Francesco Mazzagatti: A Flare Free World?
Refineries and petrochemical facilities burn excess hydrocarbons in a process known as flaring. For simplicity sake, I shall summarise such gases as either surplus or waste, which are burned as a safety measure to prevent over pressurisation. Flaring accounts for just under 1% of global greenhouse emissions and there is a strong argument that it is less harmful than releasing the natural gas directly. This is because the primary component of natural gas is methane and is far harmful to the environment than flaring produced carbon dioxide. However, flaring produces no useful energy or benefit, and is perhaps one of the forms of pollution that is in everyone’s interest to eradicate. To put this into numbers, according to the World Bank — where I have drawn most of my data for this piece — over 145 Billion cubic meters of gas was flared in 2018, with Russia, Iraq, Iran and the US accounting for nearly 40% of flaring (Russia alone accounts for 12%).
The Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR), established by the World Bank, seeks international agreement to reduce flaring through a public-private initiative by removing technical and regulatory barriers to flaring reduction. Crucially the GGFR monitors global flaring and around 60% of global flaring produces have signed up to the reduction programme. A subset of this programme has UN endorsement to eradicate flaring entirely by 2030. Sadly 2019 saw a 5% increase, driven largely by an upsurge in oil production in the US, Iran and North Africa. Although there are positives; the world’s largest producer of flares Russia made the greatest reduction, followed by significant reductions by Mexico and Venezuela, although this could be owing to a reduction in economic conditions reducing ability to extract than deliberate policy.
At this stage I should also note that there may always be a need to flare in some circumstances, for example; to vent and dispose of dangerous overpressure in an emergency, but the aspiration at least is that this will one day be a rare occurrence.
It is clear that simply banning flaring does not work owing to the safety requirements and is expensive both in time to produce and capital required of alternatives. Nigeria technically banned the flaring in 1984, yet has continued to extend the transition away from flaring to this day and remains the seventh largest global contributor. However, there are several approaches to flaring reduction. Using excess gas for power generation is the most logical, either on a local level to power small communities near the extractor/refinery or on a larger enterprise regional level. Both have advantages and draw backs; gas is less of a polluter than coal when used for power generation, but building large scale regional infrastructure for power generation is expensive. Equally smaller localised facilities may also find themselves economically unviable, especially as the communities they service grow. I wonder if both options could suffer from instability of supply, as extractors/refineries improve the amount of waste should decline, resulting in less gas to feed the very infrastructure setup to utilise the flaring.
Improvements in technology are perhaps the best answer to reduce flaring, either through recovery of the gas or reducing the need to flare in the first place. Unfortunately every facility and indeed every flare is different; a technology that works for one may produce marginal or no benefit for another. Fortunately a number of companies are producing technology to answer this problem, either building low flare facilities from the offset or technology to retrofit existing ones. Oman is leading the charge in this space, with its largest producer, Occidental Petroleum reducing its flaring by 75% from 2013 to 2018. We may continue to see small rises in global flaring as nations rush to extract oil in response to geopolitical events, but ultimately technology is improving together with a genuine ethos of the petrochemical business to flare less. The future is almost certainly near flare free, although 2030 remains an ambitious target.