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12 December 2019

Natural gas flaring and venting up 49% in the US

Gas apologists are constantly suggesting that theirs is the clean option for fossil fuels, because its pollution comes in two, if not three, parts. When it burns, when it is extracted there is some measured releases known about plus the invisible pollution which comes from accidentally escaped gases.

This week one aspect of that was quantified for the “energy secure” USA, with data on measured escaped gases, under the category of vented or flared emissions. It makes for sad reading, and makes anyone associated with true renewables even more determined not to let gas apologists get away with saying that it “releases only 30% of the emissions of coal,” when quite clearly there are other elements to quantify over and above this.

The issue with flaring is that it burns the natural gas and gives off CO2, which of course is better than methane, and the issue with venting is that it is methane, many times more heat bearing than CO2 as a gas, although shorter lived in the atmosphere.

The volume of US natural gas reported as vented or flared reached its highest ever level of 1.28 billion cubic feet per day in 2018, according to the US EIA’s Natural Gas Annual. The total amount of US natural gas vented and flared grew to 1.25% of gross withdrawals, up significantly from 0.84% the previous year, a rise of 49%. Two states stand out as the worst polluters with North Dakota and Texas, accounted for 1.1 billion cubic feet per day, or 82% of total US vented and flared natural gas. If these two stopped, then it may no longer be a problem.

Usually the individual US States place rules on State agencies to regulate venting and flaring, but it can interrupt production when they stop this, so where there is no regulation, it just goes ahead. Theoretically venting is banned in North Dakota and restricted in Texas, but production has been growing dramatically in those regions with one field in North Dakota yielding some 1.5 million barrels a day and the associated gas. Facilities have just not been able to cope with what is a trebling of output.

All of this is without any measurement of accidentally leaked methane into the atmosphere, something that has been strongly denied ever happens by frackers, but one set of researchers as Cornell University managed to isolate methane levels into different isotopes, and found that one in particular was released in identical volumes to gas which is fracked, and laid all of it at the fracking industry’s door instead of blaming it on cows. Between these three evils, natural gas is now starting to look every bit as polluting over its lifetime, as coal, but the fossil fuel industry continues to peddle it as a way towards decarbonization.