African Countries Make Significant Strides in Reduction of Gas Flaring as Global Figures Dip
Reviewing reduction in oil and gas flaring with a focus on Africa and the road ahead.
Crude oil in subsoil rock formations is often trapped beneath a layer of gas. For long periods, this gas was often deemed unneeded: what we wanted was the oil. Hence, “gas flaring” - the controlled burning of natural gas associated with oil production. Flaring is a means of disposing of this gas in a safe, albeit polluting manner.
However, natural gas has come to be recognized as a valuable resource that has productive uses, especially in power generation. Nearly 140 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas is flared everywhere worldwide, according to the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR). This amount of gas, if captured and utilized, would be enough to power Sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet, gas flaring persists for various reasons, one of which is safety. Natural gas is highly pressurized and volatile, and some of the most devastating accidents that occur during oil drilling are gas explosions. These fires burn hot and long, extremely difficult to bring under control due to a near-inexhaustible supply of fuel. Oil companies can reduce both risk and pressures by flaring, especially as there may not be equipment to capture, process, and conserve gas.
That last sentence flows logically into the technical and economic reasons for gas flaring. Gas processing infrastructure is markedly different from that of oil, and mounting both at a drill site might be expensive and economical. Assuming a driller decides to not fuel, then they would have to mount gas treatment columns and storage tanks on site. That, or having to build pipelines to transport gas to where it can be processed for usage. Both options are prohibitively expensive, especially when the volume of gas in the reservoir (the rock cavity containing both oil and gas) is not large enough to make the infrastructure investment financially worthwhile.
Economic reasons also affect regulation. Natural gas is a different resource from oil and is accordingly treated economically. Therefore, a driller might have the license to drill for oil but not to capture gas. In such cases, the gas must be flared to prevent the loss of drilling licenses. In addition, regulation may ban flaring, but the fines the action will incur might be worth less than the cost of installing the gas processing infrastructure.
Despite all of these, gas flaring must be discouraged (hence, the bans and associated fines that come with flaring). World Bank calculations estimate that the thousands of gas flares around the world result in about 350 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MT CO2e) emissions worldwide. While the gas flaring process releases a lot of byproducts – soot, CO2, CO, NO, NO2, and SO2 – the inefficiency of the process means that around 42 million tonnes of unburnt methane (CH4) are released. Methane is perhaps the biggest contributor to global warming, much more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a warming gas.
It is for these reasons that initiatives such as Zero Routine Flaring By 2030 (ZRf), which launched in 2015 and commits oil companies and governments to end gas flaring by 2030, exist. Accordingly, the World Bank’s GGFR tracks flaring estimates around the world and publishes its annual assessment, and has found that global gas flaring reduced by 3% from 144 bcm in 2021 to 139 bcm in 2022. Despite this improvement, there is still quite some distance before the ZRF’s goals can be attained. Globally, flaring will have to be reduced by a magnitude of ten, an equivalent of a 50% reduction annually.
African countries performance
An important aspect of gas flaring is “flaring intensity”. Traditionally, the most significant driver of gas flaring is oil production: the more the production, the greater the flaring. However, oil and gas production has increased by about 26% since 1996; in the same period, gas flaring has reduced by 16%. The latest report follows this thread: per data from the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) oil production increased by 5% from 77 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2021 to 80 million bbl/d in 2022.
Reduced gas flaring performance in African countries such as Nigeria and Libya was largely driven by a drop in production. Nigeria was the world’s best performer in reduced gas flaring from 2021 to 2022, dropping flare volumes by 20%, equivalent to 1.3 bcm. However, the country also saw its oil production drop significantly by 14% in the period, as it routinely failed to meet Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quotas. It must be stated that the country has made major strides in the reduction of flaring intensity over the years. The increase in local use of gas has greatly contributed to this, as most upstream and downstream oil facilities in the country are now powered by gas, along with a steep increase in domestic usage.
Other African countries to reduce flare volumes are Angola and Egypt, who have both succeeded in reducing flaring despite an uptick in oil production. Angola has succeeded in becoming a major importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), with sales to the European Union (EU) rising by 4.2 bcm in 2022. Angola’s LNG is almost exclusively associated gas from oil production, fed from the major oil production sites to Soyo, the country’s LNG processing facility. As a result, the country’s flare volumes have dropped nearly 65% between 2016 and 2022.
Egypt has succeeded in reducing flare volume despite an uptick in both oil and gas production. Like Angola, the country’s LNG exports to the EU have increased, and it has reduced its flaring intensity from 10.2 m3/bbl in 2021 to 9.5 m3/bbl in 2022. There have been major investments in associated gas capture and utilization infrastructure, along with an emphasis on gas-to-power projects, where associated gas has been utilized for power generation, a system similar to Nigeria’s.
Algeria’s gas flaring increased slightly in 2022, mostly due to reduced exports to the EU. The reduced exports can be attributed to pipeline shutdowns, which led to gas production exceeding infrastructure limits. Despite this, the country has made significant strides in reducing flare volumes in recent years mostly due to the development of recovery and reinjection infrastructure. Oil and gas exploration and production in the Democratic Republic of Congo is still in a relatively nascent stage, and as a result, nearly all associated gas is flared.
Various pathways will lead to the reduction in gas flaring, from effective and enforced regulation to the installation of infrastructure. The development of technology, such as the re-injection of gas into the reservoir, has also reduced flaring. However, there must be political, and business will. Political will can be driven by the social and environmental benefits of reduced flaring: reduced soot leads to better air quality, and the non-release of greenhouse gases slows global warming. The latter will involve economies of scale: will it become more financially profitable for companies to build infrastructure for re-injection and/or capture, processing and transport of gas, than it is to flare? Governments can play a large role in utilizing gases for power generation, thereby creating a market for associated natural gas.