Special camera puts gas emissions in clearer focus
WILLISTON, N.D. - Gas emissions from the Bakken are having a global impact on the atmosphere, a recent study found, but health regulators say new technology they're using to inspect oilfield sites should lead to a dramatic improvement. The North ...
WILLISTON, N.D. – Gas emissions from the Bakken are having a global impact on the atmosphere, a recent study found, but health regulators say new technology they’re using to inspect oilfield sites should lead to a dramatic improvement.
The North Dakota Department of Health recently began using a $100,000 camera that uses infrared technology to detect methane, ethane and other emissions that leak from well sites.
“The huge advantage is that you now see any emissions that are coming out, which were previously invisible to your eye,” said Jim Semerad, with the health department’s Air Quality Division.
Natural gas produced in the Bakken as a byproduct of oil production is known as a “wet” gas, meaning it is rich in natural gas liquids such as propane, butane and ethane.
“They can be beneficial if they’re captured and separated out, but they can also go directly into the atmosphere if the controls aren’t there or if the controls aren’t working properly,” said David Glatt, chief of the Environmental Health Section.
On an individual basis, a Bakken oil and gas well is not a significant contributor to emissions, Semerad said.
But multiply that by 13,000 wells in North Dakota, and the impact can be substantial.
“The sheer numbers have grown such that we have to take a harder look at them,” Semerad said.
A group of scientists also recently took notice of the Bakken while researching why a mountaintop sensor in Europe detected an uptick in the globe’s ethane levels in 2010.
The research team took air samples for 12 days in May 2014 while flying directly overhead and downwind of Bakken oil production areas.
The team found that the Bakken emits about 250,000 tons of ethane per year, or about 2 percent of the globe’s ethane.
“It’s pretty remarkable that one location can be emitting a couple percent of the globe’s ethane,” said Eric Kort, assistant professor of atmospheric science at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study. “This is illustrative of how activities in one region can actually have a global impact.”
The study found that ethane emissions from other U.S. oil production, especially the Eagle Ford, likely contributed to the global uptick as well. A separate study on methane emissions from the Bakken is expected to be released next week.
State health regulators have been working to address emissions from the oil industry for the past several years, but are taking those efforts to the next level.
“I do think we can do a better job in the Oil Patch to control emissions,” Glatt said.
The health department purchased the FLIR camera, which stands for forward-looking infrared radiometer, with help from a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Several staff members are certified to use the camera and use it as a tool to detect emissions they previously weren’t aware of.
Some problem areas they’ve identified include emissions that are caused by valves or pipe fittings not sealed tightly enough or equipment that needs to be repaired.
Natural gas flares, if operating properly, should burn off 95 to 97 percent of the gas, Glatt said. But if a flare malfunctions, the gas will vent directly to the atmosphere.
“Sometimes it can be as simple as wind knocking out the flame in a flare,” Semerad said.
If inspectors find a major leak, they require companies to immediately make necessary repairs or improvements, Glatt said. The health department issues fines to companies that don’t comply.
“Our goal is if you find a problem, you fix it right away,” Glatt said. “The longer you take to fix it, then potentially the bigger the fine would be.”
Next, the health department plans to implement a program that includes requiring oil companies to conduct their own inspections. Health inspectors would continue doing site visits to verify what the industry submits, Semerad said.
The EPA is working with the state health department to develop this program, which is similar to what power plants already comply with, Semerad said.
“Hopefully by 2017, emissions will be dramatically lower,” Semerad said.
North Dakota’s oil industry has a task force that has been working on this issue with all the major Bakken operating companies participating, said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. It is one topic that will be addressed at the upcoming Williston Basin Petroleum Conference.
Joel Noyes, chairman of the task force and senior manager for government and external affairs for Hess Corp., said several companies have purchased their own FLIR cameras.
“I think there are a number of companies that are being proactive and taking steps to implement this new technology and do other things to inspect and track what’s going on out in the field before there are any regulations,” Noyes said.