Space View of Natural Gas Flaring Darkened by Budget Woes

A natural gas flare illuminates discarded vehicles and farm tools in North Dakota. The practice of flaring natural gas that is released in the process of drilling for oil is on the rise in North Dakota and other U.S. states.

Flaring, the deliberate open-air burning of natural gas, is a global air pollution and energy waste problem that is now growing along with U.S. oil production. (See related, "U.S. Edges Saudi Arabia, Russia in Oil and Gas.") But the U.S. government's budget mess has delayed a project to provide a new and more accurate measure of the extent of global flaring.

The World Bank-led industry-government coalition, the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership, was due last spring to release a report on 2012 flaring numbers, figures certain to be affected by the burgeoning volume of natural gas being flared in the Bakken shale of North Dakota. (See related "Pictures: Bakken Shale Oil Boom Transforms North Dakota" and "The New Oil Landscape.") The report also was expected to be the first to make use of new U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite technology—the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS)—to provide higher quality images and better estimates of gas burning.

But the World Bank website now explains that the reporting has been delayed in part because NOAA was hit by automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester, which went into effect earlier this year when Congress failed to reach a budget deal. As far as a new timeline, the World Bank website says only that the flaring reduction program and NOAA "are working to make 2012 gas flare volume estimates available as soon as possible."

But with the federal government shutdown, NOAA's virtual eyes in the sky also are now closed, as far as the public is concerned. The website that daily enabled Google Earth mapping of natural gas flaring and other fires (such as forest burning) around the world is unavailable. (Viewers are directed to a notice explaining that only specific NOAA sites needed to protect life and property will be operated and maintained during the shutdown.)

Burning Up Billions in Fuel

Gas flaring is sometimes necessary in drilling operations to protect worker safety, and in terms of global warming emissions, flaring is actually far preferable than venting the highly potent greenhouse gas (methane) directly into the atmosphere. (See related, "Good Gas. Bad Gas.")

But the routine destruction of large volumes of natural gas—a useful fuel in its own right—is happening today because of economics and the challenge of getting the fuel to market.

It happens when oil companies gauge that they can't make enough money by selling the natural gas to justify the cost of building the pipelines and other infrastructure to capture and deliver the fuel. (See related photos: "Pictures: The Science of Shale Gas.")  It happens even though there's plenty of need for that fuel from people who can't afford to pay for it—not only the poor in the United States and developed countries who struggle with their heating and electricity bills, but the 1.5 billion people, mainly in Africa and Asia, who lack access to electricity at all. In many of these gas-rich but energy-starved nations, the World Bank-led program's view is that changes in government policy will be needed to enable natural gas markets to develop. (See related story: "Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty.")

"With a growing and richer global population, demand for energy is surging," said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank's vice president for sustainable development, in a speech last year. "Avoiding unnecessary waste of natural gas—a valuable and relatively clean source of energy—is a no-brainer."

Until the U.S. federal budget morass is resolved and NOAA's satellite program is funded, it won't be possible to know how the VIIRS satellite will change estimates of global gas flaring. But the first images of natural gas flaring from the VIIRS instrument, like this image from November 2012, do show the light from the flares in the booming Bakken shale dramatically.

"The Bakken night sky now looks more like New York City or Chicago than what historically was western North Dakota," said Jennifer Cassel, staff attorney for the nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center, in a recent press report on the state's efforts to curb flaring.


Gas flares, not city lights, shine through the night sky in this satellite view of western North Dakota.


And the official numbers being gathered here on the ground are alarming. The nonprofit shareholder accountability group Ceres, which monitors corporate sustainability issues, recently used North Dakota's own numbers to calculate that the volume of natural gas being flared on the remote plains have more than doubled between 2011 and 2013.

When Ceres' numbers are compared to U.S. Energy Information Administration data on gas flared and vented, it indicates that even if flaring levels everywhere else in the United States stayed the same between 2011 and 2012 (unlikely, because flaring also was on the rise in Alaska, Wyoming, and a number of other states), U.S. natural gas flaring likely increased 14 percent in 2012 based on North Dakota's rise alone.

Ceres estimates that in 2012, North Dakota oil producers burned up $1 billion in fuel by flaring it, generating greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to putting another one million cars on the road. Another way to look at it: North Dakota is burning and wasting more than twice as much natural gas as residents of Washington, D.C. use for heating and cooking each day. (See related quiz: What You Don't Know About Natural Gas.)

Globally, the numbers on natural gas flaring are even more dramatic. The 138 billion cubic meters of gas flared worldwide in 2011 was equivalent to about 4 percent of global gas production, or China's annual consumption. Its value was at least $13 billion at the current low price for natural gas in the United States, as high as $60 billion based on the price in other parts of the world. The 265 million metric tons of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere was equivalent to the pollution from 55 million passenger vehicles.

