Beacon of waste

Stop burning flare gas

Excess natural gas is being flared, or burnt off, at a flare stack at the refinery in Tula
Burn baby burn. Source: Reuters

Huge flare-gas flames can be seen burning wherever oil is produced, whether at sea or on land. The flames, burning round-the-clock, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, are even visible from space, making them literally a beacon of waste. Oil producers release around 150 billion cubic meters of flare gas each year, which translates into 350 million tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Looking at a few examples of what could be achieved instead adds a whole new and alarming economic and ecological dimension to this madness. The 150 billion cubic meters of gas, for example, could cover the global need for gas for 20 days or meet the needs of France and Germany, two industrial countries, for a whole year. The carbon dioxide released during flaring is equal to the amount released by 77 million cars. To put this into context, 62 million cars were registered in Germany on January 1, 2017.

But it isn’t only the environment that suffers. Releasing unused methane, which is expensively mined in gas fields in other parts of the world, is a huge waste of capital from a macroeconomic perspective. Methane is valuable; clean natural gas technologies for transport and power generation are essential for the transition toward a sustainable energy supply.

In 2012, the International Energy Agency called for a “Golden Age of Gas.” Since then, this resource has changed energy production globally. In some rare, good news for the environment, gas has replaced coal as the backbone of energy production in the United States and is the main driver of lower carbon emissions there. Likewise, in global container shipping, emissions are dropping with the use of gas as a fuel.

Releasing unused methane, which is expensively mined in gas fields in other parts of the world, is a huge waste of capital.

Technological solutions that enable a sensible, economic use of such associated gases are already available. They range from channeling gases from wells through local production facilities and decentralized power generation to highly technical refining and storage in gas distribution networks. These technologies are ready and waiting; they have been tried and tested. The fact that they are barely used might not be surprising given current economic circumstances, but politically, this is a scandal.

Experience shows that political regulation is needed, as it gives companies a way to justify investments they need to make. At the same time, the costs of the necessary technology fall, thanks to economies of scale, increasing standardization and innovation.

Political incentives would definitely work to combat gas flaring as we can see from the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR). Launched in 2002, the program was targeted at national governments, companies and non-governmental organizations. Its successes were encouraging, starting with the 18-percent reduction of flare gas volumes in Nigeria – Africa’s biggest oil producer – between 2013 and 2015. Azerbaijan, also a partner of the program, cut flare-gas emissions by 50 percent in the same period, due only in part to a reduction in oil drilling.
These successes are good news – but they cannot hide the fact that absolute volumes of flare-gas emissions worldwide have risen continually since 2010. If politicians don’t draw the line, flaring will continue to be a problem in the future.

Now, all eyes are on Bonn as the international community gathers for COP23, complete with delegates and negotiators, through November 13. It is the task of the 20,000 diplomats, politicians and civil society representatives to implement the Paris climate agreement and support it through concrete measures, to create a climate neutral global economy by 2050.

The path to achieve this goal is complex and difficult. Even in Germany, where billions of euros have been invested in expanding renewable energy, the goals we have set ourselves have proven hard to reach.

Viewed in this context, the grotesque waste of resources associated with flaring is practically a present to delegates. It allows them to achieve enormous successes for protecting the climate with simple instruments. Furthermore, it provides a unique opportunity to transform a huge environmental problem into an economic opportunity. The way we deal with gases associated with oil drilling deserves a spot high on the COP23 agenda.

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