Despite big claims from a number of oil and gas companies, several failed to eradicate natural gas flaring by 2022. Will 2023 be any better, with rising pressure from environmental organizations and governments to decrease carbon emissions?
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has been unequivocal in its warnings about how gas flaring would contribute to climate change if it is not curtailed immediately, as well as the damaging impact of methane from flared gas on people’s health. While certain firms, such as Exxon, are leading the way in decreasing gas flaring from oil operations, tighter rules are required if the United States is to reach its climate goals.
When oil and gas consumption recovered to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, gas flaring increased by around 1%, with approximately 143 billion cubic meters of gas burned globally. This is about the same as the total amount of gas imported into Germany, France, and the Netherlands combined.
This translates to around 270 Mt of CO2 and nearly 8 Mt of methane being emitted into the environment. Russia, Iraq, Iran, the United States, and Algeria were the top perpetrators, accounting for half of all flared gas globally. According to the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, all non-emergency gas flaring will have ceased by 2030, reducing flaring by around 90%.
Experts have expressed increased health concerns about flaring in recent years, in addition to concerns about climate change. A study published in 2022 discovered that gas flaring emits more methane into the environment than previously assumed. According to research led by the University of Michigan, the existing practice of gas flaring is less effective than previously thought, resulting in up to five times more methane being released into the atmosphere.
The energy industry and authorities believe flares are always lit, which means they burn up 98 percent of the methane. Yet, recent studies suggest that many businesses have unlit flares between 3% and 5% of the time, and when lighted, many are inefficient. This reduces the average effective flaring efficiency rate to roughly 91%.
“This study adds to the growing body of information that shows us that the oil and gas industry has a flaring problem,” said Jon Goldstein, EDF’s senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs. “The Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management should implement remedies that can help to halt the practice of routine flaring,” Goldstein added.
In the Permian Basin, Rystad Energy estimated that operators would increase gas flaring due to a shortage of capacity to export it abroad in late 2022. President Biden’s desire to deliver more domestic crude in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on Russian energy has reenergized operations in the Permian region during the last year. Pipelines have soon grown congested, and major pipeline extensions remain unfinished.
This forced producers to choose between increasing the amount of gas flared from operations and cutting oil output – both of which were required to assure America’s energy security. Despite predictions of greater flaring, operators have so far been able to dial back flaring plans; nevertheless, with national output forecast to climb further in 2023, this will be a problem producers will continue to face.
Due to worries that oil and gas corporations are not doing enough to reduce flaring, there has been an increase in requests for stronger rules and an earlier prohibition on gas flaring in recent months. In February, House Democrats sent a letter to the EPA demanding that it enhance its proposal to restrict methane gas emissions from gas flaring. 76 lawmakers signed the public letter. It chastised oil and gas corporations for failing to do more to minimize methane emissions in accordance with climate commitments.
The letter stated, “While the supplemental proposal takes some important steps to reduce pollution from routine flaring of gas at oil wells, stricter safeguards against this harmful practice are critical to reduce pollution and protect health.”
Yet it’s not all bad news: several corporations appear to be making major attempts to reduce their gas-flaring practices. Exxon declared in January that it has ended all normal gas flaring in America’s largest shale region and would support calls for stronger limits on its competitors’ flaring. Matt Kolesar, Exxon’s chief environmental scientist, commented, “It levels the playing field.” “We need strict regulations, regardless of who owns the institution or where it operates around the world,” he continued.
Exxon was recently chastised for failing to notify that it had emitted the super-potent greenhouse gas methane in the Permian Basin in February, in violation of state regulations. Exxon was forced to publicly admit a reporting error after new satellite photography revealed excessive methane concentrations in the area.
Despite significant promises from oil and gas companies, it appears that many are repeating mistakes in their gas-flaring procedures and failing to meet climate commitments. Although businesses such as Exxon have taken some excellent initiatives to reduce gas flaring, the failure to accurately record emissions has left environmentalists naturally skeptical of their commitment to their climate obligations. This means that the United States is unlikely to fulfill the IEA’s 2030 aim of eliminating all non-emergency flaring unless tighter controls for oil and gas corporations are implemented.
By Felicity Bradstock