Gas Flaring: Major Cause of Climate Change, BP Oil Spill Solution

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill isn’t a direct cause of climate change. However, one of the methods being used to deal with it is a large source of carbon emissions in developing countries that could easily be reduced.

BP recently inserted a pipe into the leaking well. In addition to oil, the pipe BP is sending gases such as methane and natural gas to the surface as well. Rather than capturing them along with the oil, they’re being burned in a process called gas flaring. It represents a major global and local environmental problem.

Flaring is a wasteful process. Almost 5.5% of the world’s natural gas production is wasted due to flaring. In financial terms, that’s over $40 billion a year. That alone should be enough to make the companies responsible for the flaring reconsider the process.

It’s also an incredibly harmful to the local and global environment and public health Locally, gas flaring produces a plethora of byproducts harmful to health. These include fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide. Particulate matter is particularly (no pun intended) problematic for people who have asthma or other respiratory problems. The chemical benzene is also released. Benzene is linked to leukemia and possibly cancer, In addition, there are local environmental problems caused by gas flaring. Though the connection isn’t definite, some evidences points to flaring causing the release of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide which in turn cause acid rain. Flaring also produces black carbon, which will prevent vegetation from growing. Intense heat from the flaring site itself also limits vegetation. Of course, the biggest environmental problems come from the extraction of oil that is associated with flaring. The oil spill in the Gulf is a prime example of those impacts.

Globally, gas flaring is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Over 400 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted annually. The carbon emissions from gas flaring fall right between the emissions of Belgium and the Czech Republic.  Nigeria is the largest gas flaring country in the world behind Russia. It’s carbon emissions from flaring alone are actually higher than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa combined.

Black carbon produced by flaring also has strong implications for climate change. It’s considered an aerosol, though it doesn’t act exactly like other ones. Aerosols generally have cooling properties by reflecting incoming sunlight, but black carbon is actually a short-lived but strong warming agent that can cause climate change. It contributes to warming in three ways.

For one, when black carbon is in the atmosphere, it absorbs sunlight rather than reflecting it like other aerosols. It also increases low-level clouds, which have further warming properties. Finally, when it leaves the atmosphere, it can land on snow. There, it also absorbs sunlight, thus warming the snow around it, sometimes weeks faster than clean snow. Melting snow reduces the Earth’s reflectivity, known as albedo, which leads to still more warming. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the Earth, in part because of black carbon.

Just how much is black carbon contributing to climate change? James Hansen of NASA has estimated that black carbon accounts for a quarter of observed warming. Because black carbon only sticks around for a few days, reducing black carbon emissions is one of the only ways in which we can immediately mitigate the effects of climate change. Reducing black carbon could provide immediate benefits for maintaining snowpack, sea ice, and permafrost, all of which could pass dangerous tipping points if we continue to pursue business as usual. It will also buy time while the slow process of reducing carbon emissions moves forward.

So gas flaring is bad for the local and global environment and the economy. And fixing it would provide immediate benefits to mitigate climate change. And the technology to eradicate the practice is there. So why does it happen?

The majority of it happens in remote areas or in countries that don’t have the technical capacity to use natural gas for energy. It’s also energy-intensive to separate natural gas from crude oil. There are a few initiatives operated by international entities including the World Bank and the UN to reduce gas flaring. However, technology isn’t being adapted as fast as it could be in part because it’s still more profitable to burn the gas rather than store and use it. In major gas flaring countries, ineffective and even obstructionist governments also hamper public opposition (though hopefully this is changing in Nigeria, whose government has set a deadline for December 2010 to end gas flaring).

The keys to reducing gas flaring are to hold corporations who use the process accountable for the damage they cause to the local and global environments and also facilitating technology transfers to the countries where gas flaring is a major problem. This means energy technologies that can burn natural gas and/or technologies that can reinject natural gas into the ground rather than flaring it. In the long term, we’ll need to move towards energy sources that have zero carbon emissions. However, in the short term, finding ways to reduce gas flaring will provide tangible benefits that will hopefully inspire those longer term fixes.

Photo Credit: Flickr