Fixing inefficient oil field flaring could drastically reduce methane emissions

Oil and gas companies regularly use flaring (i.e., burning off unwanted methane) to limit the amount of natural gas escaping into the atmosphere, but this practice may not be as environmentally friendly as previously thought. Scientists from the University of Michigan, Stanford and elsewhere have found that flaring is far less effective than industry estimates, emitting five times more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than predicted.

Businesses and governments act on the belief that flares are always lit and burn 98 percent of the methane. However, aerial photographs of three US basins (where 80 percent of America’s flares occur) have revealed that the flares fail to ignite up to 5 percent of the time and operate inefficiently when active. In practice, the flaring efficiency is only 91 percent. That might not sound like a big dip, but it does mean there is a large amount of unexplained methane contributing to climate change.

The results have an advantage. The problems of flaring are “quite addressable” with better management, said lead researcher Genevieve Plant, and a solution would offer an emissions reduction equivalent to removing 3 million cars. Put another way, this could be one of the easiest ways to keep methane in check and limit global warming. The challenge is that businesses and governments work in harmony – that is not guaranteed, although the solution is relatively simple.

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