The Oil Industry Can't Stop Torching Methane And Wrecking Our Climate

The Oil Industry Can't Stop Torching Methane and Wrecking Our Climate

The LA gas leak may be a climate disaster, but a similar problem is playing out all over the world. Now, thanks to infrared technology, we're starting to see just how much methane the oil and gas industry is haemorrhaging -- mostly, out of laziness. It took two months for one of the largest methane leaks in history to attract global attention. When the world finally became aware of the horror show taking place at Porter Ranch, it was because of a video released by the Environmental Defence Fund, which showed climate-warming methane gas pouring out of the ground. This month, a new scientific paper used similar technology to produce our first comprehensive picture of methane flares worldwide.

Its conclusion? We're torching a huge amount of natural gas, adding to our global warming woes while wasting valuable fuel.

Flaring methane is a common practice in the oil industry, which sees it as an easy way to dispose of the combustible gas that often comes out of the ground along with oil. While controlled flares are less polluting than straight-up leaks, because most of the methane is converted into the technically-climate-friendlier gas carbon dioxide, the practice is by no means clean. "Small amounts of methane are still released to the atmosphere even when you're flaring," Dan Grossman of the Environmental Defence Fund told Gizmodo. On an industry-wide scale, "the volumes are so high that you're looking at significant methane emissions even with highly efficient flares".

The new study, conducted by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the first part of a four-year attempt to quantify emissions from methane flare sites worldwide. Using data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite on the Earth-orbiting Suomi Satellite, the team identified 7467 flare sites in 2012. Collectively, these sites incinerated some 143 billion cubic metres of natural gas, an amount that's roughly equivalent to 3.3 per cent of methane production worldwide.

As Grossman puts it, we're talking about enough methane to power 68 million homes a year.

The Oil Industry Can't Stop Torching Methane and Wrecking Our Climate

Spatial distribution of natural gas flares in 2012. Russia leads the world in terms of gas volume flared, while the United States has the highest number of individual flare sites. Via Elvidge et al. 2016.

The United States boasts the largest number of natural gas flares. In the US, the volume of natural gas burned in 2012 was equivalent to a staggering 20 per cent of gas consumed. As the researchers note, that amount of natural gas could power roughly 74 million cars driving 21,700km annually.

"It's basically a waste," NOAA's Christopher Elvidge, the lead author of the study, told Gizmodo. "This is an obvious area for making improvements in our carbon utilization."

The practice of torching natural gas isn't going to end anytime soon -- in some cases, it's the only safe way to dispose of it -- but we could be reigning it in a lot more. In many parts of the US, flares are the default way of dealing with methane extracted from the ground alongside oil. That's a shame, because the technology to capture and use this energy source already exists.

"What we know is it's a problem and it's cost effective for operators to address it," Grossman said. "It's really a matter of holding their [the oil industry's] feet to the fire and making it a requirement."

And that's where our new, high-tech eyes come in. The more people are aware of how much methane is being dumped into our atmosphere, the harder it gets for the industry to turn a blind eye.

[Read the full scientific paper here h/t National Geographic]

Top image via Associated Press

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    Pump some sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, climate change solved. Already proven to lower global temperatures with no ill effects.

      Not sure about the "no ill effects".
      From good old Wikipedia -
      "At standard atmosphere, it is a toxic gas with a pungent, irritating, and rotten smell."

        That's why you release it high up. They noticed that global temps dropped when a volcano did this in the 90's I think it was. No ill effects recorded from what I have read.

          This need to be corrected.
          The reduction in the temperature was not due to sulfur dioxide.
          Rather is the ashes of volcanic ash blocking the sun rays for a few weeks.
          And its not free from any effects... Look at the economic perspective during this time.
          Grounded airplanes everywhere...

          Check back your sources.

      I'm assuming this is a joke of some kind.

        I'm assuming the whole article is a joke of some kind, or just the latest hysterical climate scare mongering.

          The article basically points out that we are wasting a resource that it is cost beneficial to harvest. I didn't notice any "hysterical climate scare mongering".

            Really? Lets see in the heading we have the phrase 'wrecking our climate' and then just in the first two paragraphs we have the phrases 'climate disaster' and 'horror show'. This author can't pen an article without filling it with the language of apocalyptic doom.

        No not really.
        Get a long hose, pump sulfur dioxide up it. Suspend the hose with helium balloons. Add a few pumps to even out the pressure.

        Should be doable for a few hundred million which is peanuts since Al Gore's charity spends 300 mil on awareness alone.

          It has been researched, and would cost around a billion a year to deliver the required amounts, which is still relatively cheap, but it is fraught with problems.
          The sulfur dioxide combines with other molecules in the upper atmosphere, forming sulfuric acid. The H2SO4 then binds to water to form aerosol droplets that absorb and reflect back into space an estimated one to three percent of the sun's rays.

          However, there are many ill effects, not the least of which that it rapidly destroys the ozone layer...

          Lol, what? Are you high or something?

          Last edited 14/01/16 5:15 pm

            No, it's been looked at and is the most cost effective way of sorting out climate rises. No acid rain like people are suggesting. You've got to put it way above the clouds.

              Thanks for the response, I'll do some reading. Obviously SOx are very toxic and normally associated with significant environmental harm, but as you say it is also well-known that geological events pump huge amounts into the atmosphere.

                Wikipedia is a good jumping point.
                Superfreakomics also talks about it.

                edit - Either way you should read freakonomics and it's sequel. Fascinating stuff.

                Last edited 15/01/16 10:39 am

      Sulfur dioxide is a gas. It is invisible and has a nasty, sharp smell. It reacts easily with other substances to form harmful compounds, such as sulfuric acid, sulfurous acid and sulfate particles.
      Sounds like the making of Acid Rain to me.

      So, in response to us pumping tonnes of gas into the atmosphere, we should pump more (toxic) gas into the atmosphere? Sounds Legit...
      Why not go with the simplest solution? Stop pumping stuff into the atmosphere.

      The point of the article was that this potential fuel was being wasted, while adding to global emissions. Why?: because the companies involved are both lazy and purely profit driven. This is where the "market economy" fails and why regulation is necessary.

      At this point it is more cost effective to bleed off the methane;
      - capture and storage costs money, and if everyone did it the surplus on the market would drive prices through the floor. (Much like the Saudi's flooding the oil market at the moment trying to kill the US Shale Oil boom).
      - there is no "cost" to simply releasing it into the air.

      Thus a tax upon "carbon" or "green-house gases" would likely push these companies into actually using the methane.

      No ill effects? Is sulfuric acid raining from the sky not an ill effect?

        That would be an ill effect if it were to happen. Not supported by modelling. You have to spray it way above the clouds.

    No... Really... And I thought CO2 was the culprit, not meathane which isn't 100's of times worse than CO2... Surely the climate change geniuses must have thought of that one?

      Ummm... yes they have. Are you suggesting climate change scientists were not aware of the harmful effects of CH4?

    Methane is in the standard models ... sigh. pro-climate-destabilization trolls be trolling as usual. And anyway, this is talking about flaring the natural gas, which burns it and makes it CO2, NO2, CO and water. So ta Mr "rhetorical concept".

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