Hands-on camera experience key in LDAR monitoring, other methane leak detection tech under development

Technician experience is increasingly important in comprehensive and compliance leak detection and repair (LDAR) surveys now required for methane emissions detection, according to the largest provider of optical gas imaging (OGI) services in Canada and the U.S.

“The LDAR camera is a great tool; it's the best tool out there for finding leaks efficiently,” Terence Trefiak, vice-president of Montrose Canada, told a Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) webinar earlier this year. “But if you hand the camera to someone who's never seen it before and doesn't have knowledge of it, compared to an experienced technician, there's going to be a massive difference in [the] number of leaks they find.”

Trefiak and Faizel Damji, project manager for Target Emission Services, Inc., reviewed the results of Target’s first survey round of LDAR required under new federal methane rules and lessons learned since it began offering optical gas imaging (OGI) services in Canada in 2007.

Orange County, California-based Montrose Environmental Group, Inc. acquired Target, a market leader in fugitive emission detection, in May 2019. Target, which has partnered with many of the world’s largest oil and gas producers to deliver detection and measurement of hydrocarbon fugitive emissions, seeks to capitalize on industry growth in the potentially $5.5 billion addressable market for LDAR services.

Although experience is important, “actually having time on the camera is probably the biggest impact when we want to find leaks,” said Trefiak. “And really knowing what the limitations of the camera are and when to slow down and when to actually use the camera effectively to find those leaks.”

Detection technicians need to know not only what they're looking at, for the scanning, but also for describing where leaks are, and communicating that to their clientele, he said. “But really having a written protocol and training procedure is very, very important for maintaining that high level of compliance with your technicians.”

It’s also effective to have maintenance personnel available, especially on larger sites, when a survey is underway, should it identify a large leak or leaks that are raising safety concerns, according to Trefiak. “It's good to have that connection with operations personnel with the technician doing the survey.”

When a survey finds leaks, it’s important that a company prioritize repairs, focusing on the volumes from large leakers, the webinar heard. “That not only will reduce emissions, which is the whole point of these regulations, but it's also saving money,” he said. “Putting that gas back in the pipe, the client can reap the benefits of that recovery.”

 The only way to do that, said Trefiak, is to quantify the missions. Target mainly uses a High Flo sampler for most of its quantification work, but they have been discontinued by the manufacturer and are in limited supply. Although Montrose is involved with an initiative in the United States to actually help design and develop a version 2 of the sampler “that's probably a year or two off.”

The most effective method is using OGI, which can compare differences in volume and leak size. “We see a very tiny leak that’s almost worth nothing to a massive leak that could be worth hundreds of thousands dollars a year” in lost revenue, he said. “That camera imagery or that camera video really can help you do that and detect your leaks effectively.”

An effective data management program also is critically important, according to Trefiak. “Spreadsheet tracking might work for a few facilities, but if you're trying to manage different facilities over different areas and have different stakeholders, it's really important to have an effective database system that can house all that data in one area,” he said. Then it’s a matter of ensuring communication with the right stakeholders for what needs to be repaired and tracking those repairs back into the system.

Another issue is safety, especially where scans of facilities for the first time may pick up potentially massive safety issues that can be detected by the camera, said Trefiak. “It's important to have a communication system and a hazard assessment system in place so that when that does happen, the technician knows what to do and knows who to contact so they can get that hazard addressed.”

LDAR alternatives

Under the federal methane regulations and most provincial regulations, a facility owner may apply for approval to use an alternative fugitive emissions monitoring plan (FEMP) which involves the use of other technologies to possibly modify the survey frequency or conduct a different type of survey. In Alberta, a handful of alternative FEMPs have been approved for use and more are under review.

There are four main alternative methods to OGI, including satellite detection of methane. Others are vehicle based in which technicians drive a vehicle around a site to obtain readings, a similar methodology using a drone or installed monitoring in which sensors are mounted on a facility to collect data. All these technologies usually work in conjunction with a comprehensive survey. “But basically, you can use both to reduce your frequency of a survey, or have better detection across a wide facility base,” said Trefiak.

While those technologies provide macro detection of emissions, they do not indicate the source, which still requires a comprehensive OGI survey on-site, he said. A macro system, though, can eliminate sites that do not have detectable emissions, reducing the number of facilities that require a comprehensive survey.

Both drone and vehicle-based testing technologies are rapidly growing alternatives to the LDAR system, said Trefiak, whose company offers both. One of its drone technologies is a laser-based system that can detect methane across the path of the laser, “which is very good at knowing how much total emissions are coming from a facility,” he said. “You can also pair this with optical OGI scanning with that same drone or another drone to actually visualize the leaks or emissions when you see them.”

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