Shooting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – as a matter of convenience? Drilling for oil releases gas, a side effect. In many drilling locations, gas is just burnt off to get rid of it quickly; this practice is so common that it is called “routine flaring.” In a few instances, gas build-up is sudden and severe, so it must be flared to avert explosion; this is called “safety flaring.”
Flaring is such a common practice that there are more than 10,000 gas flares active at any time. Flaring is harmful – in 2021, it sent 144 billion cubic meters into the atmosphere with a carbon dioxide input of 400 million tons – this is the same as 9 trillion miles of automobile rides.
Flaring sends more than carbon dioxide into the air; it also yields soot, or technically black carbon. According to the European Geoscience Union, 40% of the black carbon in the Arctic comes from gas flaring. Arctic ice cap melting increased because someone in a far-away oil field flared rather than saved gas. Flaring also sends other substances into the air: benzene – known to cause cancer; naphthalene, linked to eye and liver damage.
Who’s to blame? Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, the USA, and Venezuela flared the most gas over the last decade, but now China, Libya, and Mexico have started flaring. Gas flared and lost in 2021 could have powered all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Why not just stop flaring, as the World Bank’s Zero Routine Flaring Scheme (ZRF) proposes? The Scheme, introduced in 2015, now has 54 energy companies, and 32 national governments as supporters. There has been some progress. Norway taxes gas flaring; as a result, it has the lowest flaring rate. Kazakhstan introduced incentives in the local gas market that encouraged drillers to capture and sell gas, reducing flaring in the process.
Cost remains a factor: stopping routine flaring would cost an aggregate $100 billion. Why not just capture it and reuse it, or sell it? There are processing costs to remove some chemicals before the gas can be used. But the gas would be suitable for powering drilling sites, or perhaps useful for mobile electricity generation in the field. In the field, unwanted gas could be returned to the land rather than flared into the air. In fact, injecting the gas into the ground would raise pressure and in turn allow better flow of oil. Finally, gas might be treated to deliver to energy pipelines.
Pipelines, like the Alaska Pipeline or West Coast Energy Pipeline, are ubiquitous: in December 2020, there were 2,381 oil and gas pipelines in 162 countries – the combined pipelines’ total length is enough to circle the globe 30 times. On drilling sites where gas is now flared, could ancillary supply lines conveying gas collected and treated, instead of flared, join that circle?
BBC, Science & Environment. “Gas flaring: What is it and why is it a problem?” 29 September 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-63051458
Hussein, Mohammed. “Mapping the World’s Oil and Gas Pipelines.” 15 December 2021. Aljazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/16/mapping-world-oil-gas-pipelines-interactive
Puliti, Riccardo. “Boost energy security and cut methane emissions by reducing gas flaring and venting.” 6 October 2022. World Bank Blog. https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/boost-energy-security-and-cut-methane-emissions-reducing-gas-flaring-and-venting
World Bank. “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 (ZRF)” https://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/zero-routine-flaring-by-2030
Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Un