Chasing fossil-fuel ‘fugitive’ in climate change fight

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A Bell 206 helicopter equipped with a high-tech infrared camera hunts down fugitives that have escaped captivity, usually by patrolling remote locations surrounded by open fields. Once a target has been spotted, the air crew transmits the location to a team on the ground that closes in and traps the suspect.

Sounds pretty dramatic, eh? Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of fugitive that Harrison Ford plays. What I’m really talking about here are fugitive emissions – huge amounts of greenhouse gases that escape from oil and natural gas infrastructure every day. We can’t see them, they’re currently unregulated, and they usually go unnoticed.

The air crew in this instance works for an Edmonton company called C5 Oilfield Enterprises, which developed its GasFinder infrared camera specifically for the aerial detection of these emissions. It saw a market worth pursuing, even though most people aren’t aware of fugitive emissions.

It’s the oil and gas industry’s dirtiest but not so little secret. We tend to only hear about the greenhouse-gas emissions that result from burning natural gas in power plants or in our homes.

Natural gas is often hailed as the clean fossil fuel because burning it produces about half the carbon dioxide as burning coal. That may be true, but factor in fugitive emissions and the emissions gap between the two begins to close.

According to Environment Canada’s national greenhouse-gas inventory report, fugitive emissions from the oil and natural gas sectors in 2006 amounted to the equivalent of about 60 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, up 65 per cent compared with 1990 levels.

What’s that as a percentage of Canada’s overall greenhouse-gas emissions? Slightly more than 8 per cent – or, put another way, roughly a third of the emissions that result from all forms of transportation across the country. It’s a surprisingly big number, given the lack of public attention to it.

There are two main types of fugitive emissions. One is called “unintentional emissions,” and they’re common at processing facilities and along pipelines. These can be caused by manufacturing defects in equipment, normal wear and tear, corrosion, damage or faulty assembly and installation. An aging pipeline infrastructure makes this a growing concern. The other type is “intentional emissions,” which is the venting of gases during production, processing, distribution and storage of oil and natural gas.

The industry knows it has this problem and it wants to solve it. Not just because of the greenhouse-gas issue, but because the less gas that leaks into the atmosphere the more that can be kept and sold. And with new carbon cap-and-trade systems coming into effect over the next few years, there’s an opportunity for oil-and-gas companies to reduce their emissions below mandatory caps and sell their surplus carbon credits on the open market.

Read on here.


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