Gas flaring remains a big global problem, 2% of global CO2 emissions from energy

We’ve all seen it, at least in pictures: the tall smokestacks dotting producing oil fields, spewing fingers of flame into the air.  It’s known as associated gas flaring, and if it seems economically wasteful and environmentally nuts, well it is.  CAP’s Tom Kenworthy has the story.

A new report from GE Energy highlights the problem, and calls for renewed efforts across the globe to combat it.

How big is the problem? How much gas gets flared off? What’s the impact in terms of carbon pollution? The answers: Still plenty big, despite some progress in recent years; a lot; and pretty significant.

According to GE, 150 billion cubic meters of gas are flared each year, much of it in the Mideast, Africa, and Russia. That 150 billion cubic meters is about equal to all the gas consumed yearly in U.S. homes, and about a quarter of total U.S. annual use. The climate impact is equivalent to the emissions of 77 million cars, about 1/3 of the total U.S. fleet; or 2% of total worldwide emissions from energy sources; or the output of 125 medium-sized coal-fired electric plants.

According to GE, the technology is available to put this wasted gas to more productive use and is increasingly being installed. Solutions include using the gas to generate power, re-injecting gas to recover more oil, and shipping it to markets via pipelines. The policy framework to facilitate better practices is also no big secret.

But to significantly advance the progress made in recent years – a reduction in flaring of about 12 percent since 2005 – “will require a major, coordinated effort from central and regional governments, oil and gas producers, technology providers, and the international community” according to the GE report.

What is needed, says GE, is a mix of “punitive and incentive based approaches” depending on local and regional circumstances, including financial initiatives to “make it economically feasible to gather the supply and foster gas use.”

The report targets four strategies:

  • emphasize local solutions, including better education on the financial benefits and the creation of small-scale businesses to operate distributed energy and gas collection systems;
  • expand financing opportunities, including the Clean Development Mechanism created under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change;
  • encourage more effective national regulation and legislation, including price and royalty reforms
  • negotiate a new international agreement devoted to the flaring problem

Concludes GE: “Gas flaring reduction has the potential to be one of the great energy and environmental success stories, and it has the potential to be achieved within the next five years.”

— Guest Blogger Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

9 Responses to Gas flaring remains a big global problem, 2% of global CO2 emissions from energy

  1. BBHY says:

    Another reason to go with the electric car.

    The comparison between gasoline and electric always assumes that 100% of the electricity comes from coal, which is not true, and never includes all these other aspects of gasoline production. Also ignored are fracking (it’s also used for oil, not just natural gas), pumping in pressurized water or CO2, separating the water and oil as it comes out, spills, and the energy used to produce oil from the oil/tar sands/shale. All of these have environmental consequences.

  2. Lewis C says:

    The technology for converting ‘stranded gas’ supplies to methanol – which is easily made and transported – has been available for decades. The sheer profligate waste and pollution damages of continued flaring is among the best indictments of the oil industry’s incompetence and disregard for social and ecological wellbeing.

    With oil heading back to $147/barrel, and both Saudi and Mexican net exports of oil now in terminal decline, US dependence on the grossly destructive Canadian tar sands is being ramped up – but even their shills project a total output of only 3.4m barrels/day by 2025 – Thus the US is plainly facing liquid fuel shortages and unaffordability in the near to medium term.

    And still even a ‘Democrat’ government permits the wastage of national resources of inconvenient gas by flaring ?
    This degree of decadence is simply bizarre.



  3. Leland Palmer says:

    Venting it to the atmosphere is the worst option, of course. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, and ends up as CO2 anyway, after a half life in the atmosphere of roughly 10 years.

    Flaring is the second worst option.

    The third worst options would get some benefit out of it before it ends up as CO2.

    The second best option would be to burn it for some benefit, as methanol or for the production of electricity, and then deep inject the CO2.

    The very best option would be to burn it for some benefit, and then transform it into carbonate, via carbon capture and in situ mineral carbonation or some other carbonate producing process.

    There’s also the option of just leaving it in the ground, which is a great long term option, IMO. This would mean that petroleum production would have to stop, I guess.

    There might be other options, but these are the ones I know about.

  4. Gord says:

    When you add this wasted energy to that of wind energy wasted by the gigawatt because of a lack of decent sized battery technology … pretty soon it all adds up to real energy!!! (With fond rememberance of Senator Everett Dirksen)

    #1 BBHY, We generate enough here to cover off the energy of a Nissan Leaf plus a lot more just with 1500 Watts of PV solar. So even in an all coal generated Grid a small array of solar PV can make the e-car carbon neutral or at least greatly reduce its footprint.

  5. Susan Anderson says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve stolen a bit of it to post over at DotEarth, my chosen arena, along with a few choice words about expertise, which Joe Romm and his guests have, and which is largely lacking in our grandstanding anti-progress politicians.

    (It probably won’t show up over there for a bit, and commenters should note that their hosts often take a little while to get comments up, and not take it so personally)

  6. Brad Pierce says:

    I don’t understand the economics of this practice. Why does it make oil companies more money to waste this resource instead of to use it somehow? Is it because these wells are in isolated or dangerous places where industry would be difficult to sustain?

    This isn’t like coal seam fires,8599,2006195,00.html

    where there’s no obvious way to profit from saving the planet.

  7. Susan Anderson says:

    Brad, good point. We tend to forget the vast cost of waste in our shortsighted cozy regulatory failures (BP being the worst, with others not far behind).

  8. Methanol is not a good use of flared gas. It’s much more toxic than gasoline and is corrosive to certain materials. Fortunately you can convert it to gasoline or other liquid fuels:

  9. Brad Pierce says:

    @Susan Yes, no business expense yields better ROI than paying off politicians. Spend millions, get back billions. And as a sadistic fringe benefit, the billionaire sociopaths get to create a degraded sewer world.