Since there are no currently active contests, we have switched Climate CoLab to read-only mode.
Learn more at
Skip navigation
Share via:


States require drillers to “buy” wasted fuels from gas utilities. The utilities deploy methane-sniffing drones and mobile sensors.



Buying “wasted fuel”

Long-term thinking business leaders know our in-ground fuel resources will earn more money when extracted without waste.  However, our nation’s long-term interests are often sidelined for short-term gains.  For example, North Dakota is fracking for oil production in go-go-go mode.  They are not waiting for the natural gas pipelines.  As a consequence, much gas is flared.  (National Geographic, March 2013).  Also, see the ClimateColab cover picture for the "Fossil Fuel Sector" of an offshore oil rig flaring gas.

States can motivate long-term thinking by requiring drillers to pay the state for wasted gas.  The price for flared gas might be equal to the retail residential cost of natural gas.  The penalty price for methane released without flaring might be 30 times the retail residential cost.  The state could employ some of its earnings to deploy monitoring systems anywhere methane may escape, and the rest to support installation of control methods.


Thousands of monitors

Thousands of mobile sensors would be the “meters” for measuring any waste of natural resources: in a flare; as unburned methane post-flare; as leaked methane anywhere (active or closed drill site, electric power plant, or distribution system).  The State would pay a nominal sum for people (and businesses) to carry methane sensors connected to smart phones.  The small sensors would create ground-level 2-D maps of methane plumes while automatically summoning drones to create 3-D maps.  The 3-D maps are used to calculate the “sales” volume.

Category of the action


What actions do you propose?


1.     Include “wasted” gas fees in state legislation

Several states (including California) are upgrading their fracking regulations.  The proposed laws could include a fee for releasing pollutants, such as methane, as well as for wasting natural resources, such as flaring.

Authorize a state agency and a budget to buy a thousand beta methane sensors.


2.     Order many sensors and a few drones

Negotiate purchase of 100 beta units from each of up to ten possible manufacturers.  This arrangement allows innovation for several different kinds of sensors.  Options include:

·       A $5 sensor like the Sparkfun MQ-4 which might be mounted in a vehicle or drone as it draws 150-mA at 5-v.  It would record and transmit data only when a smartphone (may be charging) is plugged into the dash.

·       A $100 sensor (possible for orders of 10,000 or more) like the Sensordrone, which is Bluetooth connected to a smart phone.

·       A $100 sensor (possible for orders of 10,000 or more) that draws power from the smart phone

·       Remote laser sensors mounted on vehicles or aircraft, either of which may be autonomous.  (See references for the state of remote sensing art.  It appears the methane monitoring range of a surface vehicle or aircraft mounted laser is a few kilometers.)

Recruit and establish compensation for people to carry the sensors.  The sensors can be deployed on oil field trucks, bicycles, police cars, pedestrians, state vehicles, private vehicles.  Those carrying the sensors would be paid per data transmission.  Payments would vary depending on location, time of day, quality of the situation, and time from last calibration check.  The data transmitted would include methane (and perhaps other gas) concentrations, temperature, phone environment, and GPS location.  (Note the phone would “know” it was in a car, on a bicycle, or on a pedestrian by a combination of temperature and acceleration patterns.)

Integrate the real-time data from the close-in “contact” sensors and the remote (few kilometers) sensors so they can calibrate each other.  Apply signal processing and statistical math so that the net result of many inexpensive sensor readings provides better confidence of absolute accuracy than a few expensive accurate-and-precise sensor readings.

The combination of many small and a few drone sensors means people will not be bothered by numerous drones.  The drones would be employed:

·       In areas where there are few non-industry and non-regulator small sensors.

·       As an occasional audit of industry small sensors.

·       When a larger 3-D map of methane concentrations is needed.  (Larger than the ~30 meter range of hand-held remote sensing or when a surface vehicle cannot locate for a good line-of-sight.)

The expertise gained using distributed sensors to “meter” methane leaks will pay off for centuries.  States and countries can gather environmental data for regulating air and water quality with much better data at much lower cost.  Sensors will be available for most any contaminant or a surrogate of the contaminant.  The distributed sensor system can meter methane leaking from melting permafrost and disassociating hydrates as well as keeping the expanding bio-methane economy tight.  The map overlays of methane (or other pollutant) can be adjusted in real time on the Internet for all to see.  (We need to balance privacy, individual safety, and public safety issues for the sensor carriers.)  Government and business will both be more transparent.


