With just one month to go before COP26 starts in Glasgow, global attention is turning to the industry's plans to curb emissions and decarbonise operations.

Lofty ‘green’ ambitions have been announced by many oil and gas companies.

However, detractors claim that details regarding how to achieve these stated goals are scant and that too little is being done to reduce emissions from operations, rather than relying on offsets.

The World Health Organisation attributes 7 million premature deaths a year to pollution from sources including upstream operations and power generation, while GEOSChem has said some 10.2 million premature deaths annually are attributable to the fossil-fuel component of particulate matter (PM) 2.5.

GEOS-Chem is a global 3D model of atmospheric chemistry driven by meteorological input from the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) of the NASA Global Modelling & Assimilation Office.

By way of comparison, the total number of deaths from Covid-19 stood at 4.55 million as of 24 September 2021.

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Tide starting to turn

Against this backdrop, some upstream companies still routinely flare and vent during production operations, although the tide is starting to turn.

“For our offshore fields we have committed to zero continuous venting by 2024. We are also committing to zero flaring by 2030," Petronas executive vice president and chief executive upstream Adif Zulkifli recently told Upstream.

“We have to look at every single facility. We need to account for all the carbon emissions and, where we can, we should be able to divert them back to sales."

The International Energy Agency (IEA) last year reported that some 145 billion cubic metres of natural gas was flared in 2018, a slight increase from levels in previous years and broadly equal to gas demand across the continent of Africa.

This resulted in emissions of roughly 275 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, including some 3 million tonnes of methane emissions from the uncombusted portions of flares, and the release of other greenhouse gases such as black carbon and nitrogen oxide.

Russia, Iraq, Iran, Algeria and the US combined were responsible for more than half of global flaring.

Several field trials have demonstrated viable technologies to reduce flaring, but at root the issue of flaring is also a question of business models, noted the IEA.

Technology fix

“If there is inadequate provision for productive use of the gas at the project planning stage, including the necessary gas infrastructure, then finding a technology fix later on is much more difficult,” the IEA said.

The agency noted an increase in the number of voluntary government and industry commitments to eliminate flaring by 2030.

The IEA’s sustainable development scenario relies on a rapid reduction in flaring, with government policies and industry commitment all but eliminating it by 2025.

In theory, more than 99% of the natural gas is combusted when flaring is carried out in optimal conditions, according to the Paris-headquartered IEA.

“[However], in real-world conditions, flaring can be significantly less efficient due to sub-optimal combustion dynamics such as variable heat content and flame instability.

“As a result, substantial volumes of methane can be released along with black carbon and nitrous oxide — all potent (greenhosue gases).”

The US-based non-profit environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 2020 released a study from the country's Permian tight-oil basin noting 11% of flares were unlit or working suboptimally, resulting in more than three-and-a-half times more methane released than officially reported.

There are technologies to increase flaring efficiency, but they are currently expensive and therefore not widely deployed, added the IEA.


Reducing routine flaring means productive uses for the associated gas must be found, or it must be reinjected into the reservoir.

The optimal solution is to ensure a connection to the main gas grid, but there can be ways to utilise the gas productively even in the absence of such a connection.

Onshore operators in the US have already field-trialled a variety of flaring-reduction technologies.

Meanwhile, a study released last year by the Climate & Clean Air Coalition reported positive net present values and payback times of less than two years in six of eight flaring-reduction projects undertaken in Colombia from 2017 to 2019.

Conventional oil operations are still the main source of flaring worldwide.

However, flaring from unconventional oil production, notably tight oil in the US, has also increased significantly in recent years.

In many instances, a key reason for routine flaring is the lack of proximity to a commercial market or a lack of infrastructure.

“However, another issue — especially in the Permian basin — has been a temporal mismatch, eg, when a gathering system has several new wells that have a high rate of production, or wells where the gas to oil ratio increases over time," added the IEA. “Minimising flaring in these cases requires some tailored solutions in terms of production management and planning.

"A recent assessment of the Permian tight oil basin indicates a fourfold increase in flaring since 2012, with annual flaring estimated at 6 Bcm.”

In the IEA's sustainable development scenario, the volume of gas flared drops dramatically during this decade.

Flaring is soon eliminated in all but the most extreme cases, with less than 13 Bcm flared from 2025 onwards, less than 10% of the current global level.