Oil and gas meet Silicon Valley

Fred Krupp

There’s a digital revolution coursing through the world’s oil and natural gas industry today. The same tools that have disrupted every sector from manufacturing to finance – cloud computing, predictive analytics, remote sensing and controls – are transforming this one, too. Suddenly, there’s a lot more silicon involved in the oil and gas business.

If all these technologies did was make it cheaper to get oil and gas out of the ground, it would be a cause for concern. But for those of us working to decarbonize the energy system as fast as possible the trend is also opening up crucial new opportunities to protect our climate, by reducing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with over 80 times the 20-year warming power of carbon dioxide.

Game-changing technology raises the bar

Reliable, low-cost sensors and the data they generate are enabling companies to monitor facilities of all kinds for leaks, malfunctions and other wasteful emissions around the clock, instead of every now and then. As this technology continues to emerge, it raises the bar for everybody. In the face of rising expectations about corporate responsibility on climate, best practices should soon become standard practice, and doing nothing simply won’t be an option anymore.

It’s all part of an incredibly powerful wave of innovation changing the way we solve environmental problems, giving both business and advocates like us new ways to drive progress. We call this Fourth Wave environmentalism – it supercharges the kind of partnerships Environmental Defense Fund is known for.

Understanding the true scale of the problem

For industry, the incentive is competition. Big energy companies today are betting heavily on natural gas, promoting it as a clean alternative to coal and oil. But stiff competition from increasingly inexpensive renewable energy means companies need to step up their environmental game.

Worldwide, annual oil and gas methane emissions are about 75 million metric tons, according to the International Energy Agency.

Last week, the journal Science published the latest in the pioneering series of methane studies organized by EDF, showing U.S. oil and gas methane emissions are 60% higher than current EPA estimates. Unchecked, those emissions effectively double the 20-year climate impact of gas-fired electricity.

EDF has done a lot to document the scope of this challenge through our methane studies. But we’re not just looking for problems; we’re looking for solutions. As countries and companies work to cut greenhouse gases, oil and gas methane emissions offer the fastest and most cost-effective steps we can take to slow the rate of warming.

Partnering for cost-effective solutions

Digitization of the oil and gas industry greatly amplifies the potential synergy between environmental and business goals. Technology used to prevent accidents, improve efficiency and cut costs can also reduce methane emissions. Remote monitoring of well pads, processing plants and distribution systems can help energy companies recover – and sell – much of the methane they waste every year.

That’s why we’re working with companies across the industry to document, demonstrate and deploy effective, efficient ways to reduce methane emissions faster, for less money. Today, Shell and Equinor (formerly Statoil) are testing continuous digital monitoring technologies created by independent developers in response to the EDF Methane Detectors Challenge.

Next-level methane mapping, from space

EDF recently announced MethaneSAT, a satellite built specifically to map and measure methane emissions almost anywhere on the planet, including all the major oil and gas basins. We’ll make the findings available for free, giving both countries and companies a new way to spot problems, identify solutions, and measure their progress over time. MethaneSAT is a prime example of the Fourth Wave accelerating our ability to address environmental challenges and scaling the impact of our corporate partnerships.

Since we began our methane work six years ago, we’ve seen the whole suite of industry stakeholders sit up and take notice – from investors to regulators to the communities where oil and gas companies operate. Gatekeepers to lucrative markets in Asia and Europe, where climate concerns are front and center, are also watching.

Whatever you think about the role of oil and gas in the global energy future, reducing these emissions is a both a major challenge and a huge opportunity to reduce the rate of warming we’re experiencing right now. The solutions are simple and straightforward. The International Energy Agency says 75% if the world’s oil and gas methane emissions can be eliminated cost-effectively. To be viewed as responsible corporations, oil and gas companies will have to do just that.