As the oil and gas industry has been moving forward with modern innovations to access hard-to-reach fossil fuel reserves, natural gas flaring has started to become an increasingly prevalent industry practice. While the practice is becoming more common, it is also becoming one of the most challenging energy and environmental issues facing the fossil fuel industry. Natural gas flaring is the process of burning off excess gas from oil wells, fossil fuel processing plants, or refineries. Flaring is often conducted as a way to dispose of leftover gas or as a means of relieving oil and gas well pressure to enhance production safety measures. However, as the world continues to identify opportunities to reduce emissions from the fossil fuel industry, global leaders are taking aim at gas flaring.
Historically, gas flaring has always been an aspect of conventional oil production. It is common for oil producers to also come across pockets of natural gas hidden within oil reservoirs. When adequate extraction infrastructure isn’t available to extract both oil and natural gas, the gas is flared, or burned, while the oil is extracted and sold. Since natural gas is mainly methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, the common process of burning off excess natural gas releases these pollutants into the atmosphere, exacerbating issues related to global warming and climate change.
In recent years, the U.S. has become the world’s biggest oil producer, exceeding output from both Russia and Saudi Arabia. The increase in American oil production, which has resulted in a global oil supply glut, has also initiated a large increase in natural gas flaring. According to data from Oslo-based consultant Rystad Energy, flaring increased by 85 percent from 2017 to 2018 in the Permian basin of West Texas (Collins & Adams-Heard, 2019). Throughout the world, billions of cubic meters of natural gas are burned off annually at oil production sites (TWB, 2019). Some economists and energy analysts say that flaring natural gas wastes a valuable source of energy that should be captured and used to support economic growth and American energy independence.
On the other hand, environmentalists also criticize the industry practice as a reckless procedure to push forward with the American shale revolution. Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council continuously highlight the adverse environmental and human health impacts from flaring. In North Dakota alone, a state that has seen tremendous growth in the fracking industry, the World Bank estimates that the natural gas flares from fracking emit the same amount of global warming pollution as about 2.5 million cars (Lehner, 2012). Conversely, the oil producers say that gas flaring is the most environmentally friendly method to dispose of natural gas that cannot be harvested or used in an efficient manner.
Gas flaring didn’t start with the fracking revolution, but it has quickly gained steam as one of the most viable methods to remove unwanted methane from a fossil fuel production site. As fracking technology has become widespread throughout the booming Bakken Formation region of North Dakota and the thriving oil towns of West Texas, yellow and orange gas flares have begun to shoot up all across the landscapes. While pipelines and other infrastructure can be established to capture and store the natural gas byproducts, oil companies are drilling and producing crude oil faster than natural gas storing infrastructure can be developed. As a result, the excess gas is ignited and burned off rather than being directly released into the atmosphere. Flaring is preferred to releasing methane into the air since burning the methane converts what is left to carbon dioxide, which is less of an atmosphere-warming gas when compared to methane. Furthermore, even when oil companies have the time and resources to provide the infrastructure to capture and make use of the excess natural gas, it is often more cost-effective to flare the gas.
Calculating Data and Emissions
Annually, about 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas is flared around the world, which adds roughly 400 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (Emam, 2015). To put this into perspective, the amount of gas that is flared on an annual basis equates to roughly the amount of natural gas that is consumed by Central and South America throughout an entire year. Additionally, the volume of gas flared in Texas by the end of 2018 was more than the state’s annual residential gas demand (Collins & Adams-Heard, 2019). Since 1990, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed an annual report, called the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, to track and estimate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Between 2015 and 2017, EPA data shows that about 350 billion cubic feet of methane is estimated to have been released annually from flaring (U.S. DOE, 2019). However, it is important to note that not all states collect flaring data and submit it to the EPA, so that actual amount of gas flared annually is likely to be higher than the reported data would suggest.
In order to better assess the amount of flaring in the U.S. on an annual basis, the EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) have been working to identify more accurate measurement methods. Environmental groups often criticize the data released by the EPA as likely underreported estimates. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which is a group that is known for its work on issues related to global warming, ecosystem restoration, human health, and environmental law, has used satellite data to conclude that the actual volumes of gas flared in West Texas is significantly higher than EPA data would suggest. Since these accusations were made, the EPA has started to work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to use sophisticated satellite systems to provide real-time flaring-related data collection across the nation. Through a process that uses shortwave and near-infrared emissions, a Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer (VIIR) is being used to collect new data on flaring.
After several years of collecting satellite data of flaring, the S&P Global Market Intelligence has started to compile information and make estimates about flaring and its associated emissions. By using NOAA-calculated values of flared gas volumes, S&P Global Market Intelligence has revealed that flaring in Texas is actually about two times higher than data reported by the EPA. As a result of these figures, between 2012 and 2017, new data supports the notion that 977 billion cubic feet of natural gas was flared in Texas (U.S. DOE, 2019). S&P Global Market Intelligence also conducted studies in New Mexico and North Dakota using NOAA data, and found that previous data from the EPA also vastly underreported the gas flaring.
