re absolutely right, you really should do it for a whole year.

We’re actually monitoring a couple of abandoned wells now that have naturally occurring paths from the shale gas layer up into the atmosphere and we’re seeing a tremendous shift in the way the gas moves over the seasons because it won’t move as quickly in winter as it does in summertime. So baseline should be done for twelve months, but as some regulations only require it to be done three months beforehand, I would say that the regulations probably will change here at some point.

MT: I imagine that an upstream company would be eager to drill once they’ve secured acreage, telling them that they have to wait twelve months before they can start drilling is probably not what they want to hear.

BP: No, but the permit process probably takes a year, so it would be a good idea to start baseline monitoring when a gas driller applies for a permit. It’s just something that is going to be necessary to be done because this is such a potent gas.