Dec. 27–A Longmont company over the past two years innovated a system to monitor emissions from oil and gas production sites it believes can spare both drilling operators from hefty fines and the atmosphere from additional pollutants.
Leaders of Mountain Secure Systems, which specializes in developing technologies for use in harsh conditions by the military and aerospace businesses, saw an opportunity to expand its reach with a product attractive to fossil fuel extractors.
Its efforts resulted in the creation of the Smoking Combustor Advance Notification System, or SCANS, a system consisting of equipment installed to an oil and gas combustor that automatically alerts the site’s operator to certain levels of “incomplete combustion.”
Combustors separate the useful material mined by a drilling operator from the volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that accompany it with intense heat. Incomplete combustion occurs when there aren’t sufficient amounts of oxygen in the mix and results in the release of harmful gases into the air, while complete combustion produces just water and carbon dioxide.
The closed-loop SCANS system sends oil and gas producers alerts via text message or email when it detects a level of incomplete combustion approaching what is needed to cause visible emissions of those gases before they actually become visible while rising from the combustor. That allows an operator to send someone to fix the problem before the smoke is noticed or becomes too environmentally harmful.
Fines from the Environmental Protection Agency for visible emissions can run upward of $15,000 per day, according to Mountain Secure engineer Mark Dixon.
“You can get in your car right now and drive anywhere around Northern Colorado and I guarantee you can find a smoking combustor,” Mountain Secure Systems President Ken Dickson said.
But enforcing the rules against visible emissions can be a tall task for regulators, Mark Dixon contends, as there are thousands of combustors running day and night — including many in areas rarely visited by people — in Colorado alone, and only a handful of regulators putting eyes on them.
“We created an autonomous system because nobody is actually out on these sites. They are very remote in cornfields or whatever, so nobody is actually monitoring (combustors),” Mark Dixon said. “The only real regulation right now through the EPA is a visual inspection of a site. If it’s smoking, then it’s not being combusted properly.”
But while Mountain Secure sees the private extraction industry as the potential customer base for SCANS, a leader of the Lafayette-based Together Against Neighborhood Drilling anti-fracking group believes the device would be useful to public sector oil and gas regulators.
“I would want it to also alert inspectors,” said Kate Christensen, founding member of the group.
Initial feedback on SCANS from extraction companies has been positive, Ken Dickson said, but prompting them to spend money on the product is difficult with the recent slides of crude oil prices.
Since multiple combustors often exist on a single site, SCANS was designed so just one sensor can monitor as many as 10 machines, with the price of the Mountain Secure system ranging from $2,500 to $6,000, depending on how many combustors it is set up to read, Ken Dickson said.
“We’re talking relatively low dollars to really allow the operators to make sure they aren’t putting anything harmful into the air through incomplete combustion,” Ken Dickson said. “… There’s a lot of resistance to it. If they add it into one or two sites, then it kind of mandates that they have to do all their sites.”
But the benefit of the product, for which a patent is pending, is clear to him, and its application could help curb local resistance to proposed drilling operations encroaching on Boulder County neighborhoods, he predicts.
“We believe that the oil and gas industry is an important part of the economic viability of this area. We also believe this is a very viable product that is part of being a good steward of the environment and good steward of the neighborhood,” Ken Dickson said. “We think it is a win-win situation for the oil and gas community, and all the people that are living close by (to extraction and combustion sites).”
While the Colorado Oil and Gas Association cannot endorse specific emerging technologies, its President Dan Haley characterized hydrocarbon production as the catalyst to products like SCANS.
“Today’s oil and natural gas industry is a technology industry, with several innovations driving emission reductions and improved efficiencies. Our businesses are part of the environmental solution, but a stable regulatory environment is critical for innovation as investment craves certainty,” Haley said.
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