Comparing Approaches to Leak Detection and Repair for Upstream Oil & Gas

Leak detection and repair (LDAR) programs monitor equipment, components, and parts to identify and diagnose unintended leaks. 

As governments, investors, and the public increasingly demand that firms reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), an unrepaired leak can have severe financial, regulatory, and legal consequences. Not only that, but large volumes of flammable gas put workers, equipment, and surrounding communities at risk of fire or explosions. 

While there will always be various approaches to leak detection and repair, new technologies are enabling oil and gas operations to become more responsive while reducing costs and minimizing the volume of wasted product.

This article is part of a series on leak detection and repair for upstream oil and gas operations. To learn more, download our recent white paper: Overcoming the Challenges of Leak Detection and Repair.

Comparing Approaches - The Strengths and Weaknesses of Common LDAR Methods

There are already numerous approaches and methods to detecting and diagnosing leaks. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses depending on the scenario, application, and type of facility. And while each has a role to play within a larger LDAR strategy, many of these traditional methods come with significant limitations which reduce their effectiveness. 

Physical Inspections

Physical inspections are the most common method of detecting and diagnosing leaks. Depending on the jurisdiction, companies are required to conduct these inspections on a regular basis to ensure equipment is operating effectively and in good condition. 

Crews equipped with optical gas imaging (OGI) sensors or other specialized equipment drive to facilities and manually inspect hundreds of thousands of components for leaks, noting any issues and scheduling a future repair. This bottom-up approach provides a snapshot of emissions at a particular time and location. 

Despite their widespread use, physical inspections are expensive, time-consuming, and unable to detect leaks which occur between site visits. They also put workers at risk, as they must enter hazardous areas without advanced warning of the presence of flammable gas.

Piloted Aircraft

Small airplanes equipped with sensors overcome some of the challenges of physical inspections when conducting site-level emission surveys. This top-down approach to measurement takes numerous samples over a wider coverage area to determine the total volume of emissions at a facility.

These high-level scans, however, are less effective at determining the specific source of a leak. Further, inspections are expensive, as are the costs of acquiring, maintaining, and operating a plane. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) offer many of the advantages of planes at a far lower cost of acquisition and operation. Fixed-wing or rotary-propelled systems can be used to detect methane emissions at short and medium ranges, allowing for more precise detection of leaks within a facility. 

However, increasingly strict regulations on when and where UAVs can be flown are reducing their versatility across different environments. They are also highly impacted by weather conditions and are still time and location-dependent.

Mobile Ground Labs

Mobile Ground Labs (MGLs) consist of a vehicle equipped with a methane sensor and GPS to enable concentration mapping. Operators can measure methane levels while either stationary or on the move at a relatively low cost, especially over long distances or in dense urban areas.

However, MGLs are limited by weather, the existing roadway network, and the range of the facility. Like other methods, they are unable to differentiate between unwanted fugitive emissions and routine, intentional venting. 

A Better Approach - Continuous Monitoring of Upstream Operations

Each approach to LDAR mentioned above offers some advantages, and many oil and gas companies will use a mix of all methods as part of their LDAR strategy.

However, a key challenge with these approaches is that they are limited by the time and location the measurement was taken. This means that a leak can form between inspections and go unnoticed for weeks or months before repair. 

Instead, upstream oil and gas companies can implement continuous, 24/7 monitoring for LDAR. Fixed OGI sensors continuously monitor equipment, assets, and facilities to automatically detect leaks, spills, flames, or other anomalies that indicate a fault. 

The continuous approach bridges the gap between periodic inspections while still using equipment that is familiar and validated by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Instead of allowing leaks to flow undetected, operators are immediately alerted to the presence of gas and can take steps to identify the source, move workers out of the affected area, shut down equipment, and initiate a response. 

Overcoming the Challenges of Leak Detection and Repair 

Reducing the volume and impact of fugitive emissions from leaks is a key challenge for the sector. But traditional approaches to leak detection and repair are expensive, time-consuming, and limited in their effectiveness.

By taking a continuous approach, upstream oil and gas companies can implement effective LDAR programs and monitor multiple facilities from a single location. With a comprehensive view, operators can reduce waste, minimize emissions, and mitigate regulatory risk, all while continuing to improve performance. 

To learn how you can implement a more effective leak detection and repair program at your facility, download our recent white paper (registration required): Overcoming the Challenges of Leak Detection and Repair.