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Flaring Emissions

Not on track
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About this report

Despite global oil demand dropping nearly 7% in 2020 (precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic), flaring fell by only 5%. Globally, 142 bcm of natural gas was flared in 2020 – roughly equivalent to the natural gas demand of Central and South America. This resulted in around 265 Mt CO2, nearly 8 Mt of methane (240 Mt CO2-eq) and black soot and other GHGs being directly emitted into the atmosphere. Five countries (Russia, Iraq, Iran, the United States and Algeria) accounted for more than half of all volumes flared globally in 2020.

Many options are available to reduce flaring, but they will likely require new gas monetisation strategies, business models, and more stringent (and enforced) regulations. An increasing number of companies is committing to eliminate flaring by 2030. The Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario requires all non-emergency flaring to be eliminated globally by 2030, resulting in a 90% reduction in flared volumes by 2030.

Upstream flaring CO2 emissions by region in the Net Zero Scenario, 1985-2030

Openexpand
Tracking progress

Natural gas is often an unwanted by-product of oil extraction. Developers need to either find a useful outlet for this associated gas, such as delivering it to consumers (requiring the construction of infrastructure), using it onsite for operational energy, or reinjecting it for pressure support or permanent disposal. Non-emergency flaring and venting (which causes even worse environmental damage than flaring; see Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas) occur when operators have failed to secure any of these options and instead opt to burn the gas on a permanent or semi-permanent basis during production, or simply vent it to the atmosphere.

Some gas may also be flared as an operational safety measure, as flaring is part of current standard safety engineering design practice to help ensure built-up pressure has a way to be handled, minimising immediate danger to people and facilities. Much flaring for this purpose can also be reduced by adopting integrated system engineering designs in existing and new assets.1

In theory, when equipment is well designed and conditions are optimal, more than 99% of flared natural gas is combusted. Over time, however – once production from an upstream asset has passed its peak and begun to decline – flow rates through flare stacks decrease and cause the flare stream to be more easily affected by environmental conditions such as higher or more variable winds.2 3 This can alter the flare flame pattern, resulting in lower combustion efficiency, or even extinguish the flame entirely, meaning that gas is vented directly to the atmosphere.

With current global operations and maintenance practices and regulations, we estimate average global combustion efficiency (including both normally operating and extinguished flares) to be around 92%. Unless company policies or government regulations strictly enforce flaring reductions, operational practices on flare maintenance can lapse, causing a significant number of flares to malfunction or remain unlit for extended periods4. As a result, substantial volumes of methane, black soot and nitrogen oxides – all potent GHGs – may be released into the atmosphere. 

To reduce flaring, productive uses for the associated gas must be developed, or associated gas must be safely injected into the reservoir. One solution is to channel associated gas into the main gas grid to meet local demand or to be exported. Entrepreneurs and engineering firms are also developing new measures to use or redirect the gas productively, even in the absence of a natural gas market.5

Operators that sell high-flaring assets are often passing on a problem to other operators that they may be less willing, or less able, to find positive solutions for. For example, analysis by Rystad Energy on companies operating in the Permian basin indicates that private enterprises practise non-emergency flaring more than twice as much as publicly held companies.6

Satellite technology and advanced data interpretation are offering an increasingly clear picture of the location and nature of flaring. Few countries measure, record or publicise flare efficiencies or flare volumes. Instead, they rely on company self-reporting and use standard combustion efficiency rates to estimate combusted and leaked methane. In contrast, satellites make data on flaring publicly available on a regular, granular basis, allowing regulators in most oil and gas regions to see whether operators are adhering to regulations.  

Of the estimated 142 bcm of natural gas flared in 2020, over half came from just five countries: Russia, Iraq, Iran, the United States and Algeria. Even though global oil demand fell almost 7% in 2020, flaring dropped by just 5%. Most global flare volumes come from conventional oil developments where non-emergency flaring occurs routinely or where regulations are either not in place or not effectively enforced. In the United States, most flaring is in unconventional basins that do not have natural gas export options. 

Based on a detailed bottom-up assessment of production characteristics and flaring volumes, we estimate that global average combustion efficiency in 2020 was around 92%. This means that 8% of natural gas and NGLs directed into a flare stack were not combusted (this includes normally operating flares as well as those that have been temporarily extinguished). Accordingly, we estimate that flaring activities resulted in 265 Mt CO2 emissions in 2020 and 8 Mt of methane emissions (240 Mt CO2-eq). This excludes times when flares were purposely extinguished and jurisdictions where no regulations are enforced to prevent direct methane venting (these volumes are included in our estimates of methane emissions in Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas).

