Oil Companies Conceal Methane Emissionswith Enclosed Flaring Technology

Oil and gas companies are using enclosed combustors to hide methane emissions and pollutants from satellite detection, undermining global efforts to track greenhouse gases. The technology, adopted in countries including the US, UK, Germany, and Norway, conceals flaring operations, making it difficult to monitor emissions accurately.

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Quadri Adejumo
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Oil Companies ConcealMethane Emissionswith Enclosed Flaring Technology

Oil Companies ConcealMethane Emissionswith Enclosed Flaring Technology

Oil and gas companies are using enclosed combustors, a technology that hides methane emissions and pollutants from satellite detection, undermining global efforts to reduce flaring and track greenhouse gases. These devices, which are functionally similar to flares but with an internal flame not visible from space, have been adopted by fossil fuel producers in countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Norway.

Why this matters: The use of enclosed flaring technology has significant implications for global efforts to combat climate change, as it hinders the ability to accurately track and monitor methane emissions. The use of enclosed flaring technology has significant implications for global efforts to combat climate change, as it hinders the ability to accurately track and monitor methane emissions. This lack of transparency can lead to ineffective policies and strategies, resulting in the exacerbation of the environmental impact of the energy sector.

The industry promotes enclosed combustors as a clean, safe, and efficient solution for eliminating unwanted emissions, and ensuring regulatory compliance. However, critics argue that enclosed flaring is a way for gas producers to conceal the burning of unprofitable natural gas, which releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first two decades in the atmosphere.

Eric Kort, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, explains the issue: "If you enclose the flare, people don't see it, so they don't complain about it. But it also means it's not visible from space by most of the methods used to track flare volumes." Tim Doty, a former regulator at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, adds, "Enclosed flaring is still flaring. It's just different infrastructure that they're allowing. Enclosed flaring is in truth probably less efficient than a typical flare."

The World Bank's Zero Routine Flaring 2030 initiative aims to eradicate unnecessary flaring, but enclosed combustors have begun appearing in countries that promised to end the practice. In 2022, an estimated 140 billion cubic meters of gas was flared globally, a 3% decrease from the previous year. The top 10 countries by flare volume in 2022 were Russia, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Venezuela, the United States, Mexico, Libya, Nigeria, and China.

The use of enclosed combustors could jeopardize the research community's ability to understand pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector, as regulators are forced to rely mostly on self-disclosed reporting from oil and gas companies, which may not be accurate. Satellite-mounted tools called Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) are used to detect flaring globally, but they are not able to pick up enclosed flares.

Specific examples of enclosed flaring have been observed in various locations. In Colorado, Maxar satellite imagery shows enclosed flares replacing open lit flares in the run-up to the state's ban on routine flaring in 2021. At the Fulcrum Energy site in Jackson County, Colorado, a device resembling an enclosed flare appeared in place of the lit flare following the ban, with thermal footage showing a heat signature suggesting flaring was occurring inside the cylinder. In the Four Corners region of New Mexico, satellite data from CarbonMapper shows methane and carbon dioxide plumes coming from enclosed flaring devices. Enclosed flares have also been observed at facilities owned by Ineos in Grangemouth, Scotland, and the Ineos Rafnes refinery in Norway, in addition to facilities owned by ArcelorMittal in Germany.

U.K. Green parliamentary candidate Catherine Read stated that oil and gas companies are hiding their flaring operations because laws are being brought in to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from waste gas that can't be sold at a profit. "They don't care about us, our children, or nature, only profit above all else,"she added. As global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change intensify, the use of enclosed flaring technology by oil and gas companies presents a significant challenge to accurately track and monitor methane emissions, which is essential for developing effective policies and strategies to mitigate the environmental impact of the energy sector.

Key Takeaways

  • Oil and gas companies use enclosed combustors to hide methane emissions from satellite detection.
  • Enclosed flaring hinders accurate tracking and monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Industry promotes enclosed combustors as clean and efficient, but critics argue it conceals unprofitable gas burning.
  • Enclosed flaring jeopardizes research and regulation, relying on self-disclosed reporting from companies.
  • Global efforts to reduce emissions are undermined by the use of enclosed flaring technology.