By Mark Milke
and Ven Venkatachalam
Canadian Energy Centre
If you’ve spent time in Western Canada near an oil or gas well or refinery, you might have noticed a smokestack-like pipe with a flame at the top.
Or you might have seen such a flame in pictures of refineries in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Texas, or any other place where oil and gas is brought to the surface.
What you’re seeing is flaring or venting, which allows oil or natural gas producers to dispose of waste gases. It can happen for any number of reasons.
In the petroleum industry, flaring generally falls within three broad categories:
- emergency flaring (large, unplanned and very short-duration releases);
- process flaring (intermittent large or small releases that may last for a few hours or a few days);
- production flaring (which may occur continuously for years as the resource is being produced).
Why should anyone without a career in Canada’s oil and gas sector care about such a mundane industrial process?
Because flaring produces greenhouse gases.
In any debate over Canada’s role in global greenhouse gas emissions, it helps to grasp where this nation is at on this environmental measurement, especially given that Canada has one of the best records.
Natural gas flaring reached 150 billion cubic metres (bcm) annually in 2019, the latest year for which we have worldwide statistics. Canada’s share of that total was just 1.1 bcm or 0.7 per cent of worldwide flaring. In 2019, Canada recorded a 49 per cent reduction in flaring compared with just five years earlier, in 2014, when flaring volumes amounted to 2.1 bcm annually.
So Canada is responsible for a small proportion of natural gas flaring worldwide. In comparison, the five countries that were the top greenhouse gas emitters through flaring (Russia, Iraq, the United States, Iran and Venezuela) accounted for 54 per cent in 2019.
Russia recorded more flaring than any other country at 23.2 billion cubic metres in 2019. That was nearly five bcm or 27 per cent higher than in 2014. Three other countries in the top five also recorded higher flaring volumes in 2019 from 2014: Iraq was up by 28 per cent; the United States was higher by 53 per cent; Iran was up 13 per cent. Venezuela’s flaring volumes dropped in real terms and percentage-wise by four per cent, as Venezuelan oil production was substantially reduced. (However, its flaring rose when measured per barrel for oil.)
Of all 30 countries we measured from World Bank data, 14 countries flared more in 2019 relative to 2014, while 16 countries flared less.
We noted the 53 per cent increase in natural gas flaring in the U.S. Two other countries recorded even more dramatic proportional increases: Syria, with a 140 per cent rise in flaring emissions; and Libya, with a 77 per cent rise.
Between 2014 and 2019, beyond Canada’s overall flaring reduction of 49 per cent, the others with steep reductions included Kazakhstan (a 60 per cent reduction), Indonesia (35 per cent), Angola (33 per cent) and Turkmenistan (33 per cent).
Canada’s record in reducing natural gas flaring by nearly half is even more impressive relative to the increases in oil and natural gas production during those five years.
Canada’s oil and natural gas production rose by 25 and five per cent respectively between 2014 and 2019, all the while pushing emissions down by 49 per cent. The United Kingdom, which recorded similar production increases (27 per cent more oil and five per cent more natural gas), recorded just an 18 per cent decrease in flaring.
By the measure of gas flaring per barrel of oil produced, the worst flaring performers were Argentina (up 34 per cent), Syria (higher by 81 per cent) and Venezuela (up by 173 per cent).
In contrast, per barrel of oil produced, Brazil’s flaring was down 40 per cent, Canada declined by 58 per cent, and Kazakhstan dropped 65 per cent.
Mark Milke and Ven Venkatachalam are with the Canadian Energy Centre, an Alberta government corporation funded in part by carbon taxes. They are authors of International Comparisons of Gas Flaring, 2021 edition.
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