Oil sands JIP COSIA and satellite monitoring firm GHGSat have teamed up to examine whether nano-satellites may be the future of low-cost emissions testing at oil and gas assets
Oil and gas companies are literally going out of this world in a new attempt to measure greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from their facilities. A dedicated satellite, named Claire, has been developed to measure CO2 and methane emissions from single sources – with high accuracy, frequently and at a relatively low cost. Should it prove successful, more oil and gas operators could use such technologies to understand emissions from their assets better, helping them to comply with government regulation more easily and work towards reducing their output of GHGs. Montréal-based GHGSat has launched a year-long demonstration programme of the small satellite’s capabilities. Claire has been in space since late June, orbiting the earth and measuring emissions from Canadian operators. It is billed as the world’s first satellite capable of monitoring GHG and air quality emissions from a single industrial site. The satellite has so far taken some 500 measurements from about 500km above the earth’s surface. GHGSat, which describes itself as a global emissions monitoring company, has clients that range from Hydro Québec to Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), a workgroup consisting of companies that share technologies to reduce the environmental effects of oil sands operations. Members of COSIA include Imperial Oil, Canadian Natural Resources, Royal Dutch Shell and Suncor. The joint industry project (JIP) with COSIA members is to investigate the use of satellite technology to provide more accurate and frequent measurements of fugitive GHG emissions from tailings ponds and mine faces.
Many sites in sight “We can do this [monitoring] at a cost that industrial operators can afford,” said GHGSat president Stéphane Germain, in an interview with InnovOil. Using this system, emissions can be measured accurately from a source as small as a single well-pad. So far, individual emissions have been measured from oil and gas-related facilities ranging from oil sands mines and tailings ponds to fracking basins, refineries, compressor stations and LNG terminals. Emissions have also been measured from a wide variety of sites in other sectors, ranging from landfill facilities to volcanoes, with one satellite capable of monitoring GHGs at more than 1,000 sites per year. National space agencies such as NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the European Space Agency all have satellites that can measure GHG emissions, but their resolution is far larger than Claire’s. Their purpose is to inform larger, macro-level climate-change models, says Germain. By contrast, Claire has a high spatial resolution of just 50m by 50m, and is a far smaller satellite: measuring 450mm x 300 mm x 200mm, it is technically a nano-satellite, about the size of an ordinary microwave oven. Whereas national space agency satellites typically weigh hundreds of kilograms, Claire is just 15kg, slashing the cost of building and launching her from hundreds of millions of dollars to a figure in the “single millions”, says Germain. Claire‘s payload includes two sensors: a 2D wide-angle Fabry-Perot imaging spectrometer, and a new, innovative clouds and aerosols sensor. The miniature spectrometer is used to measure wavelengths of light spectra – gases absorb light at specific wavelengths, creating a ‘spectral fingerprint’ for each gas, GHGSat explains. The system can find these fingerprints using sunlight, and measures the brightness of those fingerprints to determine, using algorithms, how much CO2 and methane are present in the field of view of the satellite. A technique called ‘dispersion modelling’ is used, whereby known sources of emissions are combined with meteorological data to determine the concentration and location of emissions in the atmosphere at a given time. This means that no devices or personnel are required to perform measurements on the ground. Claire was launched on June 22 from India's Satish Dhawan Space Centre, and orbits the earth every 90 minutes or so, travelling at more than 7 km per second. Claire is expected to operate for 5 years, and will burn up in the atmosphere after the mission is complete. Some 40 people were involved in the development, build and launch of the satellite. At present, GHGSat currently has some 10-15 staff and will soon ramp up to 40 again as its starts on its next satellites.
A new standard? The project is as much about effective and economic compliance as it is about innovation. In Alberta, for example, companies with oil sands developments are required to measure and report emissions to the provincial government for compliance purposes. Oil sands account for 9.3% of Canada’s GHG emissions and about 0.13% of global GHG emissions. Canada, home to 0.5% of the world's population, produces about 2% of global CO2 emissions. Sources of GHGs in the oil sands include so-called fugitive emissions, uncontrolled leaks and gas released into the atmosphere. Without space-age technology such as Claire, oil sands companies must place a physical ‘flux chamber’ or large hood over a tailings pond or above a mine to capture and measure the gases they emit. Even so, the total plant emissions are only an estimate. “This existing measurement method has a significant degree of uncertainty, 50% or more,” says Glynis Carling, a senior environmental advisor at Imperial, in an article on COSIA’s website. “It’s also costly and there are associated safety risks, since workers must conduct the measurements directly on the ponds or close to mine faces.” Claire also processes results more often than traditional methods. Passing over the oil sands every two weeks or so, the system offers a flux estimate every two to four weeks – compared with a single estimate each year using the current process. The cost of measuring emissions conventionally is considerable. A survey of a single landfill gas facility might cost US$20-50,000, said Germain. He declined to comment on the cost of monitoring in the oil sands. However, the added efficiency of measurement from space could be even an even greater asset. “This technology could also help us determine the source and cause of some of the ‘noise’ we see in current measurements,” Carling explains at COSIA. “And if we know what the cause is, we can work to reduce emissions from that specific source.” As with operations on the ground, weather can be one inhibiting factor. Claire can measure emissions in Alberta when conditions are clear enough, or about half the time, says COSIA. “The instrument can’t see through clouds,” explains Germain. “However, we don’t need a completely clear sky. As long as we can see the site and the plume of greenhouse gases downwind from the site, then we can perform the measurement.” Gases can be monitored with a precision up to part per billion, says COSIA. Because the project is still in the demonstration stage, the measurements of oil sands GHGs are then compared with flux chamber data. Direct measurements can be analysed to determine emission rates, or they can be used for threshold detection, such as when precisely emissions exceed a certain amount. Thus far, Claire’s measurements have been found to be accurate, Germain notes. Having been in orbit for first six months, “she is performing beautifully.” With emissions compliance only set to become stricter across most of the world as governments push for greater decarbonisation, such solutions may become more commonplace. Indeed, according to COSIA, if the project is successful, the technology has the potential to be quickly adopted as “the industry standard,” for emissions monitoring.