Tackling small-volume gas flares could cut millions of tonnes of carbon emissions

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A small-volume gas flare in Ecuador
A small-volume gas flare in Ecuador / Fotos593

Gas flaring is the industry practice of burning any associated gas extracted as a by-product during oil production. Globally, over 10,000 flaring sites needlessly burn a total of 144 billion cubic meters each year, releasing the equivalent of about 400 million tonnes of CO2.   

While contributing to climate change, flaring also wastes gas that could help displace dirtier fuels, improve energy access, and boost energy security.  The volume of gas flared worldwide is estimated to be greater than the European Union's 27 member states' gas imports from Russia.

Large-volume flaring sites—greater than 5 million standard cubic feet per day (MMSCFD)—have attracted global attention and investment as part of decarbonization efforts. However, small-volume flares—below 5 MMSFD—have often been overlooked.

The Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR) estimates that the vast majority—around 93 percent—of gas flare sites burn less than 5 MMSCFD. In 2021 alone, small-volume gas flaring emitted the equivalent of 146 million tonnes of CO2—or roughly the emission output of 28 million cars.

Despite accounting for a third of all emissions from flaring, these small-volume sites have gone unheeded due to a lack of economies of scale or their remote locations far away from market centers. 

GGFR and the Global Infrastructure Facility (GIF) have partnered to explore and develop replicable and scalable alternatives to help end small-volume flaring through private sector solutions. Innovations in capturing and utilizing gas flaring have the potential to reduce flare and methane emissions while also attracting private sector investors to a lower-carbon energy resource that promotes sustainable infrastructure investment and accelerates our energy transition goals.

Ecuador, a GGFR Partner, faces a unique geographic challenge in achieving its commitment to the Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 Initiative. Most of the population lives in the western part of the country, whereas many of the country's small-volume flaring sites are located to the east, on the other side of the Andes, where roughly 90 small-volume flaring sites collectively burn 54 MMSCFD of gas a year. However, traditional approaches and technologies that rely on scale to supply associated gas to Ecuador's domestic gas markets are not feasible.

In collaboration with the government, GGFR and GIF have developed a pilot project that could dramatically reduce flaring in the country, increase energy access in isolated communities, and help decarbonize energy production.  This innovative solution would use specialized trucks that can capture, store, and transport untreated gas—including high-pressure gas—from remote production sites to central processing facilities. Gas is then put to productive use, potentially displacing dirtier and imported diesel that usually powers remote areas. This approach represents an alternative to traditional large-volume approaches, which rely on building large-scale and extensive pipelines.

Initial feasibility and assessment studies found that by employing this approach, the associated gas in over 80 percent of flaring sites could be collected at a low cost, providing affordable and cleaner power to local communities while reducing CO2 emissions by 400 tonnes annually over 10 years.

Although small-volume gas utilization technologies have improved in recent years, capturing and using smaller volumes of associated gas remains economically challenging  and still depends on the cost to capture the associated gas and realize the value of the end product.

However, in the right circumstances and with the right public-private partnerships, small-volume gas capture solutions may soon become a viable and replicable alternative to flaring, further contributing to a sound energy transition.

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Jason Zhengrong Lu

Global Lead for Water and Finance, World Bank

Zubin Bamji

Program Manager of the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership

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