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Fading Environmentally Destructive Flames

Research & Analysis

By Ahnie Litecky

Gas flaring, a long-standing practice in the oil and gas industry, has come under harsh criticism. It not only wastes valuable resources and billions of dollars annually, it also has a severe impact on the environment. Efforts to curb gas flaring around the world are slowly gaining support, and if pursued efficiently, the end of this practice, harmful to our health, may come true by the envisioned 2030.

Gas flaring is the burning of unwanted gas that is extracted as part of oil/gas exploration, production, and processing operations. Sometimes non-waste gases are also flared to protect processing equipments in exceedingly high-pressure conditions. The industry also relies on gas venting, which is the direct release of gases into the atmosphere and it usually occurs for safety reasons. However, flaring is preferred over venting, because less methane is released by burning the gas. Gas flaring and venting are common practices among oil companies because capturing and using the natural gas is often expensive and appears impractical. As the reasoning stands, financial practicalities seem to have been taken priority over destructive effects that gas flaring has on the environment.

Roasting the Sky, Poisoning the Air

“Gas flares are nothing short of crimes against humanity,” NnimmoBassey, the then-Director of Lagos-based Environmental Rights Action and Chair of Friends of the Earth International, told The Guardian in 2011. “They roast the skies, kill crops and poison the air. These gas stacks pump up greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, impacting the climate, placing everyone at risk.”

Flaring can create five forms of pollution: noise, light, thermal radiation, particulates (soot), and emissions. If flaring is conducted properly, with a complete burn of the emitted natural gas, then particulate and emissions are minimized. However, variable environmental conditions mean that the gas is rarely fully combusted and instead releases a plethora of toxic substances into the air.

Gas flaring thus contributes dramatically to climate change. Gas venting releases methane and gas flaring emits both carbon dioxide and methane. These two major greenhouse gases have contributed to about 80% of global warming to date. Annually, gas flaring releases about 350 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere worldwide. The oil and gas industry is also responsible for about 20% of global methane emissions.

Flaring also produces black carbon particles which strongly absorb sunlight and generate atmospheric heat. These particles can warm the air, and influence regional cloud formation and precipitation patterns. If black carbon particles fall onto snow or ice, it can absorb sunlight and accelerate melting, which further negatively contributes to global warming. According to environmental reports, the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, which can be partly attributed to the increased presence of black carbon. A. Stohl led a study, published in 2013 in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, which showed that gas flaring contributed 42% to the annual mean black carbon surface concentrations in the Arctic.

Scientific research on the environmental effects of gas flaring is further supported by a wealth of research on the specific compounds that are released in the process. The exact combination of emissions depends on several factors, including the burning temperature, the composition of the waste gases, and wind speed. As O. Saheed Ismail, and G. EzainaUmukoro demonstrated in a 2014 article from the Journal of King Saud University, gas flares contaminate the atmosphere with a range of harmful contaminants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons, ash, photochemical oxidants, and hydrogen sulphide. All of these compounds are shown to harm human health. In total, there have been over 250 identified toxins associated with flaring.

People breathe in these contaminants, but the toxic mixtures also make their way into water and soil. Drinking water and agricultural soil are affected, making areas near gas flare sites sometimes uninhabitable.

Water bodies in gas-flared environments have been shown to contain increased levels of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, copper, manganese, and nitrates. C. N. Nwankwo and D. O. Ogagarue demonstrated the presence of such heavy metals in a 2011 study published in the Journal of Geology and Mining Research. According to their research, the heat generated from gas flaring can kill nearby vegetation, destroy swamps and marshes, suppress the growth and flowering of some plants, degrade soil, and decrease agricultural productivity.

Crops located near gas flare sites have reduced nutritional value. In a 2013 study published in Journal of Environment Pollution and Human Health, author Anslem O. Ajugwo compiled data and information from a variety of research sources to craft a case study of Nigeria. He argued that gas flaring has “impoverished the communities where it is practiced, with attendant environmental, economic and health challenges.”

Acid rain has also been linked to gas flares, as AkobunduAmadi demonstrated in a 2014 Journal of Geosciences and Geomatics article. Acid rain makes water bodies such as lakes and streams more acidic, damages vegetation, causes roof erosion, and kills aquatic animals, harms local populations. In effect, soils near gas flaring sites become more acidic from acid rain and cannot support agriculture.

Health Diseases on Display

The environmental issues are further exacerbated by the direct impact that gas flaring has on population’s health, and not exclusively of those living in proximity to gas flares.

Most scholarly research about the health effects of living near gas flare sites has been conducted in Nigeria, where the gas flaring has been in widespread use for decades. For example, A.E. Gobo, G. Richard, and I.U. Ubong from Rivers State University of Science and Technology in Nigeria demonstrated in a 2009 paper published in the Journal of Applied Sciences and Environmental Management that certain respiratory diseases were more prevalent in gas flaring areas than in areas without gas flaring. In a 2013 study published in the International Research Journal of Medical Sciences, J.N. Egwuruwu, showed that rates of kidney disease increased near gas flaring sites. Two years later, T.E. Ogbija, A.O. Atubi, and V.N. Ojeh used questionnaires, oil spill records, and gas flare data to argue that environmental degradation of air, water, and land in the Nigerian Delta caused a variety of health, economic, and agricultural problems. Their research was published in the Journal of Environment and Earth Science.

