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.
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.
Top image via Associated Press