Eye in the Sky

NOAA's view of the Earth from space has helped shed more light on the extent of natural gas flaring, spurring some of the success in reducing the practice over the past decade.

The most dramatic example of this was the discovery in 2007 that Russia was flaring three times more natural gas than official government and industry data showed. NOAA's satellite sensors, which can read fire sources by their light intensity, showed large amounts of natural gas were being burned in remote fields in Siberia.

"Because it's a waste process and often occurs in isolated areas, there isn't a lot of incentive for companies to track gas flaring and to make that information publicly known," explained Christopher Elvidge, who leads NOAA's nighttime lights lab, in an interview with National Geographic last year, before the government budget crisis. "What we can do with satellites is find the gas flares, no matter where they are, and estimated the gas flared volume."

Elvidge said that gas flaring often gets neglected in programs to monitor carbon dioxide, since the gas released at flare sites only adds up to 1 to 2 percent of the world's total fossil fuel emissions. "But for the carbon cycle scientists, it's still a big number," Elvidge said. "For their models to really work well, they need to know the locations and magnitudes of fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Understanding that is key to our ability to predict how the carbon cycle will respond in the future."

And there is a practical benefit in getting a handle on emissions from fuel burning that isn't serving any role in powering the global economy, like keeping the lights on or keeping people warm. "It's low-hanging fruit for reductions in CO2 emissions," Elvidge said.

Russia never admitted that its flaring was as high as the satellites indicated, but the government did revise its estimates to show the amount of gas being burned was higher than its previous official figures indicated. "Such wastefulness is unacceptable," said President Vladimir Putin at the time as he vowed to crack down on the problem. And over the next three years, Russia's natural gas flaring fell more than 30 percent, leading to the 10 percent reduction in global gas flaring between 2007 and 2010.

But in 2011, that trend reversed, and global flaring ticked upward again, due to a dramatic increase in the United States and a smaller increase in Russia.

It is worth noting that the NOAA satellite estimate of gas flared in the United States for 2011 reported by the World Bank program, some 7.1 billion cubic meters, is about 20 percent higher than the U.S. Energy Information Administration's official figure of about 209,539 million cubic feet (5.1 billion cubic meters) of natural gas flared or vented in the United States during the same year.

The discrepancy may be an important indicator that, as with Russia several years ago, the official numbers may not be capturing the entire picture on gas flaring at a time that U.S. oil production on remote fields is growing rapidly. And it also underscores the importance of the VIIRS satellite program, which promised to offer much more accurate and high-quality estimates of gas flaring.

Combustion sources on Earth—wildfires, agricultural burning, gas flares, volcanoes—emit a broad range of electromagnetic radiation. Previous satellite instruments detected only the fires in a single spectral band. But VIIRS is unique in its ability to collect visible, near-infrared, and short-wave infrared spectral radiation at night. This will allow scientists to calculate the size and temperature of the night fires with greater accuracy than in the past. This data helps the scientists identify the combustion source—natural gas flares at a temperature of 1,600-2,000 kelvins (2,420-3,140°F/1,326-1,725°C), while biomass and volcanoes typically burn at about half that temperature. (See related blog post: "As Iraq's Oil Boom Progresses, So Does Gas Flaring.")

North Dakota's oil industry notes that it has invested more than $4 billion in new gas gathering and processing infrastructure to tackle the flaring problem by capturing the fuel. The percentage of gas flared in North Dakota has fallen from a high of 36 percent down to 30 percent of the natural gas produced from Bakken fields. But it's a smaller piece of a rapidly growing pie. And even if North Dakota achieves the unofficial goal state officials have set—to reduce the amount of flared gas to 10 percent of overall production—at the rate production is rising, the total volume of flared gas in 2020 would still exceed the amount flared in 2010, the Ceres report projects. (See related blog post: "Energy to Burn: Making Choices by the Light of a Gas Flare.")

North Dakota state officials, who have largely relied on the initiative of the oil companies to reduce flaring, have recently voiced heightened concern. Pointing to new modeling by state officials showing the level of flaring won't fall below 5 percent of production until after 2020, North Dakota Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms told reporters on a webcast last month that new rules likely will be needed.

"It doesn't look like the market gets us far enough, fast enough," Helms said. "It's going to take some kind of regulatory policy."

Because the United States has a functioning natural gas market, the gas flaring solution in North Dakota (connecting the prairie oil fields by pipeline to the market) may actually be easier than in places like Nigeria, Iraq, and the remote reaches of Russia. But the first step is to detect and measure the extent of the problem, and as long as the U.S. budget dispute affects the nation's science and technology program, the world has one less tool for that job.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.