These three studies are just a sample of the extensive research demonstrating an alarming link between gas flaring and a myriad of health problems. Lung damage, anemia, nausea, headache, fatigue, leukemia, birth defects, wake-sleep disturbances, respiratory problems, skin/eye irritation, cancer, skin disorders, and kidney disease, are merely some of the health issues associated with gas flaring emissions. People who live near gas flaring sites also deal with loud noise from the gas emissions and bright lights given off by the flames.

People in other countries with high rates of gas flaring have also complained of negative health effects from gas flares. Iraqis who live near gas flare sites have complained of infected skin, allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems. Similarly, in 2013, residents of a Canadian town reported an increase in hair loss, skin rashes, and respiratory issues such as coughing after several years of increased gas flaring nearby.

Furthermore, flaring negatively affects animals as well. Several instances of mass bird deaths at gas flare sites have been reported in Canada, Nigeria, and the North Sea. In 2013, approximately 7,500 migrating birds were killed at a gas plant in Canada. Of course, livestock and domesticated animals that live near gas flare sites ingest the same harmful contaminants that people do through the air, crops, and water. Scientific studies concerning the specific effects of gas flaring on animals are still scarce, but a 2000 Canadian study, led by C. L. Waldner and published in Preventative Veterinary Medicine, showed an increase in the risk of stillbirth and mortality in Canadian cattle near gas flaring locations.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that animals who live near gas flaring sites suffer from a variety of reproductive and health problems, while scientific studies support the findings about the negative health consequences for animals ingesting toxic chemicals.

Common Flaring Rationale

Gas flaring is bad. Everybody agrees. Scientists have produced a wealth of research that shows gas flaring is harmful. People who live near gas flaring sites can attest to the toxic air and scorched earth. Gas flaring contributes to climate change. The practice wastes huge amounts of a non-renewable resource. Worst of all, gas flaring is not necessary. The technology to reduce gas flaring is available, so why is gas flaring still so common?

The short answer is that gas flaring is cheap and easy.  The long answer is, of course, much more complicated.

“Flaring continues because there are prevailing barriers that hinder investments in flare reduction,” TorleifHaugland, Senior Partner at Carbon Limits, a Norwegian-based climate change consulting firm, told Egypt Oil & Gas. “Some are technical and economical and would need economic incentives or regulatory pressures and measures to be eliminated, while others are caused by lack of awareness and/or priority by corporate managers. Finally, distortive policies and regulations (e.g. pricing policies, and license terms) hinder many flare reduction projects which are profitable from a socio-economic perspective.”

One important issue that Haugland raised is economics. Gas flaring is often considered the most economical thing to do with natural gas. Oil can be transported to refineries in trucks, even from very small and remote fields. However, gas requires pipelines to be moved to market and building pipeline infrastructure is costly. Companies do not want to invest lots of money to extract small amounts of gas from far-flung fields. Russia, who currently holds the unfortunate distinction of top natural gas flaring nation in the world, is an excellent example of the geographic reasons that flaring occurs. In Russia, most oil field are spread out across remote areas that are difficult to access, therefore building pipelines to move the associated natural gas is extremely costly and makes little economic sense for Russian oil companies.

Another significant reason why gas flaring continues is that many governments have not done enough to effectively regulate the practice. For instance, the Nigerian government outlawed gas flaring in 1984, but the country remains at the top of the gas flaring lists. Over the past few decades the government has struggled to enforce gas flaring laws, yet instead routinely succumbed to pressure from oil companies to push back deadlines and amend legislation.

The low price of natural gas also contributes to gas flaring. In the US, another major gas flaring country, natural gas prices remain low, despite a huge market for the resource. As in the case of Russia, American oil companies have little economic incentive to build costly infrastructure to capture and sell natural gas and instead routinely flare the gas.

Beyond the environmental impact of gas flaring, there are further huge economic ramifications.  According to the World Bank, gas flares at oil production sites burn approximately 140 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, which is about 4% of world production that remains unrecoverable amid growing global demand of gas.

Several countries have meanwhile set on a path towards ending gas flaring, yet only Norway seems to present a flaring reduction success story. The country has formulated a clear and detailed gas flaring and venting policy and the government works closely with oil companies to ensure compliance.

Efforts to Reduce Flaring

Despite the dire facts and statistics surrounding gas flaring, there are also plenty of reasons to hope that the practice will soon end globally. The World Bank has led global efforts to reduce gas flaring, most recently by introducing a Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 initiative last year. Governments, oil companies, and development institutions are signing on to support the legal, regulatory, and economic changes necessary to put an end to routine gas flaring.

Haugland argues that the World Bank initiative is both realistic and achievable.  “The target is for avoiding flaring at new production sites and seeking flare elimination from existing flare sites when such investments are economically viable,” he said.  Further, “the rise of climate change on the international policy agenda implies that there will be much more attention and action directed toward the resource waste which flaring represents. Given that 2030 still is more than 10 years away seen from a planning and project implementation perspective this target should be achievable and realistic.”

“The oil and gas industry has a responsibility to cut routine gas flaring to zero,” said Anita Marangoly George, World Bank Senior Director for Energy and Extractive Industries, in a statement in December 2015. She added that “ending routine gas flaring not only stops millions of tons of CO2 going into the atmosphere every year, it can contribute to improving the life of the people who live around gas flare sites.”

Unlike the existing practice, destructive to the life on earth, a straightforward rationale should instead be advocated for in line with people’s rights to clean environment, corporate and governmental obligations and global urgent demand for clean energy.

As Anita Marangoly George eloquently put it: “If converted to power, the flared gas can produce electricity to light up the African continent. So what are we waiting for?”