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The environmental cost of gas flaring

Holly Young | Srinivas Mazumdaru
August 29, 2022

Russia is believed to have flared large amounts of gas near the Finnish border since July, releasing approximately 9,000 tonnes of CO2 per day. DW looks at the potential climate impact.

Russland Gasfackel in Portovaya
Satellite imagery captured a gas flare at the Portovaya plant, RussiaImage: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery/REUTERS

In its recent analysis of activity at the under-construction Portovaya liquid natural gas facility not far from where the Nord Stream 1 pipeline enters the Baltic Sea, Norwegian-based company Rystad Energy said Russia was flaring gas that would ordinarily have been supplied to Europe. Had relations with the West not soured as a result of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Flaring is generally a common practice near oil fields and processing plants across the world, with companies burning off gas that is generated as a byproduct during various processes involved in oil exploration and extraction.  

Firms usually resort to flaring when they lack adequate infrastructure or financial incentives to bring the gas to market, or when it needs to be released for safety reasons to manage changes in pressure during crude oil extraction.  

Huge volumes of gas are currently lost to flaring each year. According to the World Bank, in 2021 approximately 144 billion cubic meters of gas were burned in thousands of flares at oil production sites worldwide — enough to power the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, or almost two-thirds of the European Union's net domestic electricity generation. 

Russia burning natural gas at plant
A picture taken from Finland shows natural gas being burned at Russian plant near the borderImage: Heikki Saukkomaa/AP Photo/picture alliance

How does it affect the environment?  

Flaring is seen as environmentally preferable to venting gas directly into the atmosphere. 

"If you have in parts of your grid too much gas, you have to release it and of course for the climate it is better to burn it because you massively reduce the greenhouse gas effect than if you release the natural gas, as it is CH4 [methane]," said Stefan Lechtenböhmer, professor and director of future energy and industry systems at the Wuppertal Institute, a German think-tank.

Compared to the CO2 released from flaring, methane is around 80 times more potent for global warming over a 20-year period.

Despite this, gas flaring is still considered economically unproductive and a critical climate issue. "You have the CO2 emissions, but no use from it: you don't produce electricity, you don't produce heat, you don't drive industry processes etc," Lechtenböhmer said.

Gas wasted in flaring, venting and methane leaks from oil and gas operations led to around 2.7 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2021. According to the International Energy Agency, preventing this loss would have the same impact on global temperature rise by 2050 as immediately eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from all the world's cars, trucks and buses.

Gas and oil field in Texas, US
The top ten countries flaring gas around the world includes US, Iraq and RussiaImage: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Potential impact of Russian gas flare 

Zongqiang Luo, senior gas and LNG analyst at Rystad Energy says the sheer volume of gas being burned at the LNG facility in Russia makes it a particularly concerning case.  "A normal, standard procedure will not flare that amount of gas."

Although the exact volume of gas being lost to flaring at Portovaya is difficult to calculate accurately, Rystad estimates it to be around 4.34 million cubic meters per day. That equates to 1.6 billion cubic meters annually, around 0.5% of the EU's annual gas demand needs.

Rystad Energy has described the situation as an "environmental disaster," with around 9,000 tons of CO2 being emitted daily. 

Lechtenböhmer said this daily gas burning was equivalent to roughly 10-12% of the amount of gas currently delivered every day throughNord Stream 1.

"It is an environmental crime of the largest proportion —  it is protracted, it goes on for months, and as we are now learning, it is highly visible," said R. Andreas Kraemer, founder of the Ecological Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Berlin. 

The Russian gas giant Gazprom has slashed flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to just 20% of capacity since mid-July, blaming technical reasons like faulty equipment for the cut.  

Germany rejects this argument and says the reduction in gas supply was a political move in response to Western sanctions against Moscow over the Ukraine war.  

Some argue that after Russia cut supplies to its European customers, it couldn't divert the gas to anywhere else and therefore opted to burn it off.  

Gazprom, which according to Rystad Energy is building the plant where gas is being flared, did not respond to requests for comment. 

Broken up ice in the Arctic
Experts are concerned the black carbon could land on Arctic ice, accelerating meltingImage: Gerken & Ernst/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Black carbon pollution and the Arctic 

Experts such as Kraemer have also expressed concern about the pollution from black carbon —  more commonly known as soot — produced during flaring from the incomplete burning of fuels like natural gas. Black carbon is a powerful contributor to global warming, converting solar radiation into heat and impacting rainfall patterns.

Kraemer regards the northern geographical position of the Portovaya flare as concerning. 

"I think from that location, it [black carbon] will go far," he said, explaining the heat could make it rise to high altitudes where it can be blown across significant distances. "They [black carbon particles] will eventually settle on the ground. And if they settle on snow, then they change the absorption of sunlight by the surface of the snow or ice and that can accelerate Arctic melting.”

Using calculations of the estimated flow rate through the flare, it is likely that this single flare is currently producing more black carbon than the entire country of Finland, said Matthew Johnson, professor and head of the energy and emissions lab at Carleton University in Canada. 

Based on Rystad's analysis, the World Bank said that on a daily basis the individual flare at the Portovaya LNG facility is equivalent to around 6% of the daily flaring estimated for Russia in 2021. Most Russian flaring is driven by oil production in a small number of fields in East Siberia.

By volume the country flaresmore gas than any other globally, topping a list that includes Iraq, Iran, US and Venezuela. 

Nico Bauer, senior scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said Russia's performance to reduce gas flaring is insufficient.

"Russia's government planned to reduce gas flaring from about 12% of associated gas to below 5%, which is the share achieved in countries with advanced gas production industries. However, this has not been achieved."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker 

Gas-flaring at Finnish-Russian border