Greenhouse gas abatement that makes some sense: methane-sniffing drones

Bad old carbon dioxide is not the only gas that contributes to the earth's net heat balance by trapping heat in the atmosphere. Another commonly used gas — methane, the chief constituent of natural gas — is more than 25 times as effective as CO₂ in trapping heat. Fortunately, methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter: about 12 years as opposed to the hundreds of years it takes for CO₂ to go away. So doing something about methane emissions promises to have much more of a near-term effect than anything we do with CO₂.

Enter Percepto, a company founded in Israel that recently moved to Austin, Texas, to market their services of sniffing out emissions of methane and 14 other gases using artificial intelligence (AI)-equipped drones. Their target market is refineries and petrochemical plants, where methane and other hydrocarbon gases can escape in leaks that can take days or weeks to find by technicians walking around with hand-held detectors.

Percepto's system, as outlined in an article that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, consists of a drone equipped with a wavelength-selective camera. Most hydrocarbon gases emit and absorb characteristic infrared wavelengths, and a cleverly designed imaging spectrometer can present the user with a photograph showing a cloud of methane made as visible as a cloud of red smoke from a cherry bomb firework.

Finding and fixing such a leak is not only good safety practice. In 2024, the Biden administration will begin to implement the Methane Emissions Reduction Program, a combination of over a billion dollars of funding to pay for programs like Percepto's, combined with steeply increasing fines for emitting methane and other greenhouse gases. Ariel Avitan, co-founder of Percepto, saw a business opportunity in providing large firms with a means of tracking leaks that is faster and more comprehensive than the older methods. So now, his firm is poised to help track down leaks and other sources of methane that have previously gone undetected.

Negligible effect

Percepto is to be congratulated for seeing a market niche and exploiting it. Methane itself is not a particularly valuable gas. When the cost of transporting it from a wellhead to the market exceeds what it can be sold for, producers typically flare it by burning it at the source. The government is coming down hard on flares, too, which may lead to other expensive issues, as even flares don't burn 100 percent of the gas they consume.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't waste or release any methane at all through oil and gas operations. But even if we had a magic wand to do that, it would decrease the world's budget of methane release by only 14 percent.

According to the International Energy Agency in Paris, France, the most profligate source of methane emissions worldwide is a natural one. Methane is emitted in wetlands by natural decomposition, and unless we are willing to drain all the wetlands, there's nothing we can do about the 32 percent that nature produces. The next largest source is agriculture, at 23 percent — think flatulent cows (there aren't any other kind). Oil and gas come next at 14 percent, then coal operations and something labelled as "waste," which probably means methane produced by landfills.

If anyone thinks that we're going to stop global warming by fixing all our methane leaks, this means that there is a disappointment in store. But in the current state of climate rhetoric, few people are going to think beyond the one step that can be summarised as "Greenhouse gases bad — must stop at any cost."


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As I have mentioned elsewhere, the climate has slowly been warming and the ocean levels slowly rising (we're talking millimetres here) since the early 1800s. And now that CO₂ levels have risen as much as they have, whatever effect that's going to have on the climate will be with us for the next couple of hundred years, even if we stopped 100 percent of all human activity that emits CO₂, including breathing. And stopping the breath of the 8 billion or so humans on the planet is exactly what some "deep ecologists" would like us to do — the folks who regard humanity as some kind of evil infestation of an otherwise pristine Earth.

Stoking fears

The sensible thing to do — the thing that would let most of those 8 billion people enjoy some of the benefits of modern technology that we in the US have enjoyed for many decades — is to figure out how to adapt to the relatively minor and certainly gradual changes that global warming is going to make, while picking low-hanging fruit with regard to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. If there's a six-foot hole in a dike in one place and a three-inch crack in another, the only reasonable thing to do is go after the six-foot hole first. And if you can more easily deal with the water over the dike than fix the dike, maybe that's the best thing to do.

Unfortunately, the debate — or more accurately, accepted doctrine — about global warming has left such notions behind. Most world leaders and their cadres of experts have bought into the easily propagated notion that if we don't do really drastic and painful things about greenhouse gas emissions right now, we're all going to die horrible deaths as the globe imitates an egg in a frying pan.

The fact that highly reputable people such as Steven Koonin have shown this oversimplification to be mostly false has no effect on something that has become the mass-psychology equivalent of a kind of hypochondria. It's like a patient that comes to a doctor with a pimple on his nose and says it's cancer and he's sure it's going to kill him.

We would try to talk reason to such a person, but it's easier than trying to talk sense to an international community that has bought into a severely distorted picture wholesale, and created huge institutional incentives to keep the delusion going.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad Percepto saw their opportunity and took it. People have a right to profit from laws that, however misconceived, do some incremental good. And it's certainly a good thing to stop methane leaks, even if it costs millions of dollars to do so. But one can still question the reasoning behind the laws, and wonder whether succeeding generations (if there are any) will scratch their heads over the strange panic about climate change that we are currently enduring.


Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Image credit: Pexels

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