Gas Flaring Wastes Energy and Pollutes the Air – Why is it Still Happening?

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Gas flaring was responsible for Texas’s recent increase in oil refinery pollution, but it’s hardly a new problem. We’re less than a decade away from the UN’s goal of Zero Routine Flaring by 2030, but refineries still flare 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year, releasing 400 million tons of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Zubin Bamji, of the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership, says that ending routine gas flaring must be a part of “Build Back Better” efforts across the globe and that countries must better manage the gas byproducts of oil production even as they begin to phase it out.

Why This Matters: Companies have historically practiced gas flaring as a convenient and inexpensive way to “dispose of ” gas that was extracted alongside oil, as opposed to storing paying to store it. But this month, Texas learned the hard way that a lack of above-ground natural gas reserves left the state’s power grid vulnerable and that, ironically, a desperate need to protect processing equipment forced refineries to flare more gas. According to the World Economic Forum, if just half of all annual gas flaring was instead used for power generation, it could provide 400 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. COVID-19 and the climate crises like we saw in Texas are expected to push millions of people into extreme poverty. We need to save energy – not waste it – because flaring isn’t really “free” — we are just imposing those health and energy costs on those who can least afford them.  

More Than Just CO2

Gas flaring produces dangerous pollutants like methane, soot, benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide.

  • Soot, although short-lived in the atmosphere, has been shown to accelerate snow and ice melting in the arctic, and gas flaring emissions contribute to 42% of annual surface soot concentrations there.
  • Methane can be more than 80 times more powerful than CO2 and absorbing heat over 20 years.

These pollutants have been shown not only to damage the atmosphere and environment, but to cause serious health problems for humans, including asthma, cardiac conditions, cancer, and neurological problems. Low-income, Black, and Latino communities often face the most health risks from these emissions, and studies have shown higher concentrations of air pollutants may increase the risk of severe COVID-19.

A No Brainer

Ending gas flaring would increase fuel reserves, waste less fuel, and prevent air pollution, but many countries and companies have put the issue on the back-burner. This is in part because it could take an estimated $100 billion for oil companies to create the infrastructure to collect, store, and distribute the fuel that they normally flare.

  • In Texas, many companies didn’t want to spend money to winterize their infrastructure, which would have included investing in above-ground fuel storage for excess natural gas.

Additionally, the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report projects that as COVID-19 vaccine rollouts take hold across the world, many governments will delay climate action and fossil fuel regulations as they try to rebuild their economies. In the U.S. there have been many efforts to ban gas flaring, including some from gas companies themselves, but they haven’t taken hold. President Biden has promised that climate action and renewable energy will play a central role in the nation’s COVID-19 recovery plan. Drilling and mining on federal lands are already on Biden’s chopping block; many experts hope that flaring will be next.

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