Gas flaring is a problem from Texas’ Permian Basin to Russia’s Siberian oil fields

Energize Weekly, January 6, 2021

The U.S set a record for flaring of gas at well sites in 2019 and was part of a global pollution problem created by a handful of oil-producing countries, according to two energy agencies.

An average of 1.48 billion cubic feet of gas was vented or flared daily in the U.S., 1.3 percent of gross withdrawals, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA). That is the highest amount in EIA records.

Worldwide, 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas was flared in 2019 – creating 300 million tons of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, as well as other air pollutants, the International Energy Agency (IEA) calculated.

A mixture of oil, natural gas and water comes out of most wells. The separated or “associated gas” can be reinjected into wells to increase pressure and enhance production, be used to power equipment on site, or it can be sent to market, usually through pipelines, as a fuel.

When there is no pipeline, however, operators often just vent the gas or burn it off, which is called flaring.

“Gas that is flared has potential market value, and it is especially jarring when flaring occurs in countries or regions – such as sub-Saharan Africa – with large populations without access to electricity or where electricity supply is unreliable,” the IEA said.

Almost half the flaring occurred in just four countries – the U.S., Russia, Iraq and Iran – according to the IEA. The four also accounted for about 40 percent of worldwide oil output.

The agency, however, noted that output and flaring do not necessarily correlate. Saudi Arabia, the second largest producer in 2019 after the U.S., has a flaring intensity about 10 times lower than Russia. Saudi Arabia and Russian produced almost the same amount of oil in 2019.

The IEA said that some countries have taken steps to reduce flaring. Nigeria, for example, in 2000 was flaring more than half its associated gas, 20 bcm a year. In 2019, it was just 8 bcm.

“There is still some way to go to reach the government’s objective of eliminating routine flaring entirely, but this 70 percent reduction since 2000 is nonetheless noteworthy,” the agency said.

About two-thirds of the 150 bcm burned off in 2019 came from flares that were operating more or less continuously – known as routine flaring. Russia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and Algeria are among of the main sources of large, continuous flares.

In Russia, flaring often took place at remote oil fields or in areas where oil companies face difficulties in securing access to Gazprom’s pipeline network, the IEA said.

In the U.S., flaring has often been of shorter duration and on an intermittent basis in the country’s unconventional, or shale, basins where production has grown very quickly over the last decade.

Still while the associated gas has doubled since 2010 in the U.S., flaring has increased by more than four times, the IEA said.

North Dakota and Texas combined for 85 percent of all flaring in the country as production soared and “outpaced construction of necessary infrastructure to transport the natural gas extracted during oil production,” the EIA said.

Texas, with its Permian Basin, accounted for 47 percent of the flaring in 2019, and North Dakota’s Bakken Formation was responsible for another 38 percent of the total.

“State agencies in Texas and North Dakota are working with oil producers to limit the need for flaring without shutting down or affecting crude oil production from new wells,” the EIA said. Venting is banned in North Dakota and restricted in Texas.

While lack of infrastructure is widely given as a reason for flaring, a satellite image analysis by Capterio, a London-based company working with operators to monetize waste gas, found that many operations are within a few miles of a pipeline.

“Our research highlights that 54 percent of the 150 bcm flared annually by the oil and gas industry is within 20 kilometers of a gas pipeline, and is therefore by definition, close to a connection to a market,” Capterio said.

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