New projects must be designed to use associated gas or to safely reinject it. For existing fields, an optimal solution would be to direct associated gas to a local natural gas market. In the absence of local markets, however, or where fields are very remote, several technologies can offer productive uses for the associated gas while working towards the longer-term reduction in fossil fuel use modelled in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. 

Onsite 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 onsite or sold back to an electricity grid. Multiple companies, including TotalEnergies and the Basrah Gas Company, have recently announced flaring reduction initiatives in major oil developments in Iraq to generate electricity.  

Portable CNG or mini-LNG facilities to treat gas onsite. 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.  

There are also opportunities to improve the efficiency of existing flares by using flare tips with more modern designs that improve fuel and air mixing, or by converting to flare stacks that ensure adequate fuel-air mixing to consistently achieve very high combustion efficiency. Operators may also need to improve flare maintenance to raise combustion efficiency. For example, low flow rates, low purge gas volumes and high winds can cause burn-back – when the gas combusts inside or on the side of the flare – which can damage flare tips or leave black soot remnants that block proper flow.4

It can be challenging for individual and small-scale operators to deploy flaring reduction options on existing assets if they cannot benefit from economies of scale. In some regions, the ownership of fuel streams may also differ, creating legal or royalty issues related to converting and selling associated gas. This emphasises the importance of regulations to encourage upstream and midstream operators to work together to eliminate routine flaring, in addition to various voluntary initiatives that are being pursued. 

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 using 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, 45 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.  

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is a voluntary partnership of over 120 governments, intergovernmental organisations, businesses and institutions committed to improving air quality and protecting the climate through actions to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants. The coalition works to bring stakeholders together to create policies and practices that can substantially reduce short-lived climate pollutant emissions. 

The Earth Observation Group at the Payne Institute for Public Policy interprets and makes available Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite data from the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Association. These data are used to identify flaring locations and estimate flared volumes. 

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, whereby oil output can be restrained if flaring lasts longer or rises above a minimal level. 

Reported data on flaring and combustion efficiencies are often based on estimated emission rates. They often vary substantially from volumes recorded during measurement campaigns, even in locations with stringent flaring regulations.  

Measuring flaring and venting levels, along with combustion efficiency, is necessary to provide accurate data to develop problem-solving options and lay a foundation for market-based mechanisms that favour low-emissions oil and gas sources. Measurements should be made publicly available to help buyers and consumers understand fuel emissions. 

Using satellites to track flaring and methane emissions is a rapidly evolving field that can help regulators monitor operational practices and detect leaks quickly.  

Selected examples of implemented policies: 

  • Norway was one of the first countries to introduce regulations (in 1993), requiring operators to meter gas and taxing flaring-related CO2 emissions. The policies have been effective, and Norway has reduced flaring emissions by more than 80% since the mid-1990s. 
  • In 2016, Nigeria announced its intention to ensure that new field development plans include a gas utilisation scheme prohibiting non-emergency flaring by 2020. Although Nigeria successfully reduced flared gas volumes by 70% between 2000 and 2019, significant flaring is still occurring at many sites across the country.  
  • Prior to 2020, Alaska was the only US state that prohibited non-emergency flaring. While further regulation across more producer states is needed, Colorado and New Mexico have joined Alaska, bringing one-fifth of US production under a non-emergency flaring ban.


New oil developments need 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.  

Existing fields will need to implement gas capture and recovery techniques to eliminate unnecessary flaring. Using flaring monitoring systems and optimising process controls can help reduce flaring levels.  

Although demand for oil and natural gas is projected to decline dramatically to 2050, they will 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. 

Resources
Notes and references
  1. Bawazir, I. et al. (2014), Qatargas Flare Reduction Program, Society of Petroleum Engineers, presentation at International Petroleum Technology Conference, Doha, Qatar. 

  2. Johnson, M.R. and A.R. Coderre (2011), An analysis of flaring and venting activity in the Alberta upstream oil and gas industry, Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 190-200. 

  3. Kostiuk, L. et al. (2004), University of Alberta Flare Research Project, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. 

  4. Bakthavachsalam, V. et al. (2018), Maintaining flare tip health, Society of Petroleum Engineers, presentation at International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, Abu Dhabi. 

  5. Jacobs, T. (2020), Innovators seek to transform flaring into money and power, Journal of Petroleum Technology, 29 February, https://jpt.spe.org/innovators-seek-transform-flaring-money-and-power  

  6. ​Ambramov, A. (2021), Rystad Energy, https://www.rystadenergy.com/clients/articles/shale/2021/permian-flaring/  

Analysis