Tracking Invisible Emissions

When it comes to hunting down “fugitives” – environmental emissions that escape from tiny leaks in plant equipment – environmental specialists in the U.S.-based Enbridge Gas Transportation (GT) are increasingly turning to an advanced thermal imaging camera as their weapon of choice.

Advanced Camera Tech
Julia Knezek, Sr. EHS Coordinator for Enbridge Gas Transportation, prepares one of the FLIR thermal imaging cameras to detect fugitive emissions that otherwise might go undetected at Enbridge facilities.

“In the natural gas transportation business, you face the challenge of fugitive emissions that are not easy to see, smell or identify.  This camera allows us to actually see these emissions so that we can fix the problem promptly,” says Trey Moeller, GT’s Environment Manager.

Fugitive emissions are gases, such as methane, carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds, lost from compressor stations, processing plants and pipelines.

To detect fugitive emissions, GT has become an early adopter of a new piece of equipment – the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera. Combining advanced optics and software and using thermal imaging technology originally developed for the U.S. military, the camera allows users to pinpoint emission leaks in real time.

“The camera looks like a video camera and comes with a good-sized screen.  If there are emissions, they will show up on the infrared screen as a plume of vapour,” says Barry Goodrich, GT’s Environmental Systems Lead.

Goodrich says the camera provides rapid scan functionality, allowing for quicker identification and repair of leaks.  Staff can walk through plant sites, holding up the camera to screen hundreds of components in an hour, including difficult-to-access areas like vent stacks or tank roofs.  Once a leak is found, leaks are either fixed on the spot or tagged for later repair.

“You can step back and see the big picture of a facility, whether emissions are being released from large pieces of equipment. Or you can use the camera to trace piping throughout the entire plant to look at valve connections, flanges and compressor engines,” says Moeller.

According to Moeller, the camera technology was originally introduced at GT in 2009 during a trial, third-party demonstration at the Burlington and Justin compressor stations in Texas.

“We were facing impending federal greenhouse gas regulations, and Enbridge was planning to increase emission reporting throughout the organization. Our business unit wanted to be ahead of the curve,” explains Moeller.  

The 2009 demonstration proved so successful GT was able to identify a number of emission reductions at the facilities, contributing in part to its strong performance that same year  in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Natural Gas STAR Program, a voluntary government-industry program to reduce methane emissions.  In 2011, GT purchased three of the $80,000 cameras.

Today the equipment has become an essential part of GT’s environmental toolbox. Each year a third-party firm contracted by Enbridge uses the technology to inspect GT sites subject to federal greenhouse gas regulations. Last year 21 sites were surveyed. Company environmental specialists also employ the cameras to conduct up to 15 internal environmental, health and safety facility reviews each year. As well, field operators carry the camera during maintenance turnarounds and the commissioning of new facilities to check for leaks or efficiency improvements.  

“In some cases, we may have compressor engines that are running extra fuel. We’ll go through and analyze the fuel lines on the engines to find hose leaks and reduce emissions,” explains Goodrich.

He adds that internal demand for the technology continues to grow, with GT now planning to purchase additional cameras in 2013.

“Our focus as a pipeline company is to keep product in the pipe. This is another critical tool at our disposal to help do that safely and effectively.”