How Rice made Melissa Yuan '15 a sustainability-in-energy storyteller

The mechanical engineering alumna is a Midstream Certification Engineer at Project Canary.

Melissa Yuan headshot

“When you give any presentation, each audience has at least a mild interest in what we have to say, but they need to be told a story,” said Melissa Yuan ’15. “Thanks to Dr. Tracy Volz and ENGI 120, I had this amazing opportunity right off the bat to learn to create messaging and then stand in front of people to deliver it.”

The Rice University mechanical engineering alumna said the course culminated in student teams presenting their product to an audience of engineers from a wide variety of backgrounds. “Dr. Volz did an amazing job of emphasizing how to convey not just the details of your work but the need to sell your message. Show where you started, why this work is important, and frame it in that context. Talk about your research and what you’ve done, the iterations you’ve been through, and tie it all up in a big bow: this is where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow.”

Yuan said engineers have good ideas, but without the flip side of the coin – effective communication to tell people what they have done – the products and innovations will sit on a shelf and gather dust.

“And the most important part of your message is when you sit down and define clearly the ideas you want to get across. Work toward that goal in your messaging the same way you – as an engineer – work toward an end goal in the lab or field,” said Yuan.

Her flair for storytelling did not initially feel like an asset when she began her career in Houston’s oil and gas industry. Yuan found herself surrounded by long-term engineers who had ‘always done it this way’ so they felt no need to innovate, let alone craft effective messaging for new ideas. Everyone already knew what they did, and it worked.

“Oil and gas is so much more than just punching a hole in the ground and pumping out money. That was all the world seemed to care about though, and the industry had grown comfortable. People had little incentive to change,” she said.

“But my team at Anadarko had created a new facility – a way of doing things – and it had a lot of benefits. I was tasked with presenting our new facility in one of the biggest midstream industry conferences in the United States. We’d had a lot of struggles and worked through them, and my Rice training allowed me to tell our story to the technical audience in a way that resonated with them. The feedback was astounding. Any time the audience asks questions for 45 minutes after your presentation, you know you have a hit.”

Part of Yuan’s presentation success was her attention to detail in the slides themselves. She joked that most engineers tell a story with 10,000 bullet points. Rice-trained engineers are taught concise messaging, data visualization, and how to improve their slides by using clean and simple aesthetics. They also learn to refrain from including everything they know about the problem and its solution.

“Dr. Volz always told the presenters she coached that each of us is ‘the expert in the room.’ You will never be able to tell an audience everything you know in a 15-minute presentation. You have to decide what to tell them,” said Yuan.

Although she took pride in the projects she completed for over six years in the oil and gas industry, Yuan felt increasingly drawn to work in areas that supported greater sustainability. She recognizes the current benefits from oil and gas as relatively cheap fuel and energy sources, and there’s global demand for refined petroleum products to create a wide range of products from airplane parts to spandex. But she also believes the oil and gas industry must be held to a higher standard.

She said, “I’d love to electrify the world, and soon, but oil and gas is here at least for my lifetime. That doesn’t mean the industry should not be held accountable or pushed to be better at sustainable practices. When we look at the industry’s impact on climate change, there’s just so much low hanging fruit.

“I joined Project Canary because they are trying to help bend the curve on climate change. Project Canary is a climate data and environmental assessment company focused on providing third-party sustainability performance data. Our first area of focus is identifying, measuring, and reducing methane emissions in both the upstream sector (drilling, completing, and production) and midstream sector (processing and transportation).

When oil and gas – and even coal – are pulled from the ground, errant methane gas is released in the process. There are two types of emissions in oil and gas extraction and production. Operational methane emissions occur when natural gas is flared or vented. Fugitive methane emissions escape through small leaks in valves and other equipment. Drilling and production companies already self-report their emission levels to organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and its counterparts in Europe and around the world; Project Canary is unique in providing a third-party, independently verified source.

“When a drilling or production company reaches out to us, we create data-driven measurements for their methane emissions, both fugitive and operational,” said Yuan. “We also provide a holistic review of an operator’s stewardship toward the environment and community. Similar to the way LEED certification developed as a dependable framework for sustainability-focused practices in the building industry, Project Canary developed its TrustWell™ certification to differentiate companies creating responsibly sourced gas (RSG) from the ‘always done it this way’ companies.”

Using Project Canary’s TrustWell certification in fall 2021, Southwestern Energy brokered the first deal on RSG to meet demand for this product in the northeastern United States. Globally, demand for natural gas is high but locations like the European Union impose responsibly sourced restrictions that most suppliers have not previously attempted to meet.

Yuan said, “We are at the cusp of consumers starting to care more about the kind of natural gas they purchase. Investors are beginning to care. Our certifications and our data driven measurements help everyone, including the public, make more informed decisions.

“Only recently has technology developed to the point where we can confidently measure emissions in real-time. There are now hypersensitive, high-fidelity methane sensors that oil and gas sites can deploy to achieve real data. Current reporting frameworks use estimating factors, and studies have shown that this results in actual methane emissions being up to 10x higher than EPA estimates. Rather than a worst-case estimate, companies can now achieve precise measurements through Project Canary, proving they are good stewards across the environmental, social and governance sectors.”

Helping oil and gas companies tell their emissions success stories, and driving emissions improvements for others, was just one of Yuan’s goals when she joined the Denver startup. Coincidentally, many of her Project Canary colleagues are also former oil and gas industry engineers.

“We’re ex-oil and gas people, and we really care about cleaning up oil and gas and making it sustainable,” she said. “We know the frustrations that come from trying to work with advocacy group with ideas that don’t always seem to make sense. That’s why a team like ours — with decades of oil and gas experience — finds it easy to connect with current engineers and help them target a specific improvement. We stand by what we build and the outcomes we expect. We’ve all been in the industry, and we know it can do better.”