Using Continuous Monitoring with Intelligent Analytics to Address Fugitive Emissions

Amongst international efforts to address the effects of climate change is the sense of urgency to reduce global emissions. Ambitious emissions reduction goals are being adopted worldwide to combat rising global temperatures, with many countries committing to a net-zero emissions target by 2050. Therefore, efforts to reduce emissions must be accompanied by emissions monitoring and obtaining an accurate measurement of baseline emissions to evaluate the effectiveness of emission reduction strategies.

By Michelle Liu, EIT, M.Eng., Dennis Prince, CEO, P.Eng., M.Sc., Airdar Inc.

Fugitive emissions are unintended re­leases of gas or vapour and present challenges in many industries. Often, a small number of large leaks, called super-emitters, contribute to a signifi­cant portion of overall emissions. This suggests that there is a considerable opportunity to reduce emissions by locating these super-emitting sources. However, the uncertain nature of fugi­tive emissions presents challenges to emissions monitoring.

Fugitive emissions can occur from pres­surized equipment or equipment com­ponents such as pipe flanges, valves, and pumps. The challenge is that they can also be found in unexpected lo­cations, making them hard to predict. Adding to this uncertainty is the vari­ability of the emission rate over time; an understanding of this variability is needed to build an accurate emissions profile.

Traditionally, fugitive emissions are monitored in leak detection and repair (LDAR) programs using either Method 21, a methodology developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agen­cy (EPA) or optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras. These scheduled inspections are performed a few times a year as required by the regulator using one of these approaches. In Method 21, a sens­ing instrument is brought directly to ev­ery regulated equipment component at the facility to detect a leak. OGI cameras provide a visualization of the emission plume and can be held a few feet from the suspected emission source. Howev­er, these methods are considered peri­ odic approaches and leaks that occur between scheduled inspections could go undetected for a long period of time. These types of directed approaches also introduce confirmation bias since an assumption of where and when a leak will occur must be made to check for leaks. Thus, leaks in unexpected lo­cations are easily missed through peri­odic approaches. This also means that it is difficult to identify plumes from off­site emission sources that are causing problems for operators at a site using these methods.

More recent developments in emis­sions monitoring technologies include satellites, drones, vehicle-based moni­toring, and aircraft. These technologies are considered indirect approaches since the sensing instrument does not need to be placed near the emission source. This offers the ability to pro­vide emissions monitoring over a large geographical area and reduces the in­fluence of confirmation bias. However, these methods continue to only provide monitoring on a periodic basis, making them still vulnerable to missing leaks.

The challenges of monitoring fugitive emissions have not been fully over­come with traditional and other more advanced technologies. However, this problem has already been solved in the animal kingdom – by a polar bear! A polar bear possesses the remarkable capability of being able to detect a seal from great distances over a vast area. The polar bear’s ability to do this is made possible through its nose, which is continuously detecting plumes from a seal, and its brain, which is continuously processing the col­lected data. Polar bears do not hunt blindly but are directed by intelligence on the seal’s location obtained by analyzing plumes in the wind. With this capability, the polar bear does not need to approach and smell every hole in the ice to find a seal but can use its sense of smell to guide it to its next meal.

Figure 1: The THC emission rate of a tank where a noticeable reduction in emissions can be seen around June 9.
Figure 2: Continuous monitoring system configuration at the SAGD facility and locations of important emission sources identified by the system.

Likewise, a continuous monitoring system can be utilized to locate emission sources that are impacting a facility and provide intelligence to personnel looking for leaks. Using one or more sensors, which are analogous to the nose of the polar bear, concentration data and wind data including wind speed and wind direction are collected. This data is then analyzed using intelligent analytics, which is analo­gous to the brain. Analytical procedures visualize a plume in the data, find the direction to the source, perform trian­gulation if multiple sampling points are used, and quan­tify emissions once the distance to the source is known. There is a real opportunity to save resources being spent to periodically check all components in a facility by instead targeting inspections only to components that are leaking, which are identified through the intelligence provided by continuous monitoring systems.

Quantification of an emission source can be performed similarly to how the flow rate through a pipe is calculated:

  1. First, find the cross-sectional area of the plume.
  2. Determine the flux using concentration and wind velocity.
  3. Obtain the emission rate using the previously calculated cross-sectional area and flux.

Continuous monitoring systems with intelligent analytics have emerged as a promising solution for overcoming the challenges of monitoring fugitive emissions. This approach has been utilized to track various types of compounds in­cluding methane, hydrogen sulphide (H2S), benzene, 1,3-bu­tadiene, and mercaptans. The system has been applied in the oil & gas, chemical, wastewater treatment, and waste management industries and has proven to be an effective method for identifying the locations of emitting sources and quantifying fugitive emissions.

The continuous monitoring approach offers several advantages over periodic approaches:

  • 24/7 monitoring of all emission sources.
  • The ability to monitor emissions at a site without the need for a techni­cian or operator to be present.
  • Can monitor any compound for which a detector is available.
  • Reduces confirmation bias allowing for both onsite and offsite monitor­ing coverage.
  • Allows facility managers to effec­tively direct existing resources and enable cost savings by inspecting only the leaking components in­stead of every piece of equipment, whether it is leaking or not leaking.

The advantages of continuous moni­toring in overcoming the challenges of monitoring fugitive emissions will be further demonstrated through the fol­lowing two case studies at a midstream and an upstream oil and gas facility.

Figure 3. The emission rates of THC and H2S at the SAGD facility. A noticeable decrease in emissions is observed after site interventions were made.

