Zeroing in on flaring
Harshit Agrawal looks at efforts to reduce the wasteful practice of ‘gas flaring’ during oil production
Wherever we live, we depend on energy. As global living standards improve, driven by growth in India, China and other places in Asia, global energy demand is expected to grow by around 30% by 2040. However, in order to tackle climate change, we need to emit much less carbon dioxide. Our biggest struggle may well be this dual challenge: increasing energy demand on one hand while reducing energy industry emissions on the other.
Reducing associated gas flaring during oil and gas production is a win-win solution that would help to tackle this dual challenge. Billions of cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas is flared annually at oil production sites around the globe. Flaring gas wastes a valuable energy resource that could provide energy to support economic growth and progress. Gas flaring also contributes to climate change, releasing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
What is associated gas flaring?
During oil production, associated gas is produced from the reservoir along with the oil. Due to a range of technical, regulatory, and/or economic constraints, this associated gas is flared, rather than used for productive purposes or conserved.
While oil can easily be transported using tankers or pipelines, associated gas requires the installation of large compressors and expensive infrastructure for its proper use. In the absence of such infrastructure, the gas is typically burned at the site from an elevated or horizontal stack, called a flare.
An estimated 145 bcm of associated gas was flared globally in 2018, which is equivalent to the total annual gas consumption of Central and South America. If this amount of gas were used for power generation instead, it could provide about 750bn kWh of electricity. Associated gas flaring is a monumental waste of a valuable natural resource.
Zubin Bamji, programme manager of the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR) Partnership, considers gas flaring reduction to be “low-hanging fruit” in the global climate action plan. “Oil-producing countries can and should address their routine flaring through effective regulation and political will,” he says. “Those are key ingredients. And GGFR and the World Bank stand ready to assist governments in finding solutions, whether technical, regulatory or financial.”
GGFR was created in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Partnership is comprised of governments and oil companies, which are working to end routine flaring by helping to develop country-specific gas flaring reduction programmes, conducting research, disseminating best practices and raising awareness. During a recent GGFR meeting in Milan, Italy, Bamji noted that after years of decline, gas flaring had risen in 2018 due to a sharp increase in oil production and political conflict in oil-producing countries that were unable to address their gas flaring. However, he added that GGFR remains hopeful: the long-term trajectory during the past decade has been downward, and GGFR Partner governments and oil companies do much better at reducing flaring than the rest of the world.
Zero routine flaring
In April 2015, the World Bank and GGFR launched the Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 initiative, which commits governments and oil companies to a) not routinely flare gas in any new oil field development, and b) end routine flaring at existing oil production sites as soon as possible – and no later than 2030. Currently, 32 governments, 36 companies and 15 development institutions have supported and endorsed the initiative, covering well over 50% of global flaring. The global initiative has already catalysed action to end routine flaring, with oil-producing countries such as Nigeria, Ecuador, Egypt and Mexico developing robust associated gas monetisation and utilisation programmes.
The World Bank team compiles the total volume of gas flared by countries on an annual basis, based on advanced sensors on a satellite that was launched in 2011.
In 2018, the top global flaring countries were Russia, Iraq, Iran and the US.
In US, gas flaring rose by about 48% between 2017 and 2018, and oil production jumped by 33%. Satellite data indicates that increased flare volumes were concentrated almost exclusively in the shale oil basins in North Dakota’s Bakken formation and Texas’s Permian Basin and Eagle Ford Group. Similarly, countries struggling with conflict experienced an increase in gas flaring. In Venezuela, gas flaring soared even as oil production declined sharply, indicating a state in crisis – similar to trends seen previously in Syria and Yemen.
Is it achievable?
Effective and timely reduction of gas flaring will require a sustained, multi-pronged approach, involving close collaboration between governments, the oil and gas industry, and technology providers. In many countries, the right government regulations and policies can create the necessary incentives to harness, monetise and use the flared gas. In recent years, new technologies that utilise associated gas have also emerged; these include flared gas-to-power, using micro-turbines, and modular and skid-mounted flared gas-to-liquid technologies. The selection of the most appropriate gas utilisation option is however, greatly influenced by the volume and quality of the gas resource, its location, and capital costs.
Bamji says GGFR’s strategy has shifted over the years to reflect the changing industry landscape. The Partnership is now more focused on enabling governments to develop the capacity, regulations, infrastructure and markets for associated gas utilisation. With more than 80 governments, oil companies and development institutions committed to the Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 initiative, we have a solid foundation to end this 160-year-old industry practice during the next 10 years. However, we must accelerate efforts and invest in the necessary infrastructure, technology and markets if we are to achieve this goal.
For more information on the Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 initiative and the latest satellite flaring data, visit www.worldbank.org/zeroroutineflaring
Dr Harshit Agrawal, CEnv FIEMA is senior climate change and air emissions advisor at Petroleum Development Oman.