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Flaring Emissions

Not on track
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About this report

Global oil demand returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, increasing by 1%, while related flaring volumes increased by a similar level. Globally, 143 bcm of natural gas was flared in 2021 – roughly equivalent to the total volume of natural gas imported into Germany, France and the Netherlands. This resulted in the direct release of 270 Mt of CO2 and nearly 8 Mt of methane (240 Mt CO2-eq)1 into the atmosphere, plus black soot and other greenhouse gases.

Five countries (Russia, Iraq, Iran, the United States and Algeria) accounted for more than half of all volumes flared globally in 2021. With natural gas prices at historic highs, gas flaring is an extraordinary waste of economic value (as much as USD 55 billion per year at a price of USD 10 per MBtu) alongside its negative impacts on climate change and human health. Reducing flaring and bringing this gas to market could offer relief to very tight gas markets and, in many cases, could do so faster than investing in new supply. The Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario sees all non-emergency flaring eliminated globally by 2030, resulting in a reduction in flared volumes of around 90% by 2030.

CO2 emissions

Non-emergency flaring and venting (which causes even worse environmental damage than flaring; see Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas) occur when operators opt to burn associated gas on a permanent or semi-permanent basis during production, or simply vent it to the atmosphere. As economies recovered following the Covid-19 pandemic, flaring rates increased as operators put fields back online after long periods of low maintenance and in the absence of regulations preventing the practice. With current global operations and maintenance practices and regulations, we estimate the average global combustion efficiency (including both normally operating and extinguished flares) to be around 92%. This results in the release of substantial volumes of potent GHGs, including methane, black soot and nitrous oxide, to the atmosphere.

Direct CO2 combustion emissions from flaring and flaring intensity in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, 1985-2030

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Technology Deployment

Oil producers have a range of readily available options to reduce and avoid flaring, with a number of new technologies also under development:

On-site direct use or energy conversion. Gas that would otherwise be flared is captured and turned into other useable products or electrical power that can be used on site or sold back to an electricity grid. Multiple companies have completed or announced flaring reduction initiatives in major oil developments in Iraq to generate electricity, including Basrah Gas Company and TotalEnergies.

Portable CNG or mini-LNG facilities to treat gas on site. The CNG process compresses gas at the wellhead so that it can be trucked short distances for in‑field fuel use or to nearby gas processing facilities. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that up to 89% of gas flaring in the Bakken field in 2015 could have been eliminated with this technology. Several similar mini-LNG technologies have been trialled or are in deployment.

Small-scale gas-to-methanol or gas-to-liquids conversion plants. Several options are being explored, including multifunctional catalysts to develop products from associated gas streams, with a focus on modular conversion equipment.

Reinjection for disposal or storage can be viable, and so too can reinjection to support ongoing oilfield operations with pressure support.

There are also technologies and maintenance practices to improve the efficiency of existing flares. For example, using flare tips with more modern designs that improve fuel and air mixing, or converting to flare stacks that ensure adequate fuel–air mixing to consistently achieve very high combustion efficiencies, can significantly reduce emissions resulting from poor combustion efficiency.

Activity

In 2021 Europe imported from Russia about 40% of the natural gas it consumed, or about 155 bcm. As Europe looks to diversify its sources of supply away from Russia, and sanctions affect the available gas volumes on the market, there is an opportunity to capture and sell flared and vented gas volumes to Europe and elsewhere. Nearly 15 bcm of flared natural gas could be captured in countries in North Africa that have underutilised pipeline connections to Europe, with more than half of these volumes sitting within 10 km of an existing natural gas pipeline. A further 10 bcm could be captured from wasteful flares from other potential LNG exporters.

Policy

A number of countries have introduced policies to reduce flaring, including:

  • Norway, which was one of the first countries to introduce regulations requiring operators to meter gas and taxing flaring-related CO2 emissions. These policies have been effective, and Norway has reduced flaring emissions by more than 80% since the mid-1990s.
  • Columbia cut its flaring intensity by around half between 2015 and 2021, and has reduced flared volumes by 70% since 2012. This stems from the county’s focus on emission reductions, creation and empowerment of the National Hydrocarbon Agency (Agencia National de Hidrocarburos [ANH]), Ecopetrol’s progress on emission reductions and overall redirection of gas volumes towards the domestic market.
  • In the United States, while further regulation and more stringent enforcement across more producer states is needed, regulators in Colorado and New Mexico have joined Alaska in introducing a ban on routine flaring. Around one-fifth of US oil production now occurs in states with a routine flaring ban.
Investment

Operators that sell high-flaring assets are often passing on a problem to other operators that may be less willing, or less able, to cut down on flaring. A recent study from the Environmental Defense Fund on oil and gas industry mergers and acquisitions showed that asset value is increasingly moving from publicly listed companies with stronger climate commitments to private actors with weaker standards. In 2020, Rystad Energy found that private enterprises operating in the Permian basin flared at levels six times the intensity of publicly held counterparts.

