Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Will eyes in the sky end natural gas flaring?

One of my favorite movies of all time is Wim Wender’s “Until the End of the World”. A messy, sprawling, over-long, futuristic and extremely beautiful film, it’s a narrative obsessed with vision – Wenders sees the film as a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey.

One of the main characters, Claire Tourneur, has become addicted to the imagery of her own dreams. In the final scene, we see her in her new job, evidently tailored to her unique obsession and skills: she’s monitoring the earth from space to detect environmenal disasters.

Fantasy has a way of becoming reality, and there’s now a group watching the earth from space. They’re not orbiting the planet in a spacecraft, as Tourneur is in the film, but working with enormous satellite images and really big computers. And more than a few of them work for the National Geophysicial Data Center, part of the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US government.

Lately these guys have been paying a lot of attention to the California wildfires. But one of the more impressive pieces of research I’ve seen this year concerns a different type of fire: the flaring of natural gas from oil wells.

Natural gas flaring is one of the most important environmental issues you’ve probably never heard of. When you drill for oil, you frequently find natural gas along with the oil. Because it’s more expensive to capture this gas than it is simply to extract natural gas from gas deposits, companies drilling for oil have often released this gas into the air (venting) or burned it off (flaring). Flaring might be somewhat preferable to venting – it’s dangerous, as vented methane can explode, and methane is a very potent greenhouse gas – but it’s very far from being environmentally sound practice. The flares waste a resource and produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide without generating any usable power in the process. In 2004, enough gas was flared to cover 25% of US consumption of natural gas.

The sound and light from the flares are a nuisance to the communities who live the flames, and environmental groups have linked phenomena ranging from acid rain and breathing problems to reduced crop yield to the effects of gas flaring. In 2005, a Nigerian court found that flaring of natural gas was a violation of the human rights of people living near the flares.

It’s possible to reclaim this gas, liquefy it and deliver it to power plants to generate relatively clean power, or export it to nations like the US that use a lot of natural gas. But it’s more expensive to reclaim gas from mixed oil and gas deposits than to extract gas from pure gas deposits. And oil extraction can be such a profitable business that it can make economic sense to burn off once resource when extracting another.

The government of Norway, a major oil producing nation, started an initiative now managed by the World Bank called Global Gas Flaring Reduction. The idea is for nations to committ to a standard for reduction in flaring or venting, and to find ways to recapture the gas and use it commercially. GGFR believes that gas flaring is decreasing, but it’s very hard to tell – most information on how much gas is flared comes from oil companies and that information is far from reliable.


Composite image of the earth at night. Click for a larger version.

The folks at NGDC were hired by the World Bank to try a different technique for measuring gas flares – they are detecting gas flares by analyzing satellite pictures of the earth at night. These technqiues have already been used to create the image seen above, an amazing picture of the earth at night that shows areas that have reliable electric power.

This image likely includes some gas flares, which are visible in satellite images. The scientists at NGDC were able to identify and isolate the gas flares, because gas flares:
- tend to produce purely circular patterns with wide rims
- tend to be located outside of urban areas
- persist for years, but not for decades – a light feature found in 1992 and 2000 but not 2006 is likely to be a gas flare.


Composite image of gas flares in 1992, 2000 and 2006 by NGDC. Click for a larger version.

A map of (many of) these gas flares appears above – flares in 1992 are in blue, in 2000 are in green, and 2006 are in red. Using regression analysis and points of (believable) data about gas flaring, the scientists were able to correlate between the “sum of lights” index and the amounts of natural gas flared. This gives them a tool that should work, both in the past and the future, to determine who’s flaring how much gas.

The results found with this new tool are surprising. Conventional wisdom says that gas flaring is decreasing – the study found that it’s actually been pretty constant from 1995 to 2006. It’s been accepted that Nigeria is the biggest offender in gas flaring, conducting 20% of worldwide gas flaring. But the Nigerian government – in part driven by activism and violence in the Niger Delta, as well as concerns about health and environment – has been attempting to reduce gas flaring. The government has raised the fines for flaring gas by 126,900%, from a slap on the wrist to a relavent sum, and has an even higher fine for companies that misrepresent their flaring numbers. And companies like Shell that do business in Nigeria are experiencing pressure from shareholders and activists, like Dutch artist Erik Hobijn, who created a 15 meter gas flare outside Royal Dutch Shell’s headquarters in the Hague as a protest.

According to the analysis by NGDC, the real bad boys of gas flaring are the Russians, who flare twice as much gas as the Nigerians. Russia, unfortunately, is not a member of the Global Gas Flaring Reduction consortium – having data that shows that they’re the largest offender might help bring them within the fold.

Nigeria has set a deadline to end all gas flaring by 2008. They’re not going to make it – Shell is dragging its heels and demanding that the national government contribute to the construction of natural gas processing facilities. And all parties are having trouble building new facilities given the violence that’s become endemic to the region.

Still, Nigeria provides evidence that it is possible to reclaim gas – six facilities to reclaim natural gas have been built in the Niger delta, and there’s been substantial work done on a pipeline to provide gas throughout West Africa, and for a future pipeline that will allow export of natural gas through Algeria. It would take substantial investment for Russian oil companies to reclaim oil in Western Siberia, but with oil at almost $100 a barrel, it’s a great time to make major investments.

Gas flaring is one of the stupidest ways that nations and corporations contribute to global warming, turning an asset into a liability. They’ve gotten away with it for years because it happens in places where it’s hard to see – like Western Siberia – or where the populations affected lack an effective political voice – like the Niger Delta. Perhaps eyes in the sky can help raise awareness and pressure around an issue that has an obvious solution.

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