Despite mounting pressure from international organisations and governments worldwide to reduce carbon emissions, a large quantity of oil and gas companies continue to carry out routine gas flaring practices. While some have curbed flaring through shifting practices to more environmentally friendly alternatives, others are failing to seek a different solution. And without strict regulations to curb the practice, the situation is unlikely to change.
Gas flaring is when natural gas is burned in oil production operations. This activity has long been practised for a number of reasons. For example, it is cheaper to flare waste gas than to recycle it. Companies looking to stop the practice would have to capture, transport, process, and sell the gas, which is not viewed as financially viable. While gas flaring is wasteful, it is relatively safe, making it the preferred choice for many oil companies. The practice mainly continues due to a lack of specific regulations to curb it. On average, around 140 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas is flared every year.
The World Bank’s 2022 Global Gas Flaring Tracker Report showed that flaring fell by 3 percent between 2021 and 2022, from 144 bcm to 139 bcm. This equates to approximately 315 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 42 million tonnes of methane emitted. The high level of flaring in 2021 was largely associated with resumed oil operations following a year of pandemic, which drove oil output up significantly. The report showed that Nigeria, Mexico, and the United States contributed the highest level of gas flaring in 2022, these were followed by Russia, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Venezuela, and Libya. These countries accounted for almost three-quarters of flare volumes but just half of global oil production. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan and Colombia significantly reduced their flaring activities.
The World Bank pointed out that the gas flared in 2022 was equivalent to the amount of electricity Sub-Saharan Africa produces each year. In its report, the organisation highlighted the potential to recycle rather than waste the gas, to boost access to energy in some of the world’s poorest countries. It also noted the scarcity of natural gas last year in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on Russian energy.
In 2015, the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership launched the “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030” (XRF) initiative, calling on governments and companies to end routine flaring by the end of the decade. Those that voluntarily commit to the scheme are expected to report their flaring activities and progress to curbing the practice. However, most governments have yet to officially regulate flaring, making participation in the scheme limited.
While the focus internationally is mainly on decarbonisation, energy organisations, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), have repeatedly stated the harmful nature of methane. It also warms the planet, at a rate of around 80 times more than CO2, and it can harm public health. At the COP26 climate summit in 2021, the U.K. government supported the establishment of a global methane pledge, aiming to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030. While the U.K.’s North Sea Transition Authority has made progress in reducing flaring activities, the country continues to flare around five times more methane than Norway, which produces twice as much oil. There are now fears that the U.K. will fail to meet its climate pledges unless it puts an end to gas flaring and captures gas more from leaking pipes by around 2025. The IEA believes that making these changes could reduce the methane emissions from the U.K. oil and gas sector by around 80 percent.
And it’s not just the U.K. that could benefit from stopping gas flaring. earlier this year, an investigation by the BBC measured pollution levels near oil fields in Iraq to better understand the impact of gas flaring. The documentary suggested that some of the world’s biggest oil companies are not fully reporting their flaring emissions, meaning that the progress being made on climate pledges is often highly overstated. The filmmakers measured benzene in the air in communities around four of Iraq’s oil fields, including Rumaila, the biggest in the country. The investigation also analysed urine samples from children, which revealed the presence of toxins that are linked to gas flaring exposure. Benzene, which comes from gas flaring, has been linked to cancer, particularly childhood leukaemia. This was the first time that public data was collected on pollution levels in these communities, suggesting the health impact of gas flaring could be much worse than was thought.
Oil and gas companies continue to flare gas as the practice is long-established, easy, and low-cost. Further, a lack of appropriate government regulation on flaring activities allows them to do so. The negative impact of the practice on the environment and public health has been largely understated in many parts of the world, and recent data suggests that many companies may be underreporting their flaring activities. To achieve the climate pledges set out in the Paris Agreement and annual COP summits, companies must commit to stopping flaring, which could be better enforced through legally binding regulations and national flaring-cutting schemes.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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