Have you ever driven past a refinery and noticed those huge flames shooting into the sky? Well, unlike what we probably thought as kids, those aren’t cloud factories (or flamethrowers fighting against sky beasts). Rather, what you’re seeing is a common practice in the oil and natural gas industry known as flaring. And since most folks don’t seem to know all that much about it, we thought we’d do the research and share it with you all. So, let’s warm up to learning what gas flaring is all about.
Why We Flare
In the early days of petroleum exploration, natural gas was not considered a useful product. Back then, the engineers had difficulties transporting it to distant markets. And as a result, natural gas was simply burned off at the well (which we now call flaring) or vented into the atmosphere without combustion. Even today, in some relatively new production areas that lack sufficient natural gas pipeline infrastructure – or where the useful gas is contaminated with other incombustible gases – this still occurs. Here’s why.
In situations where capturing the tapped natural gas is not possible, extraction crews learned that flaring – rather than venting – natural gas was smarter for both safety and environmental reasons. From an air quality perspective, venting unprocessed natural gas contains hydrocarbons that are heavier than air, such as propane and butane, which can be hazardous if ignited. On top of that, methane, the primary component of natural gas, is also a potent greenhouse gas. Flaring natural gas, on the other hand, generates mainly water vapor and carbon dioxide. And while CO2 is also a greenhouse gas, it has a much lower global warming potential than methane.
However, volumes of gas that don’t have a high enough hydrocarbon content will not burn, thus making flaring a non-viable option. As a result, these inert gases may need to be vented.
Reducing the Great Waste of Natural Gas Flaring
Generally speaking, flaring is a common practice in oil and gas fields because producers deem it faster and cheaper to burn natural gas than to capture and use it. And this is typically because they lack the pipelines to economically transport the gas to market.
However, it’s in the oil and natural gas companies’ interest to realize as much value as possible from the hydrocarbons they’re extracting. Therefore, it is also in the company’s interest to minimize the amount of gas they flare, as it is simply a wasted resource, from which they can never profit. In this respect, the commercial aims of the company are consistent with good environmental practices.
Nonetheless, approximately 3.5% of the world’s natural-gas supply was wastefully flared at oil and gas fields in 2012. That’s 143 billion cubic meters of natural gas released into the wild, according to the latest estimates from satellite data. There are a couple of reasons for this, though.
Gas that we flare can come from a variety of sources. It may be excess production – more than what companies can supply commercially to customers. It may be unusable gas generated from the processing facilities. It may be vapors collected from the tops of tanks as they are being filled. Sometimes, the gas may be from process upsets, equipment changeovers, or maintenance. And, occasionally, a production shutdown may require the temporary flaring of all the gas stored on or arriving at a facility to release high back pressure and prevent a catastrophic situation from occurring.
However, as part of the United Nation’s Paris Agreement signed on 22 April 2016 (Earth Day), the vast majority of the leaders in the world have agreed to reduce greenhouse gases and address climate change head on. As a result, The World Bank aims to end routine gas flaring at oil production sites around the world by 2030. And here’s a perfect example of why everyone wants more efficient and effective natural gas extraction and transportation practices.
The Door to Hell, Created by Man
In the Turkmenistan desert, a crater dubbed “The Door to Hell” has been burning like a fiery inferno for the past 45 years. It’s a weird fluke of nature and man interacting poorly with each another, and here’s the weird story behind how it came to exist.
“A man-made crater dubbed “The Door to Hell” has been burning like a fiery inferno for the past 45 years.”
In 1971, when the Turkmenistan republic was still part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet geologists went to the Karakum Desert in search of oil fields. They found what they thought to be a substantial oil field and began drilling. Unfortunately for the scientists, they were drilling on top of a cavernous pocket of natural gas that couldn’t support the weight of their equipment.
As a result, the site caved in, and the event triggered the desert’s crumbly sedimentary rock to collapse in multiple places. This created a domino effect that created several open craters, the largest of which measures about 230 feet across and 65 feet deep. No one was injured in the collapse, but the scientists soon had another problem on their hands: the natural gas seeping from the crater.
This escaping natural gas was potentially dangerous because it’s composed mostly of highly-flammable methane. In fact, there needs to be just 5% methane in the air for an explosion to potentially occur. So the scientists decided to light the crater on fire, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn away in a few weeks’ time. Only, that’s yet to happen, and the crater continues to glow as the longest-burning example of man-made flaring – attracting unsuspecting wildlife and international tourists alike.
So as you’re cranking up the heat this winter, think about the larger processes and infrastructures that goes into keeping your home warm. Also, to make sure you’ve got the best natural gas provider piping the best deal into your home, let Allconnect help. And the next time you see the flaring happening at natural gas plants in the distance, remember that it’s a necessary part of the process, and that we’re getting smarter about doing it better every single day.