Gas flaring has dangerous side effects but these mitigation opportunities could be a win for everyone

by CCAC secretariat - 20 May, 2020
A CCAC technology demonstration project carried out in Colombia by Clearstone Engineering Ltd. is a powerful display of the social and economic potential of flaring reduction

There are villages in Nigeria where it feels like the sun hasn’t fully set in years. Some 2 million people in the country’s Niger Delta live within 4 kilometres of a gas flare, a raging flame at an oil and gas extraction site that can be several stories high and emit so much noise that passers-by must shout to be heard.

“For me, gas flaring is a threat to my fundamental right to life because gas flaring hampers my right to a clean environment,” said Faith Nwadishi, the Executive Director of Koyeneum Immalah Foundation in Nigeria in 2015 as part of a World Bank initiative to end routine flaring about the active flare site in her hometown. “Communities don't know the difference between day and night because they go to bed with active gas flare sights.”

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Flaring emits powerful climate forcers and dangerous air pollutants like black carbon, methane, and volatile organic compounds. Photo: Clearstone Engineering Ltd.

Flaring occurs when crude oil is extracted from underground and natural gas is brought to the surface. Particularly in areas with limited infrastructure, this gas is burned off either at the top of a large stack or from a pit in the ground, often with devastating effects on local communities. In addition to the noise and light, flaring emits black carbon, methane, and volatile organic compounds. Black carbon and methane are both powerful climate forcers and black carbon and VOCs are dangerous air pollutants.  

Nigeria is seventh on the list of the world’s top flaring countries, meaning that millions more around the world are subject to similar conditions, with countries like Venezuela, the United States, and Iran having even higher flaring rates, according to the World Bank.

By some estimates, black carbon is second only to carbon dioxide in terms of its impact on global warming. It does this both by absorbing sunlight thereby warming the atmosphere and by landing on ice and snow and reducing its ability to reflect light. Additionally, black carbon is a component of fine particulate matter which has negative effects on human health and contributes to over 7 million deaths a year from air pollution.

“It’s very scary: I feel choked up, I feel my lungs can’t get air, I feel starved of oxygen. I get panic attacks,” Zakiya Kikia-Khan told the Guardian in 2015 about living next to a flaring site in South Africa. “I know my asthma would be better if I wasn’t exposed to it. I use my inhaler more often on days they’re flaring.”

These dramatic climate and air pollution effects make current efforts to reduce unnecessary flaring critical. One of these is a Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) technology demonstration project carried out by Clearstone Engineering Ltd. By surveying oil and natural gas sites in Colombia, the project is helping oil and gas companies identify high-impact and cost-effective opportunities to reduce emissions from flaring by recovering high-value, condensable liquids from flared gas. This is a great solution for companies looking for a way to improve lives while also increasing profits, as recovering these liquids can both reduce emissions and add to revenue.

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Clearstone surveyed oil and natural gas sites in Colombia to identify opportunities to reduce emissions from flaring. Photo: Clearstone Engineering Ltd.

“Flaring mitigation is an excellent means of reducing the amount of black carbon emissions, which has a positive impact on climate change and a direct positive impact for people,” says Dave Picard, the President of Clearstone Engineering Ltd. in Calgary, Canada. “Acting on these opportunities can have a big impact on the lives of people living near these facilities.”

Black carbon only remains in the atmosphere for days to weeks which means that, as with all short-lived climate pollutants, reducing it would have immediate benefits.

Between July 2017 and July 2019, Picard and Michael Layer, the Senior Program Manager for Natural Resources Canada took three trips to Colombia to survey eight oil and gas facilities that either had high flaring rates or were representative of highly replicable flaring reduction opportunities.

Along the way, they heard repeated stories that underscored the importance of their research: mothers who went to their garden to harvest vegetables stained with black soot; families who desperately drew the curtains in the middle of the night in a fruitless attempt to ward off the bright lights and incessant noise caused by flaring. Other families reported their children had developed asthma or were prone to frequent illness. 

In addition to the social and medical effects of flaring, it’s also a waste of resources. The environmental and socioeconomic impacts of gas flaring results in estimated economic losses of over $5 billion in Russia and $11 billion in Nigeria. The product they are burning off is also potentially lost revenue. This means that companies should be doubly incentivized to reduce unnecessary flaring. To fill the gap, Picard and Layer are getting them precise measurements of the potential benefits and credible business cases showing how the flaring can be cost-effectively mitigated.

 “When facilities are flaring they think of the gas they're burning as waste,” Layer says of Picard’s work. “Dave is going in and showing them that this waste product is something that they have not accurately monetized or valued and is working with them to develop practicable mitigation strategies.”

Clearstone engineers set up monitoring equipment at a flare site. Photo: Clearstone Engineering Ltd.

Picard says the market will readily act on credible, well-documented investment opportunities that offer attractive economics at an acceptable level of risk. This is especially true where significant co-benefits such as improved social license, workplace safety, and process reliability exist. The challenge for flaring mitigation is obtaining reliable measurement information, developing a practicable site-specific solution and advancing the business case for the opportunity to a level suitable for consideration by senior management. It is important, he adds, to give companies a crystal clear picture of what their return will be, not just financially but also environmentally, socially, and reputationally. 

“We’ve gone in and looked at potential opportunities to mitigate flaring and evaluated those to a degree that was sufficient for senior management within the oil company to make an informed business decision,” says Picard. “We’re giving them information that’s based on refined measurements, not spot measurements, which considers site-specific constraints and reflects a level of due diligence necessary to give the kind of confidence that was needed to accept these ideas. If you don’t make the efforts to do that, to get it into terms that they can appreciate internally, it won’t get approved.”

So far, these efforts have been fruitful. Picard and Layer have met with operators, engineers, and senior management at each site and presented Clearstone’s research and recommendations for ways to reduce emissions and they’re enthusiastic about the way the research was received.

Measurements give companies a clear picture of what their return will be, not just financially but also environmentally, socially, and reputationally. Photo: Clearstone Engineering LTD.

“They’ve responded positively,” says Picard. “What was achieved as far as we can tell is a real commitment to implement high-impact change.”

Multiple mitigation opportunities have been advanced to the refined business case level, which means that there is a document that is sufficiently accurate, thorough, and credible to allow an investor or senior executive in an oil and gas company to make a confident investment decision. At one site an operator expressed appreciation at the level of rigor of the completed technical and economic assessment and how applicable the mitigation options were. At another they expressed strong interest in acting on the flaring mitigation opportunity while proposing a potential lower capital alternative.

If these opportunities move forward they promise to not only help stem the onslaught of climate change but to make an immediate material difference in the conservation of oil and gas resources and the lives of people living around the oil and gas facilities.

“That’s why we focus on short-lived climate pollutants, it gives you an environmental and human health payback instantaneously and they’re also receiving the immediate benefit of a performance improvement; there’s a co-benefit,” says Layer.

By reducing unnecessary flaring, companies can limit their air pollution and climate impact and stop burning away potential reveunue. Photo: Clearstone Engineering LTD.