International Collaboration

The Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership is a public–private initiative made up of national and international oil companies, national and regional governments, and international institutions. The partnership aims to increase the use of natural gas associated with oil production by helping to remove technical and regulatory barriers to flaring reduction, conducting research, disseminating best practices and developing country-specific gas flaring reduction programmes.

Various energy companies, governments and institutions have endorsed the Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 initiative launched by the World Bank and the United Nations in 2015. For new fields, this scheme encourages operators to develop plans to use or conserve all the field’s associated gas without non‑emergency flaring. For existing fields, operators are asked to eliminate non‑emergency flaring as soon as possible, and no later than 2030. So far, 53 oil companies, 34 governments and 15 development institutions have endorsed the initiative.

  • The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative consists of 12 major international oil and gas companies that seek to identify and support measures to achieve zero non‑emergency flaring by 2030.
Recommendations

Countries should develop national gas flaring reduction roadmaps and to encourage co‑operation between players. New projects must be designed with a viable plan to either avoid flaring, put associated gas to productive use, or to safely reinject it. For existing fields, regulators should mandate operators to assess an optimal solution to either capture, compress or otherwise use gas that is currently flared. Individual and small-scale operators may struggle to deploy flaring reduction options if they cannot benefit from economies of scale. In some regions, the legal title to the associated gas is not held by the operator, creating a barrier to investment to recover and sell the gas. This emphasises the importance of well-designed commercial contracts and regulations to encourage upstream and midstream operators to work together to eliminate non-routine flaring. With upstream companies achieving windfall profits in 2022, the ability to invest in flaring reduction projects and technologies is at an all-time high.

Recommendations for policy makers and the private sector

Regulators need to enable and enforce the elimination of all non-emergency flaring. The most effective regulations would address this issue in tandem with methane emissions, to ensure that less flaring does not lead to higher methane venting. Countries can impose a flaring cap and require operators to shut down production if they breach flaring limits (examples include Brazil and the United Kingdom)

Reported data on flaring and combustion efficiencies are often based on estimated emission rates that can vary substantially from the volumes recorded during measurement campaigns. Measuring flaring and venting levels is necessary to provide accurate data to develop problem-solving options and lay a foundation for market-based mechanisms that favour low-emission oil and gas sources. Measurements should be made publicly available to help buyers and consumers understand Scope 1 emissions (which are an increasingly important part of financial and climate metrics).

  • Using satellites to track flaring and methane emissions is a rapidly evolving field that can help regulators monitor operational practices, detect leaks quickly and ensure that flaring penalties are appropriately being paid to host governments. However, satellites may not be able to identify all cases of flaring and bottom-up measurement campaigns remain the standard around which flaring reduction regulations should be designed.
  • Installing flare meters and/or using satellite data to monitor flares on a daily basis, compelling operators to clearly distinguish between emergency and non-emergency flaring.
  • Ensuring the timely development of associated gas infrastructure and flaring reduction technologies, and imposing limits on the flaring intensity of oil production.
  • Requiring new oil developments to include the productive use of associated gas. Upstream and midstream development connections need to be well timed to have gas offtake ready when fields begin to produce.
  • Incentivising existing fields to implement gas capture and recovery techniques to eliminate all non-emergency flaring. Using flaring monitoring systems and optimising process controls can help reduce flaring levels.
  • Funding flaring reduction and elimination projects and technologies to reduce supply chain emissions.
  • Requiring climate and environmental standards in the sale of oil and gas assets.

Although demand for oil and natural gas declines dramatically in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, they remain a fundamental component of the energy system for decades. The support of financial institutions for countries and companies seeking to eliminate non-emergency flaring is critical to help reduce emissions quickly.

Regulators and financial institutions need to design and include climate standards as part of asset sales to avoid transferring assets to poor environmental performers. This would help to ensure continued high environmental performance with lower flaring and venting rates despite assets changing hands

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Mark Davis (Capterio), Benjamin Heras (Carbon Limits) and Manon Simon (Carbon Limits) for their review of this report. 

Notes and references
  1. One tonne of methane is assumed to be equivalent to 30 tonnes of CO2 based on the 100‐year global warming potential (IPCC, 2021).

Analysis