August 29, 2007— From more than 400 miles in space, the World Bank is pinpointing the true extent of one of the planet’s major environmental problems – gas flaring.
The problem isn’t new. Gas flaring – a byproduct of petroleum production that spews about 400 millions of tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – has been going on for decades. But new satellite imagery, commissioned by the Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction public-private partnership, is showing that some countries are burning off more gas than what was initially reported.
The imagery has reshuffled who are the top 20 gas-flaring nations, compared to previous official figures from 2004. Russia has moved to No. 1, replacing Nigeria, and new on the list, based on what satellite sensors see on their 14 daily globe-girdling journeys, are China, Oman, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
“Gas flaring reduction is a concrete and relevant contribution to climate change mitigation and the transition to a low-carbon economy,” says Somit Varma, Director of the World Bank-IFC’s Oil, Gas, Mining, and Chemicals Department. “Oil-producing countries and companies should step up efforts in reducing flaring.”
To better comprehend which countries were reducing their flaring, and where flaring was increasing, NOAA scientists looked at satellite imagery extending from 1995 to 2006, and created color-coded, time-phased composite images that produced a new list of the top 20 flarers.
Gas flaring estimates, which were produced for 60 countries or areas around the world, show that global gas flaring has remained largely stable over the past twelve years, in the range of 150 to 170 billion cubic meters (bcm)..
Because most gas flaring occurs outside urban areas, NOAA scientists were able to pinpoint burn-offs and convert their light intensity to measurable quantities of pollution, primarily from carbon dioxide. To ensure precise correlations, only nighttime photos under cloud-free conditions were analyzed.
“Gas flaring harms the environment and wastes a cleaner source of energy that could generate much needed electricity in poor countries,” said Bent Svensson, Manager of the Bank’s GGFR partnership. “The study’s estimates are a good additional source of information but satellite imagery has its limitations and uncertainties that we are working with the scientists to reduce.”
These sources of error and uncertainty include variations in flare efficiency, mis-identification of flares, non-continuous sampling, and environmental effects like snow reflection.
Nigeria is gradually reducing its flaring output
Nigeria, which for years was the No. 1 flarer, has been gradually reducing its output with the help of the GGFR. The partnership helped put together that West African country’s Kwale flaring reduction project – the first and biggest from Africa to be registered under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. That means the project can earn carbon-reduction credits that lower the cost of flare reduction, and thus encourage petroleum-producing countries and their energy-company partners to invest in the infrastructure needed to stop flaring.
Composite satellite image shows reduction in gas flaring in Nigeria over 14 years. The year 2006 is in red, 2000 is in green and 1992 is in blue. Click for an enlarged view
Reducing flaring can be costly. In recent years, however, renewed efforts have been made to eliminate flaring, such as re-injecting natural gas into the ground to boost oil production, liquefying it for shipment to international markets, transporting it to markets via pipelines, or using it on site for generation of electricity or for distribution to nearby communities..
But in a high oil price environment, oil development projects are highest on the list of the producing countries’ capital investment projects. Carbon credits encourage those countries to undertake gas flaring reduction projects. “If they’re getting a 30 percent return on petroleum production and only 10 percent on natural gas after infrastructure costs, you know what they’re going to do,” Svensson said. “You have to balance them out.” Carbon credits help even out the returns.
‘We bring the countries and the companies together around the table’
The GGFR partnership has grown to 14 oil-producing nations – including Nigeria but not Russia – that are responsible for about 70 percent of flaring worldwide. Gabon, Nigeria’s West African neighbor in the petroleum-rich Gulf of Guinea, will officially become the newest GGFR partner in the coming weeks. The partnership also includes 10 major oil companies.
“We don’t have the funds to invest in projects, but we catalyze investments,” Svensson said. “We bring the countries and the companies around the table so that they can work together to reduce the barriers to gas flaring reduction.”
These barriers, particularly in developing countries, include: lack of effective regulatory frameworks and access to financing, insufficient infrastructure and poor access to local and international energy markets.
GGFR has undertaken gas-flaring reduction projects in eight countries, and a majority of GGFR partners have endorsed a global standard for flaring reduction. The partnership is assisting Algeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and Qatar to meet target dates for zero or minimum flaring.
Collectively, GGFR projects underway will potentially eliminate some 32 million tons of greenhouse gases by 2012.