Gas Flaring Wastes Resources, Pollutes Atmosphere

Oil Rig
A gas flare burns off the natural gas released during the oil extraction process.

Every year, the oil industry burns off up to 170 billion cubic meters of natural gas released in the oil extraction process, according to a new report commissioned by the World Bank. The practice, known as gas flaring, not only harms the environment by emitting some 400 million tons of carbon dioxide globally, but is also wasteful of a cleaner energy source, the gas itself, notes Bent Svensson, manager of the Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership. “In Africa alone about 40 billion cubic meters of gas are burned every year, which if put to use could generate half of the electricity needed in that continent,” he says.

When crude oil is brought to the surface from deep inside the earth, gas associated with the extraction frequently surfaces as well. Rather than simply burning it off, the World Bank supports exploiting the resource by either injecting it into the ground for reuse in oil production, converting it to liquid natural gas, transporting it via pipelines, or tapping it to generate electricity on-site. If the estimated 170 billion cubic meters of natural gas burned off in 2006 had been sold on the U.S. market, it would have been worth $40 billion, or 27 percent of U.S. natural gas consumption, the report notes. But in remote areas that lack infrastructure and are far from potential consumers, gas flaring may still be the most economical option.

The study, which examined data collected from 1995 through 2006, is the first of its kind to use satellite images of flaring sites. “In the past, the only way to track gas flaring was through official estimates, but now those days are over,” notes lead author Christopher Elvidge, a scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “These independent figures should help governments and companies alike to get a better sense of how much gas they are actually flaring.”

Twenty-two countries have increased gas flaring in the past 12 years, according to the report. Russia and Nigeria appear to be the worst offenders, responsible for roughly one-third and one-sixth of global gas flaring, respectively. Nine countries have had fairly stable gas flaring over the past 12 years, and 16 countries have decreased flaring in that time—among them Argentina, India, Nigeria, Norway, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.