Track and Discourage: Global Responses to Flaring
When drillers produce crude oil from onshore or offshore industrial petroleum wells, the yield is typically accompanied by raw natural gas that can create pressure in refining equipment. When gas cannot be captured or injected back into the underground reservoir, it is disposed of through a combustion method called flaring. This wasteful practice is characterized by a massive, uncontained flame burning at the top of a flare stack, an event observable from space. Gas flaring may also occur when companies are in pursuit of more lucrative oil sources than what has been discovered, or when the cost of building pipeline infrastructure is exceeds the price of gas.
Scientists believe that globally, 130 billion cubic metres of gas are flared annually, generating 1.2% (300 million tonnes) of yearly atmospheric CO2 emissions. This disposal method contributes enormous amounts of air pollution and GHGs across local, regional, and international scales. In addition to CO2 output, flaring releases large amounts of co-emitted compounds into the borderless atmosphere:
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
The spatial and temporal extensions of these airborne chemicals and are significant, and can have long atmospheric lifetimes. For example, as much as 42% of the annual mean black carbon (BC) or soot surface concentrations in the Arctic is attributed to gas flaring originating the southern United States. The BC absorbs solar radiation which hastens ice melt, reveals dark ground surfaces which decreases solar reflectivity (albedo effect), and accelerates global warming.
Invisible and odorless, the GHG Methane (the primary component of natural gas) has a 12.4 year life span and the primary component of natural gas, has a global warming potential (GWP) that is 86 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years. As countries seek to comply with the new UN climate accord by slashing emissions, gas flaring (and leaks) remain persistent problems at industrial sites everywhere.
High-tech cameras and satellites are now capturing those releases, putting pressure on private and public actors to take action. Flaring gas has a much lower impact on the climate than a vent releasing emissions directly into the atmosphere, as the flame converts gas into an amount of carbon dioxide that will have 30 times less short term warming potential, however, methane and BC still make substantial and unnecessary contributions to GHGs and GWP, and solutions to manage these emissions responsibly is critical, through capture or conversion.
Luckily, modern organizations are tracking and monitoring this activity, bringing it to the attention of policy makers and the public. In February 2013, Skytruth launched a heatmap visualization tool recording nightly detections of natural gas flaring across the planet. These observations are monitored and captured by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor instrument, aboard NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite. Specific dates can be selected to see images of specific flares in specific locations.
Technology such as this leads to significant policy changes. For example, the UN convention on biological diversity has condemned flaring, leading to domestically-regulated member state fine schemes directed towards companies practicing this. In another example, in 2015 the World Bank Group launched the Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 Initiative with endorsements from participating governments, oil companies, and development institutions. These groups came together through a mutual recognition that flaring is unsustainable from a resource management and environmental perspective.
While substantial participation in the initiative already exists, more robust mitigation policies must be implemented for flaring. Tools like Skytruth inform the public and provide policy-makers with real time, visual evidence that informs laws and can influence the overall effects of climate change. In this case, through monitoring, tracking, recording and communicating real time flaring activity to ensure culpable industries are held to account.