While natural gas is known as one of the cleanest fossil fuels, flaring is dirtying the fuel’s reputation. Annually, natural gas flaring around the world emits as much carbon dioxide as 90 coal-fired power plants (Collins & Adams-Heard, 2019). In the U.S., gas flaring makes up about nine percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry (Collins & Adams-Heard, 2019). Common gas flaring is usually visible and emits both noise and heat. In addition to the carbon emissions, flaring is also known to emit dangerous levels of particulate matter and toxins into the atmosphere, adversely impacting local air quality around the country. Many studies have shown that the soot and toxins released from flaring have a negative impact in human health, especially for people that live within close proximity to flaring sites. Other pollutants emitted include sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. During the last few decades, numerous toxicological and epidemiological studies have shown that the effect of gas flaring is severely detrimental to human health and the environment, as has been shown to be a major contributor to acid rain and smog, which exacerbate human respiratory issues (Emam, 2015).
The emissions from flaring is highly dependent on combustion efficiency, which is measured as a percentage of the amount of hydrocarbons converted to carbon dioxide after being burned. When a gas flare emits a significant amount of black smoke, that is seen as a sign of low combustion efficiency. Gas flares with low combustion efficiency contribute the most emissions and particulate matter to the atmosphere. Moreover, these types of flares have also been shown to emit ozone, which is produced by a photochemical reaction between volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. There are numerous factors that effect the efficiency of the gas flaring combustion process. The quality of the natural gas, velocity of gases entering the flare, a component known as the heating value, and certain meteorological conditions can have an impact on combustion efficiency (Emam, 2015). The lack of flare monitoring equipment and industry oversight have made it challenging to ensure that a high level of combustion efficiency is consistently achieved.
From international regulations to local laws, flaring has become the target of regulatory action. The Kyoto Protocol, which was an international climate agreement signed in 1997 to limit greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized nations, was one of the first international regulations that attempted to limit emissions from gas flaring. Global greenhouse gas emissions from flaring represented more than 50 percent of the annual Certified Emissions Reductions issued under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanisms. However, even with a stated objective to initiate global efforts aimed at reducing global warming, the Kyoto Protocol agreement has had very little impact on gas flaring.
Flaring regulations vary widely in terms of statewide and national level government enforcement. At the federal level, U.S. regulation related to oil and natural gas production focuses mainly on environmental protection and in the case of flaring, air quality. The EPA is the chief regulatory body that is charged with ensuring that flaring operations do not violate the Clean Air Act. At a state level, there are also significant variances with regards to local-level regulations. In Texas for example, the Texas Railroad Commission is charged with regulating flaring activity. Although, it has never denied a request for a flaring permit within the state (Collins & Adams-Heard, 2019). Other countries around the world have much more stringent regulations against flaring. In Norway, gas that is flared is charged a tax in order to try to convince oil producers to invest in infrastructure to reduce the practice. In Russia, the government requires oil producers to make use of 95 percent of the natural gas they produce, while Nigeria prohibits flaring altogether (Collins & Adams-Heard, 2019).
The emissions from natural gas flaring contribute significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions. While investing in more pipeline infrastructure could reduce the amount of gas that is wasted, oil companies are researching more cost-effective alternatives. Some companies have already started to use natural gas byproducts as an on-site energy source at oil drilling facilities. Additionally, others have found methods to reinject the gas back underground, to help access hard-to-reach oil deposits. Along with pipeline improvements, if these practices were widely adopted, 80 percent of gas waste could be avoided, and nearly $2 billion worth of gas could be saved (Lehner, 2012). As international leaders move forward with initiatives to combat global warming and climate change, plans will continue to be developed to evaluate how to achieve comprehensive regulations to address the emissions generated from flaring.
Collins, R., and Adams-Heard, R. (2019). “Flaring, or Why So Much Gas Is Going Up in Flames.” The Washington Post.
Emam, E. (2015). “Gas Flaring in Industry: An Overview.” Department of Chemical Eng. and Pet. Refinery, Suez University, Egypt.
Lehner, P. (2012). “Fracking’s Dark Side Gets Darker: The Problem of Methane Waste.” Natural Resources Defense Council.
Mee-Hyun, C., et al. (2019). “A Missing Component of Arctic Warming: Black Carbon from Gas Flaring.” Environmental Research: 14 094011.
TWB. (2019). “Gas Flaring Reduction.” The World Bank Group.
U.S. DOE. (2019). “Natural Gas Flaring and Venting: State and Federal Regulatory Overview, Trends, and Impacts.” U.S. Department of Energy: Office of Oil and Natural Gas/Office of Fossil Energy.