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November 21st, 2019

“Sniffing” for methane emissions in the US

The US industry faces a methane challenge. For Equinor, sitting back was never an option. Applying innovative technologies in our US onshore operations – including drones and infrared cameras – reduced our emissions by 80% from 2014 to 2018. Here, we explain how. 

On November 21st we submitted comments to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlining our view that regulation of methane is necessary. For more details, see below.

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Equinor cooperating with SeekOps and their methane emission detecting drone in the Appalachian Basin.
Photo: Ole Jørgen Bratland

The shale revolution in the US started just over a decade ago. Between 2005 and 2018, US natural gas production rose 70%, surpassing Russia during this time to lead global output.

More production means more methane, the primary component of natural gas. As production ramped up, questions were raised about how much methane was being leaked throughout the gas value chain.

Minimizing methane emissions is essential to the future of our industry. Combustion of natural gas releases significantly less CO2 than coal, but this advantage is reduced by methane leaks during production and distribution. While methane has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than CO2, it has a higher warming potential – about 34 times higher over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The methane intensity of Equinor’s natural gas production is low – around 1/10 of the industry average – but we are committed to continuously improving our performance. Alongside industry partners, we are working towards near-zero methane emissions across the gas value chain. 

IN BRIEF:
On November 21st, 2019, we submitted comments to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlining our view that regulation of methane is a necessary part of a comprehensive, economy-wide policy program to address global climate change:

 

  • Reducing emissions is an important part of Equinor’s approach to providing low carbon energy
  • We lowered our US onshore emissions by 80% between 2014 and 2018
  •  We support the direct regulation of methane at the federal level.
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“Reducing emissions is an important part of Equinor’s approach to provide low carbon energy. We support the direct regulation of methane in the US at the federal level.”

Bjørn Otto Sverdrup, senior vice president for sustainability in Equinor

Maintaining a leading voice on policy
The industry’s voluntary efforts have already done much to reduce methane emissions. However, there is more that can and should be done. We support the direct regulation of methane in the US at the federal level. A federal regulatory “floor” can provide industry a consistent, flexible, predictable, and comprehensive policy framework to drive collective improvement.

“Credible, courageous, and collaborative action is needed to maintain our license to operate. Equinor supports effective federal EPA regulations on methane and aims to work with authorities to continuously improve and develop regulations,” says Bjørn Otto Sverdrup, senior vice president for sustainability.

In August, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposal to roll back methane emission performance standards established in 2016. Equinor quickly voiced support for continued regulation following this announcement. We have submitted comments to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlining our view that direct regulation of methane is a necessary part of a comprehensive, economy-wide policy program to address global climate change. 

What is methane, and why is it important?

  • Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas contributing to human-induced climate change.
  • Methane has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than CO2, but it has a higher warming potential.
  • While natural gas releases significantly less CO2 than coal when combusted, methane emissions during production and distribution reduce this advantage.
  • Minimizing methane emissions is therefore essential.
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Equinor Bakken field, North Dakota 
Photo: Einar Aslaksen / TRY

A proactive approach
To address concerns around methane emissions from natural gas production, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 2012 initiated a groundbreaking study. EDF, the University of Texas (UT) and several industry participants set out to more accurately measure actual leaks from production sites. Equinor was an early and active participant in the study.

“We needed to know if we had a problem and, if so, what can we do about it. We have a responsibility to know our footprint,” said Torstein Hole, former senior vice president for the US onshore and now Canada Country Manager.

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Hans Jakob Hegge

“Equinor now has extensive protocols across our onshore operations to detect and mitigate fugitive emissions.”

Hans Jakob Hegge, US Country Manager, Equinor

Building on the findings from the study, our US onshore team implemented a leak detection and repair program, utilizing infrared cameras to sniff out (identify) emissions sources. Equinor was able to identify higher emitting sources and more cost-effectively eliminate leaks. As a result, Equinor lowered its US onshore emissions 80% between 2014 and 2018.

“Equinor now has extensive protocols across our onshore operations to detect and mitigate fugitive emissions,” says Hans Jakob Hegge, US Country Manager and senior vice president for global unconventionals. We carried out a methane survey in our Appalachian Basin asset earlier this year, and additional surveys are planned across the US portfolio in 2020. 

Equinor’s methane emissions

  • In 2018, Equinor’s total US onshore methane intensity was 0.046 kgCH4/boe, or 0.07% of production. 
  • The methane leakage rate (fugitive methane) for Equinor’s US facilities is 0.03% of production. 

Collaborating & innovating toward a low carbon future
Collaboration is instrumental to improved understanding and performance. Equinor is a member of multiple industry and academic initiatives focused on finding better ways to detect and prevent methane emissions.

One such initiative, the Mobile Monitoring Challenge, co-sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and Stanford University, explored technologies for mobile methane lead detection. The results, released in September 2019, showed promise in drone-mounted laser sensors developed by SeekOps Inc. that can detect, locate, and quantify methane leaks. Equinor was the first industry adopter and investor in SeekOps’ technology, deploying drones at our US onshore facilities since 2016.

The investment fund of the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a group of leading companies representing 30% of global oil and gas production, has now joined Equinor as a strategic investor in SeekOps, signaling growing industry interest in remote sensing technology. Equinor is a founding member of OGCI.

Equinor also participates in several industry groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute’s Environmental Partnership, focused on sharing best practices and promoting voluntary standards above current regulations. This is an issue that Equinor cannot solve alone and we will continue to work with industry partners to learn, share experience and improve on the status quo. 

Over the last five years, Equinor has supported the following initiatives:

  • Fugitive methane sensors: Equinor and partners developed cutting-edge technologies for real-time detection of methane leaks that will improve future monitoring
  • Methane sensing drones: We use drones mounted with laser methane sensors to detect methane emissions on our production sites. This technology was originally designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to detect signs of life on Mars
  • FLIR camera surveys: Early utilization by Equinor field personnel and contractors of infrared cameras to spot leaks
  • FGE project: A facility and equipment modification program to optimize designs for legacy installations, decommission unused equipment, and replace aged equipment with newer technology and devices 

About Equinor


We are a broad, international energy company with 20,000 employees, headquartered in Norway. Some of our most exciting development work is taking place in the United States, which is one of our key innovation hubs worldwide. 

We have been present in the US since 1987.

Our upstream activities are managed from Houston, while we are also rapidly becoming a leading partner in the country’s growing offshore wind industry.