Three Reasons Why We Should, Why We Aren't And How We Can Reduce Gas Flaring Worldwide

Tim Haïdar

Natural Gas flaring has been a constant since the oil business began, but now the tables are turning on this common practice. Find out why and how we can cut flaring to a bare minimum and exactly why we're only broaching the subject now


Flaring: The Unseen Emissions Monster

Whilst we the worldwide environmental movement concentrates largely on reducing the carbon emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants and the output of global automotive and aviation sector, flare gas is somewhat lower on the list of offenders involved in anthropogenic global warming.

At current rates, 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas are flared off in the world every year, which amounts to 400 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in global greenhouse gas emissions. That is the same as the annual emission from 77 million cars, 125 mid-sized coal plants or one quarter of the annual natural gas consumption of the USA.

Impact On Local Populations

In a world where corporate social responsibility is becoming an ever more important part of the makeup of business, the affect of gas flaring on the people that live within the vicinity of flare activity cannot be ignored.

Chronic health issues have been shown to stem from the exposure to a cocktail of heat, soot, particulate matter, sulphur and nitrogen dioxides, benzene, toluene, xylene and dioxins. As well as the onset physical malady, the psychological malaise associated with living in close proximity to a noisy and unrelenting flare source should not be discounted.

Large-scale flaring can also lead to environmental degradation in the form of acid rain.

Less Flaring = More Product

It’s a simple fact that while flaring may be the easiest and most "economical" way of currently dealing with off gas, what you dispose of in the burn could clearly be harnessed for profit.

If 150 billion cubic metres per year of flared off gas were retained and sold at current prices, the total amount of revenue made would come to just under USD $400 billion per annum, which is roughly equivalent to the total assets of ExxonMobil.

Excess methane can also be converted into methanol, which can subsequently be converted into transport gasoline or diesel.


Money talks, gas doesn’t

Greenfield E&P gas projects are highly capital intensive with many falling into the megaprojects category of USD $2 billion and upwards. With such significant front-end expenditure, and more than 40 per cent of E&P megaprojects overrunning and exceeding planned costs, the onus is on companies to start producing hydrocarbons as quickly as possible.

This, coupled with low and often subsidised gas and electricity prices, removes the motivation for companies to "do the right thing" in the flare versus capture debate.

Producers and governments have incentive to delay investments at old sites

When most facilities were constructed, methane capture was not front of mind, meaning that in order to accommodate capture technology at mature facilities, governments and industry would have to spend significant capital on retrofitting at brownfield sites.

To enable non-emergency zero gas flaring old plants will need to install a gas recycling system, with an ancillary treatment system for this captured off gas. In most cases this would be different to implement in extant facilities as these additions were not considered in the feed stage design.

On top of these structural difficulties, are political stumbling blocks. Gas flaring has been banned in Nigeria (a top 10 flaring nation), for instance, since 1984. Non-binding regulation and institutionalised payment of fines in lieu of procedural change, is one example of where government and industry have had little incentive to change the status quo.

Oil revenues are the backbone of flaring nations

As well as government and businesses shying away from the spending necessary to adequately capture and process off gas, the disruption of oil revenues that could stem from the resulting shutdowns, refits and turnarounds of facilities could have serious implications for the national economies of the countries concerned.

The top eight flaring nations (Russia, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Angola, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) together account for 70 per cent of the world’s flared natural gas and are all heavily dependent on oil and gas exports as the main stay of their GDPs, hence the move for wholesale change has been somewhat stymied.


Binding national regulation

The old saying goes that: "When the carrot fails, use the stick", and a sure-fire way to "incentivise" companies to cut their flaring activities is through binding national policies.

Depending on the case in point, it will be the role of government to subsidise or penalise those who are in line with or in breach of imposed flare reduction targets.

Adoption of the ISO 14000 family of standards related to environmental management is also a step in the right direction.

Cultural change and the Japanese 3R rule

Rules that bind are a start, but a culture that sees those rules as innate good sense rather than an obstacle is a far more powerful tool for change. Introducing programmes within your organisation for cultural change along the lines of the Japanese 3R rule (Reduce , Recycle and Reuse), and finding interdepartmental "champions" for that cause will gradually make a difference across the length and breadth of the business.

Once instated, conscientious knowledge management and communities of practice will help to foster this culture in the long-term.

Trust in technology and put your money where your mouth is

Although the oil and gas industry is in some areas at the forefront of technological implementation, in other areas conservatism reigns supreme.

Flare gas ejector systems that recover waste and surplus gas for reinjection are emerging as an increasingly economically viable option for flare reduction as are distributed power generation systems at smaller sites.

Trailer-mounted aero-derivative gas turbines, that run on flare gas and can provide a mobile power generation option for sites are also coming into play alongside commercial combined-cycle generation.