Image Source: Adam Cohn
Dear Pablo: How much energy is wasted each year by natural gas flaring?
Flaring is the process of burning waste gases from the production of fossil fuels, chemical plants, or landfills. The majority of flare gas is methane, a.k.a. natural gas. According to the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Reduction Program "150 billion cubic meters (or 5.3 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas are being flared and vented annually." This equals one quarter of the United States' total natural gas consumption! Fact: The natural gas that is currently flared in Sub-Saharan Africa could meet half the needs for that continent's energy consumption.
What Is The Impact Of Natural Gas Flaring?
Not only is the annually wasted gas worth an estimated $30.6 billion (depending on current market prices) but it is also responsible for 0.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas, or methane is a greenhouse gas itself, and a far more potent one at that. Methane's ability to trap heat in the earth's atmosphere is said to be twenty-one times as high as CO2 so simply stopping the practice of flaring and instead releasing the gas into the atmosphere is not the answer.
The Answer Lies In Beneficial Re-Use
The global production of natural gas for use in everything from power plants and industrial production to your home's water heater is around 2,500 billion cubic meters per year. By capturing gases that are currently flared we could displace the need to produce almost 17% of global natural gas production. By replacing the gas you currently use in your kitchen stove with gas from your local landfill and replacing the natural gas used to fuel a power plant with waste gas from an oil field we could reduce global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by 0.5%. This doesn't sound like much but these 400 million tons of CO2 are roughly equivalent to all of the emission reductions achieved under the Kyoto Protocol's mechanisms.
Methane that is currently flared can be processed and introduced into the closest natural gas pipeline or it can be used directly to produce electricity in a microtubine, internal combustion engine or a boiler and steam turbine. Unfortunately some legal hurdles exist that currently prevent this. My local landfill captures and flares the methane produced by the decay of my trash in accordance with California law. If the landfill owners wanted to use the natural gas to generate electricity instead, thereby preventing the methane from entering the atmosphere and displacing the fossil-fueled production of electricity, they would have to go through a costly and lengthy process of obtaining permits from regional, state, and federal officials as well as producing environmental impact reports.
Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
More Resource On Flaring:
World Bank: Global Gas Flaring Reduction
Global Gas Flaring Satellite Survey Reveals Oil's Hidden Costs
TreeHugger Looks Into The Carbon Offset Project At The Tontitown Landfill