Possibly the most obvious and wasteful greenhouse gas emissions in the world are hardly noticed by people. But they are so visible from space that they light up the night sky along with cities. We’re talking about flaring. This is mainly gases being burnt close to the oil well in huge flames and producing plumes of thick black smoke. When oil is extracted there are often a lot of gases coming off too including methane (what many of us cook with at home) and other volatile (light) hydrocarbons. Rather than separating them off and collecting them, they are burnt on site because the oil companies don’t consider it worth the extra effort to collect this gas. Some of this gas is simply vented (not burnt). Now the logic for burning is that these gases are supposed to be combusted to produce largely carbon dioxide and water vapour and these are not as polluting as releasing the gases directly from the well. So there is broad agreement that flaring is better than venting. However, no flare is 100% complete combustion and that’s why there’s so much black soot coming off the flare. Methane is about 20 times more damaging for the climate as carbon dioxide, so any unburnt methane and other gases will accelerate climate change. That explains why venting is much worse too. Also there are some rather nasty hydrocarbons in the gas mix, including what are called aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene. Even in small quantities, benzene is carcinogenic (cancer causing). To cap it all, the emissions coming off flaring and venting is not measured and systematically reported with independent oversight. Recent analysis of satellite data by climate TRACE is our first glimpse of how big the emissions actually are: they “found that emissions from oil and gas production, transport, and refining had been significantly underestimated — owing, in part, to limited reporting requirements and consistent underestimates of methane emissions from both intentional flaring as well as leaks”. In other words, flaring and venting is a much bigger problem than officially accepted today.
Flaring and venting is simply emissions without any human benefit whatsoever. At least a car exhaust has come because we’ve used some useful energy to move the occupants from A to B. What’s more, in many of these oil and gas facilities there is a substantial amount of diesel burnt to run the equipment. Hang on a minute … do they really burn or vent fuel from the well and buy other fuel in to power the whole operation? Yes! It’s really easy to fix this too: equipment is on sale today that allows them to burn their own waste gas instead of diesel and provide electricity to local communities. So not only is it possible to fix, it is possible to fix right now!
The World Bank sees flaring and venting as a serious problem . They would like to end all “routine flaring as soon as possible and no later than 2030”. To do this they need international collaboration. They estimate that the cost to end routine flaring and venting is $100bn. That sounds like a huge amount of money. But for a moment let’s put this is perspective. In 2022, the six biggest Western oil companies made $219bn profit . $100bn is the one-off cost to solve this problem. That is less than half their 2022 profit. So we say it is not only possible to fix technically, it is also affordable right now. And once it is done, it is done!
So not only is it possible to fix, it is possible to fix right now! Perhaps all they need is a little encouragement!
Let’s give them some encouragement – in the name of community engagement and participatory action help us with the campaign to stop flaring now!
One last thing…
Flaring and venting contribute at least 1% and 4.4% respectively to reported global greenhouse gas emissions . That’s like all of the UK’s emissions is similar to reported flaring emissions, and all of the EU’s emissions is similar to reported flaring and venting emissions. Furthermore, satellite imaging from climate TRACE suggests real emissions may be “as much as three times higher than self-reported data” from main oil and gas producing countries . Climate TRACE’s analysis shows that “26 of the 50 largest sources of emissions worldwide are oil and gas fields” .
What does the oil industry say about flaring?
- flaring is more environmental than venting
- flaring is done either as emergency pressure relief to protect the well head and rig equipment in the case of a pressure spike or continuously in production because it is not economically attractive to connect the gas to a pipeline
- flaring is mainly done with oil producing wells rather than gas producing facilities where collecting the gas is the main economic activity
- how much flaring is done is a balance between economic, regulatory and safety considerations
- sometimes extra effort is required (because of stricter regulations) to get better combustion efficiency on the flare so special combustors are used in those cases
What is not mentioned
- there is no systematic emissions monitoring for flaring and venting – they don’t measure what they release into the air in terms of what exactly is emitted and how much of it is released.
- they follow the regulations so if the regulations are not as strict, they are not as strict
Can the oil industry actually solve this problem?
The oil industry must follow regulations and it is up to our governments to put those regulations in place and for them to be effective. So flaring will stop if we insist on good regulations everywhere that
- require emissions measurements and reporting to actually understand what is released to be implemented immediately; access granted for independent verification
- prohibit continuous flaring and venting on production sites; where flaring or venting is for safety events then independent monitoring and public reporting of it is required.
- have regulations that are agreed and implemented internationally to prevent the excuse of “it’s okay over there so we’d lose too much money doing it here” argument.
 World Bank on flaring, https://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/gasflaringreduction/gas-flaring-explained
 Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/big-oil-doubles-profits-blockbuster-2022-2023-02-08/
 World Resources Institute, https://www.wri.org/insights/4-charts-explain-greenhouse-gas-emissions-countries-and-sectors
 Climate TRACE project, https://climatetrace.org/news/more-than-70000-of-the-highest-emitting-greenhouse-gas