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Leon Kaye headshot

Gas Flaring Is Fueling a Far Larger Methane Problem That We Thought

By Leon Kaye

Energy companies have long turned to gas flaring to dispose of excess natural gas, largely because it was thought to eliminate methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, depending on the source cited. The practice of flaring has continued with the rationale that it’s impossible to capture all natural gas at any extraction site, even though the technology exists to capture methane at its source. 

The surging demand for energy, therefore, means that companies within this sector will do what is most expedient: flaring when necessary to dispose of excessive natural gas that cannot be trapped. It all seems logical enough, considering that the sector has claimed that the process destroys methane at a rate of 98 percent — an impressive number at any level.

But there’s a problem: A team of researchers at the University of Michigan recently concluded that flaring eliminates methane at a lesser ratio, specifically a tad over 91 percent. That may not seem like a huge discrepancy, but when considering the potency of methane, this team of researchers says the gap results in a five-fold increase of methane emissions above current assumptions. “Therefore, flaring is often not as efficient as presumed — or methane plumes simply are not combusted at all,” the researchers wrote in their report.

To put it another way: Flaring isn’t a tool to mitigate climate change. Actually, it could be fueling it far more than previously believed.

The University of Michigan team reached their conclusions by sampling flaring data across three basins in the U.S. that host the lion’s share of gas flaring. Two of those basins are in Texas while another is located in North Dakota. Combined, they account for about 80 percent of all gas flaring within the U.S. energy sector.

So, while energy companies may have been stating the case for flaring logically and with confidence, there’s been one problem, says this research team: such data was outdated, and in fact, some of it dated as far back as the 1980s.

“Most flare studies have been conducted in laboratory or testing facility settings such that sensitivities to various parameters (e.g. flare tip design, fuel composition, etc.) can be assessed under controlled conditions,” Genevieve Plant, the lead author of the study, told Gizmodo’s Molly Taft in an email. “There have been limited studies of ‘real-world’ flares such that it was not known if these controlled experiments captured flare performance under field operating conditions and over the lifetime of a flare.”

In other words, what may be tested and verified in a laboratory isn’t necessarily going to work in the field — and is often not even reported in the first place — with rather dubious results for meaningful climate action.

This research doesn’t only result in a black eye for energy companies and the government regulators tasked with ensuring they stay compliant. It’s a setback for public health as well. In a study published the same day as the University of Michigan team’s findings, another set of researchers from Brown University and the University of Arizona pointed out that around 500,000 people live within three miles of these three basins, and they are exposed to a “cocktail of co-pollutants that present risks of acute and/or chronic health impacts.”

Image credit: Pexels

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye