Investing in Natural Gas Leak Detection

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted August 8, 2013

You’re the CEO of an oil company. Your vice president rushes into your office to tell you an explosion occurred on one of your natural gas fields that resulted in the deaths of eight workers.

No immediate cause has been ascertained, but as the weeks go by, an investigation ensues by the local authorities, and a company by the name of Picarro is contracted to test the air for methane. It turns out the air contained high amounts of methane – so much that an accident was inevitable.

picarro surveyorThe leak was traced to one of your pipelines.

Not only did you find out that you were losing money on a daily basis, but your company could be in the precarious position of a lawsuit or negligence charges.

Worst of all, eight people lost their lives on your watch.

The scenario seems fear-based, but it is a reality, and it can all be prevented with the company I just mentioned.

In fact, the fictional scenario I depicted is very similar to an incident that happened in 2010, when an explosion on a Pacific Gas & Electric (NYSE: PCG) worksite killed eight people and destroyed 30 homes in San Bruno, California.

That is why Picarro can be such a useful asset to oil and gas companies looking to safeguard local communities and their commodities.

The company has been selling technology that measures greenhouse gases to scientists all over the world.

Picarro is not a watchdog agency looking to oust pipeline leakers, although the company has done work for the EPA. But its services can benefit regulators and producers. Many in the energy industry are not aware of natural gas leaks, and there is no concrete data on them from the Energy Information Administration or any other analytical body.

But the problem could be more prevalent than many realize, and entire neighborhoods or worksites could be in danger, especially since natural gas production has increased in the United States.

Picarro Goes Mobile

Picarro, however, offers a service to help prevent these situations. The company detects leaks early, allowing companies to catch and repair the breach.

There is such high demand for this service, the company formed a mobile unit called Picarro Surveyor for Natural Gas Leaks.

You’ll immediately recognize one of Picarro’s signature vans, with its high antenna anemometer that immediately takes air samples in the vicinity and measures the direction and the speed of the wind. The samples are then transferred into the trunk of the car where a chamber is located, with two mirrors on opposing sides. Within this chamber, lasers reflect off both mirrors back and forth for an accurate reading of methane levels.

These mobile sensors are 1,000 times more sensitive than standard equipment and will be able to detect leaks on the road instantly. There is no need for clients to wait for walking surveyors and lab results; company reps can see methane leaks in real time on their smartphones as Picarro is testing.

The data is converted into a 3D model in the shape of plume gas. Not only can Picarro trace the origin of the leak through this 3D model, but the mobile unit can easily discern whether or not the atoms that comprise methane are from landfills, marshes, or leaks from pipelines.

This testing can be done in neighborhoods, metropolitan areas, and isolated work fields, with the results being the same.

The type of system Picarro uses can benefit any industry that works with natural gas: utilities, manufacturing centers, refineries, and most of all, producers.

Unlike oil pipelines, a breach in pipelines that carry natural gas can be virtually undetectable.

Let’s take the Bakken, for instance, where huge amounts of flared gas have been released into the air because of lacking pipeline networks. There is so much flare gas in North Dakota, it would have been enough energy to supply power to Chicago and Washington D.C. homes in one bundle.

Methane is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide when it comes to environmental damage, and it can be a deadly situation. Like carbon monoxide, no one really knows methane is in the air before it is too late.

That is why Picarro can provide a valuable service in detecting natural gas breaches in order to prevent any more natural gas from being wasted. It is not only helpful in preserving the environment, but it is also a safety issue for workers. And it can be a cost-saver for energy companies.

Picarro Clientele

Energy producers would be wise to take advantage of Picarro’s services. It is a safe bet against future regulation, and the EPA is already looking into the regulation of methane levels.

The company’s mobile department is new, but it is picking up new clients as the business grows.

Utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric Company have already taken advantage of Picarro’s services. Pacific is also training its employees to use methane sensor technology. And Picarro is offering a ride-along for people in the energy industry to see how testing and service works.

Two of America’s largest natural gas producers, Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM) and Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK), would do well to take advantage of this technology, but just about any business that deals with natural gas or methane on a mass scale can use this service.


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