Case Study 1: Detecting Fugitive Emissions at a Gas Plant

At a midstream oil & gas facility locat­ed in Canada, a continuous monitoring system consisting of two sampling locations connected to a central in­strument was set up to monitor to­tal hydrocarbon (THC) levels. After a couple of months of monitoring and collecting data, the system identified several important emission sources. These included sources at the tanks, an unexpected source at the compres­sor station, and an offsite source that was causing issues at the gas plant. Upon further investigation, it was dis­covered that this offsite source was a sour gas well owned by a neighbour­ing operator. Odorous plumes from this offsite source would blow onsite as the wind changed directions. This caused confusion for the operators as they believed the issue was coming from within the gas plant. With this information, they were able to con­tact their neighbouring operator to address emissions coming from the sour gas well.

An initial investigation using handheld detectors could not locate the unex­pected emission source at the com­pressor building. However, the mon­itoring system continued to indicate a leak present in that area. A second investigation of the compressor build­ing was performed and eventually, a vent approximately 1.2 m off the top of the compressor building was found to be the source. Instead of discharg­ing pure air, the vent was found to be releasing 4% air and 96% THC, which was composed of 94% methane. Ini­tially, operators were not able to find the leak as only one side of the build­ing was inspected. It was assumed that a leak would most likely occur in this area, which introduced confirma­tion bias during the inspection.

From this case study, one can see that emissions can occur in unexpected locations. Normally, components located in areas that are difficult to access are deferred in an LDAR pro­gram. Without the capability of the continuous monitoring system to pro­vide unbiased, sitewide monitoring of all equipment, the emission event oc­curring at this vent could have gone undetected for a while.

The continuous monitoring system is also able to capture the variability in the emission rate over time. This fea­ture allows operators to evaluate the effectiveness of implemented mitiga­tion strategies. Here, changes were made to the facility’s operations to reduce the frequency of venting at the tanks. As shown in Figure 1, these im­provements saw a noticeable decrease in emissions from the tanks starting around June 9. The continuous moni­toring system provides valuable infor­mation to demonstrate the success of implemented mitigation strategies.

Case Study 2: Odour Concerns at a Steam- Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) Facility

A SAGD facility was experiencing odour issues related to high levels of H2S. Known sources of emissions were identified including the hot lime soft­ener (HLS) system. A costly interven­tion was being considered that would involve tying the vent of the HLS sys­tem to the flare to burn the steam con­taining H2S that was coming from the HLS system. Before going ahead with its implementation, facility managers wanted to be certain that this interven­tion would solve the odour issues. A continuous emissions monitoring sys­tem measuring both THC and H2S levels was implemented to better understand the baseline profile of emissions at the site. The system consisted of a high-end instrument centrally located within the facility with several remote sample in­lets connected to the system through tubing as shown in Figure 2.

After a period of monitoring, important emission sources affecting the facility were identified. Unsurprisingly, the HLS system was identified as an important source. Other major sources of emis­sions that were identified included the tanks and an unexpected offsite source at their wastewater treatment plant lo­cated just outside the perimeter of the facility. Overall emission rates were ob­tained and showed that the HLS system was not the most significant source of emissions. Instead, the tanks were the largest cause of emissions, sometimes venting as much as 1,000 times their normal rate. With this information, in­terventions were made by strengthen­ing the structures of the tanks to allow for less frequent venting. This produced a significant reduction in emissions as can be seen in Figure 3. The continuous monitoring system provided managers with information to make an informed decision on which mitigation strategy was the most appropriate.

Periodic monitoring approaches fail to capture the emission rate variability over time. Figure 4 shows the emission rate of a single tank observed by the continuous monitoring system and five periodic measurements taken by a hi-flow sampler over the same 18-month monitoring period. As can be seen, the quantification performed with a hi-flow sampler matched the emission rate de­termined by the continuous monitoring system at the time of the periodic mea­surements. However, when the techni­cians were not onsite for such a survey, large spikes in the emission rates were missed by the periodic approach.

Capturing these spikes offers important information on the site’s overall emis­sions profile. The average emission rate measured by the continuous monitor­ing system was five to seven times larg­er than snapshot readings taken by the hi-flow sampler because of these inter­mittent spikes.

Figure 4. The emission rate of THC from a single tank was measured by both continuous and traditional monitoring approaches over an 18-month period.


With emissions at the forefront of major global issues, knowing and measuring emissions is becoming increasingly important. Continuous monitoring with data analytics is providing information about emissions that were once un­known and thought not possible to de­termine. The exact location of an emis­sion source and its emission rate over time can be calculated by collecting air concentration and wind velocity data.

With this data, baseline emissions and key emission sources for an entire site can be defined and provide operators with actionable information to further improve their operations. Continuous monitoring offers distinct advantages over traditional methods (LDAR and OGI cameras) and other periodic ap­proaches (aircraft and satellites), mak­ing it a powerful tool for effectively managing emissions.

Michelle Liu graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering in 2018 and completed a Master of Engineering at the University of Alberta in 2022. Michelle is a member of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) and has experience working in both industrial and research settings. She is currently an Engineer-in-Training and Data Scientist at Airdar Inc., applying intelligent analytics to data to locate and quantify emissions.
Dennis Prince obtained a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering in 1993 from the University of Alberta and is a Professional Engineer with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA). With 25 years of experience in emissions monitoring, his experience includes eight years of working as an environmental consultant. Dennis is the inventor of the Airdar technology and is currently the CEO of Airdar Inc. In 2003, Dennis realized that ambient air concentration data could be used to visualize plumes of airborne compounds and track them back to their sources. Since then, his focus has been on developing Airdar to help industry address emission-related issues to protect the environment and the people in it. Dennis has led numerous projects in the oil & gas, chemical, wastewater treatment and waste management sectors using the Airdar technology to locate and quantify emissions related to problems such as odours and greenhouse gas emissions.
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