A host of mechanical bit players in natural gas and oil fields has emerged as the star target for greenhouse gas reduction in Alberta, Canada's chief producing province.
Around the clock, every day the offenders "bleed" methane that rates as 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as an agent of climate change, according to industry and government researchers.
The culprits are pneumatic controls and pumps driven by well gas flows instead of compressed air. Each action by every device lets go puffs of methane that add up to annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to carbon dioxide volumes measured in millions of tons.
The offenses, their scale and low-cost cures were identified by five years of field trials of 10 environmental engineering concepts. A recent Calgary workshop on the results drew high attendance by industry and government specialists.
The C$14 million (US$10 million) program included ConocoPhillips Canada (CPC), Climate Change Emissions Management Corp. (CCEMC) and Canadian Environmental Technology Advancement Corp. (CETAC-West).
CCEMC is a provincial non-profit agency funded by penalties instituted since 2007 on industrial sites that emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year for missing reduction targets. CETAC-West is a federal government-supported consulting house that specializes in helping entrepreneurs turn environmental ideas into commercial items.
A survey by a government scientific research agency, Alberta Innovates, estimated that the number of methane-driven devices exceeds 340,000 -- or more than two for every producing natural gas and oil well in the Texas-sized province.
The offending hardware, high in reliability and low in cost since its 1940s introduction as an early form of automation, is so common that industry assumes it is everywhere and does not keep track of the machinery in asset or equipment inventories, the team found.
The sheer scale of methane bleeding surprised even the experts. The field trial team only expected mediocre results from cleaning up pneumatic control devices at first. An initial forecast only anticipated annual emissions cuts equivalent to 5,300 tons of carbon dioxide, at an average cost of C$5.66 per ton (US$3.96) from 200 conversions.
But much higher improvement potential was discovered then confirmed. The team found and cleaned up 1,062 gas-driven pneumatic control devices, and scored a 53,100-ton annual emissions cut for an average cost of C$2.09/ton (US$1.46).
The exercise included discovering that the cleanup, at up to 40% of production sites, is a simple matter of taking the methane-bleeding devices off aging wells where gas and oil flows have tapered off to levels that no longer require the controls needed in their youth.
The replacement for methane-bleeding pumps is an eco crowd-pleaser: solar-powered electric pump kits invented by an Alberta firm, Sirius Instrumentation and Controls Inc., that CETAC-West helped to turn into a standard industrial supply.
Even in northern Alberta, where daylight hours are short during long winters, the zero-emissions sets of light collecting generator panels, insulated batteries and electric pumps turned out to work reliably.
Virtually every Alberta well has one or two pneumatic pumps for injecting materials into production flows. The equipment does essential chores such as distributing anti-freeze glycol to prevent formation of slush-like gas hydrates that create pipeline hazards.
Up to 145,000 gas-driven pumps -- nearly 90% of a total 163,000 running in Alberta -- are eligible for zero-methane emissions replacements, the field test team estimates. The solar-powered hardware does the job for an average cost of C$4.78 (US$3.35) per equivalent ton of carbon dioxide pollution elimination.
The Sirius system improves on a previous generation of imported solar power equipment that was not designed for Canadian conditions and fared poorly. A formal greenhouse gas reduction measurement protocol, to make solar-powered pumps eligible for carbon tax savings, has been proposed to the provincial government.
The field trials team's target selection anticipated the half of the environmental policy announced last November by the Alberta government that covers the vast web of wells, production sites, processing plants and pipelines which spans the province, outside of coal-fired power plants and oil sands complexes.
As of 2025, the new Alberta policy calls for a 45% methane emissions reduction. An advisory panel report that guides the government sets targets for annual cuts equivalent to 12 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2020 and 20 million tons as of 2030.
The carbon tax will make greenhouse gas emissions reduction steadily more economically attractive by only starting at C$20/ton (US$14) in 2017, jumping by 50% to C$30/ton (US$21) in 2018, then continuing to rise likely at the annual national inflation rate.
In Canada and especially Alberta, political and popular pressure for action on greenhouse gas emissions has reached a point where companies are anxious to show eco-citizenship.
"We took this on ourselves," CPC President Ken Lueers told the Calgary field trials workshop. "It wasn't something our corporate office in Houston told us to do. It wasn't something the government told us to do. We found a way to go and enhance the economics and competitiveness of our operation through implementation of green technologies."
His firm seeks corporate converts to restore the industry's battered image. "We're here to share," Lueers said. "We absolutely do not -- and I repeat, do not -- believe our energy efficiency program is a competitive advantage for our company.
"We're all facing the same challenges, finding ways to produce our oil and gas with fewer emissions and a smaller environmental footprint. We also need to stay competitive. Our aim is to build collaborative relationships and share everything we've learned."