Line chart of Billions of cubic meters in natural gas burned, worldwide showing Flaring up

The amount of gas burnt off in flares by oil producers jumped to its highest level in a decade last year, representing a setback in global efforts to eradicate this environmentally harmful practice.

The equivalent of more than 400m tonnes of CO2 was released into the atmosphere as the result of burning unwanted natural gas from oil extraction, according to the latest data compiled from satellite imagery by a World Bank-led initiative. This was more than the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the entire UK economy.

Flaring persists because it is a relatively safe way of removing leftover gas, said Zubin Bamji, programme manager of the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership at the World Bank, which is seeking to end routine gas flaring by 2030.

Instead of being burnt off, natural gas can be captured and used as a fuel supply for heat and electricity, in much the same way as coal and oil. But with natural gas prices close to an all-time low, oil companies have little incentive to prevent gases from being released into the atmosphere.

“Gathering the gas and transporting it through a gas pipeline typically requires large volumes of gas to be [commercially] viable,” said Mr Bamji. “It is still very challenging to be done economically, and much depends on the gas price and the value of the end-product.”

Chart showing where gas flaring happens most, top 10 countries by volume of natural gas burned (billions of cubic meters)

Across the oil and gas sector a total of 150bn cubic meters of natural gas was burnt in 2019, a 3.4 per cent rise on the previous year, the GGFR figures show — the equivalent of the annual natural gas consumption in sub-Saharan Africa.

The wider industry is also grappling with low oil prices and the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic on future oil demand.

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“[Oil companies] really aren’t interested in voluntarily reducing their emissions,” said Charlie Cray, political and business strategist at Greenpeace. “We don’t expect [gas flaring] to improve for a while. Certainly not as long as [oil] prices are low and so long as there is no regulatory hammer.”

The rise in gas flaring in recent years has been driven mainly by an increase of activity in three of the world’s largest oil-producing countries — the US, Russia and Iraq. Combined, these countries burnt off an additional 14.8bn cubic meters of natural gas last year compared with five years earlier, according to figures from GGFR. 

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