3.   Implement a GHG price (dividend, tax, fee, credit, cap and trade auction, whatever).

The initial fee (above) is only on wasted fuels.  Eventually, humans must implement a greenhouse gas (GHG) price (dividend, tax, fee, whatever) that is applied at the well, mine, or escape point.  This GHG fee would be monitored internationally using the system refined on the “waste” sales.  (The thousands of monitors sending public data tend to prevent corruption in or “cheating” by countries.)

With relatively inexpensive natural gas available from U.S. (and other) fracking and Japanese hydrate mining technology, such a GHG fee could be relatively (overall) low-pain for most national economies, accelerating getting off coal.  

Note that the other components of this proposal do not depend on a global GHG fee, but such a fee would speed up the transition.


4.  Integrate with other Climate Change solutions

The inexpensively enforced, hard to cheat or corrupt, distributed monitoring system leaps one hurdle of a global GHG fee – trust.  Countries have to trust each other not to be cheating on their fossil fuel extraction, waste, and use.

A GHG fee makes any mitigation technology more economically competitive with fossil fuels.  Other components of the Ocean Foresters mitigation technologies to reverse global warming are explained in Related Proposals and the peer reviewed “Negative carbon via Ocean Afforestation.”


5.  The future biomethane economy

The Ocean Foresters include scientists, engineers, and others who can contribute to organizing and mining data collected by mobile sensors.  We expect to need such sensing and information management to expand and operate ocean macroalgal afforestation (OMA, aka: seaweed forests see references).

OMA could eventually replace 100% of the U.S. EIA projected global fossil fuel demand (which is projected to be 600 quads in 2035) using less than 9% of the world’s ocean surface.  It is likely that most OMA energy will be generated as bio-methane.    The larger the leak-tight methane economy infrastructure in 2025, the faster OMA can ramp-up to replace all fossil fuels (OMA needs up to a decade of research, development, design, and pilot operations). 

Natural gas producers can use the GHG fee to increase the value of methane as they increase the long-term reliability of the methane economy by investing in research and development to produce OMA’s bio-methane. They should experience better return on investment using the prospect of plentiful inexpensive bio-methane to increase demand for fossil methane than by seeking ever more expensive and difficult fossil methane.


Ocean Foresters' interest

The Ocean Foresters have a large-scale climate change mitigation and adaptation that produces bio-methane.  We need to detect and prevent our leaks of bio-methane.  We need the bio-methane distribution system to be without leaks.  We need more methane distribution and storage infrastructure than currently exists.


Who will take these actions?

Wasted gas and GHG fees

The long-term thinking leaders (representative or otherwise) of states and countries would legislate the above fees and “metering” mechanism to increase income from natural gas while betting oil's value will increase when extracted more slowly. (Think U.S. version of OPEC, but with technology.  Or think as long-term stewards of precious resources.)

In democracies, forward thinking oil and gas industry executives might support this legislation because:

1)     It is a fee-certain performance specification for the issue of leaking methane.  Unknown fines and prescriptive practices kill innovation, while the proposed system encourages innovation in both leak-tight operation and sensing.

2)     It improves the business bottom line to reduce waste.

3)     It amplifies their ability to find and reward their most effective employees.  Those are the ones who are safe and productive, not just those who talk a good game.  For example, would the same people have been in charge of the Deepwater Horizon with the same risk-happy attitude if they had been promoted on their ability to avoid methane leaks while producing in a “fish bowl”?

4)     It helps methane distribution companies find leaks before they become a hazard, in effect amplifying their workforce.

5)     It removes one argument against fracking.  

6)     It improves the public image of companies that waste less, and are better environmental stewards.

Those concerned that the methane economy would cause unacceptable global warming might support this legislation because of the potential global transparency of data on methane (and the potential to move to biomethane). 


Technology development and sales

Mark's profile contains a Table of Biographies for the Ocean Foresters.

Several companies are poised to sell the sensor technology, see “actions.”  More companies will enter the market, particularly those transitioning from the international defense industry as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq scale down.


Where will these actions be taken?

Initially in the U.S. and Europe.  Eventually, globally where there are shale plays (oil and gas in shale) and ocean macroalgal afforestation operations.

Fracking technology is going global quickly. Witness a conference "Water Management for Shale Plays", Argentina in April 2013.

Note that a pilot project on OMA is beginning in Fiji this year.


What are other key benefits?

A wasted gas fee and a GHG fee (dividend, credit, tax, whatever) both motivate the free market to innovate. Hard to know what technologies will emerge, but the results should be good for us and our grandchildren.

Ocean macroalgal afforestation (aka seaweed forests) offers food, biodiversity, and CO2 storage, in addition to bio-methane.  Ocean Foresters’ other finalist proposals explain how a GHG fee helps seaweed forests’ bio-methane displace fossil fuels faster and pay for storing legacy fossil CO2 than no GHG fee.

What are the proposal’s costs?

Costs depend on how you look at it. There is no free lunch.  The wasted gas fee can “pay for itself” over the long term because business will have more product left to sell.

In California, we may deploy 100,000 sensors at $100 each or $10 million plus another $5 million for a few drone-mounted sensors, plus $5 million for the computer hardware and software.  Operating costs may include $20 million to pay the smart phone sensor carriers an average of $200/year each, plus $10 million for operating the system and the drones.

California uses about 23,000 million therms of gas per year retailing for roughly $1/therm or $20 billion per year.  If the sensor and fee system cuts waste by 1%, it will be saving gas worth $200 million per year.  The gas industry might be persuaded to fund the initial deployment of sensors and first year of operation so that they can find and fix leaks before being subject to the wasted gas fees.

We are all paying for our increasing atmospheric GHG concentrations now in terms of severe weather disasters, increasing electric bills to pay for more air conditioning, higher price food, etc. Thus one might say the proposal is net zero cost, only shifting who is paying. For example: a U.S. carbon dividend would not cost any more than no dividend. It would just shift money from those using more fossil fuels to those using less fossil fuels.  It doesn't matter if the collected money is used (instead of taxes, as is the case now) to pay for recovery after Superstorm Sandy-like events or given as a tax credit to everyone filing a federal income tax return.


Time line

Californians have high public and political interest in fracking for its diverse and divisive potentials: U.S. energy independence, environmental hazards, and local jobs.  There is also high and divisive interest in New York, North Dakota, and Colorado.    High interest may mean wasted-gas-fee legislation could be passed in any of several states by February 2014.   Depends on how well opponents and proponents of fracking can work a compromise and motivate fence-sitting representatives.  (Go see the movie "Lincoln."  Note his compromises of principles and offering jobs to buy votes.  We need a few people on both sides who, like Thaddeus Stevens, realize that perfection is the enemy of the good.)

Example: States are already competing to host civilian-use drone testing sites.  Identify a few congresspeople who might swing vote for a GHG fee in exchange for their favorite town getting to host one of several GHG sniffer drone and underwater autonomous vehicle test/development centers.


Related proposals

Scaling renewables ….      “Fiji, then Indian Ocean Afforestation” highlights the inexpensive renewable energy and food production of ocean afforestation.

Replacing Diesel …         “Replace the diesel, reuse the engines, waste&seaweed biogas” would be a relatively inexpensive way to transition from diesel fuel to biogas fuel.

Geoengineering          The Ocean Foresters withdrew ocean afforestation because geoengineering is too controversial.

Shifting Cultures ….    “Mad Babies Saving Oceans” is a scenario wrapped into a video game employing the ocean afforestation ecosystem.

Electric power sector and Fossil fuel sector       “Save the methane!” suggests a carbon tax (credit, fee, dividend, …) to slow oil drilling, build the methane economy, and then ocean afforestation builds the biomethane economy.

Electric power sector and Fossil fuel sector       “Replace coal and oil with renewable natural gas (biomethane)” – Ocean afforestation provides the sustainable biomethane supply.



Crowcon’s LaserMethane mini (LMm)


Developing a New Laser to Detect Methane Leaks, June 27, 2013 — University of Adelaide, "We hope to accurately measure methane concentrations up to a distance of 5km," says project leader Dr David Ottaway,


Laser Sources for Methane and Ozone Sensing for Earth Observation Science


Remote sensing of methane gas by differential absorption measurement using a wavelength tunable DFB LD


N’Yeurt, A.D.R., Chynoweth, D.P., Capron, M.E., Stewart, J.R., Hasan, M.A. Negative Carbon via Ocean Afforestation. Process Safety and Environmental Protection 90 (2012) 467-474.