An ignored pollution source

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An ignored pollution source

Thursday, 30 July 2020 | Kota Sriraj

Deliberately emitting Co2 into the environment through gas flaring is unpardonable, especially when viable alternatives for the same exist

Some things in life happen with such regularity that they do not draw attention to the damage that they do. A petroleum refinery, a natural gas extraction site, a chemical processing plant and even an offshore oil rig have all got one thing in common and that is a flare stack with a continuously burning gas flare at its end. This seemingly common sight fails to register upon the observer the damage it does to the environment. Statistics are now revealing how this innocuous “chimney” is actually toxic.

The problem with gas flares is that they are a near-permanent, constantly-burning source of carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions. This consistent pumping of Co2 into the environment, though largely ignored, is actually presenting mind-numbing numbers on how it is impacting the environment. According to a recent study by the World Bank, each year gas flares release “more than 400 million tonnes of Co2 equivalent emissions and waste a valuable resource, with harmful impacts to the environment from un-combusted methane and black carbon emissions.” These emissions contribute significantly to climate change and the rate of pollution seems to be climbing, with the last decade posting the highest rate of Co2 emissions on account of gas flares.

In 2019, gas flaring stacked up 150 billion cubic meters (BCM) in comparison to 2018 wherein it was 145 BCM. Unfortunately, the developed world, which is ideally supposed to set an example in environment conservation and efforts to mitigate global warming and the resultant climate change, was responsible for the increase in gas flaring statistics. The US, for instance, logged a 23 per cent increase in gas flaring last year.

The surprising aspect is that none of the countries across the world, India included, considers the fact that apart from gas flaring being detrimental to the environment, it also happens to be a severe waste of a very precious source of energy. These woeful conditions exist in spite of the fact that there is an international body comprising global governments and oil institutions called the Global Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR) Partnership whose express objective is to reduce gas flaring and wastage. But going by the figures in the recent decade, GGFR is not really executing its mandate well enough, even though its members ambitiously aim to be gas flaring-free by 2030.

India is not faring well either in reducing gas flaring or the wastage caused by it. Currently, India burns about 850 million cubic meters of natural gas annually or 2.6 per cent of its gas output through gas flaring. Whether globally or in India, all gas and petroleum extraction and refining sites allow some amount of gas flaring, also called “technical flaring”, to happen. This acts as a safety measure, disposing gas during emergencies, power and equipment failures. However, this technical gas flaring has to be minimised for the good of the environment.

The Union Government’s Directorate-General of Hydrocarbons has been exerting pressure on oil and gas refiners, producers and processors to urgently drive down the quantum of gas flaring in the country. But this directive is a “no-go” for oil and gas producers as many of them do not have pipeline facilities, compressors or access to buyers in order to remove the gas from their sites.

Hamstrung by the lack of facilities, coupled with the absence of sustainable access to buyers, the oil and gas producers are left with few options. Considering the low quantities of gas generated, it does not make the construction of a pipeline to markets a viable option. On the other hand, releasing the unburnt gas into the atmosphere is not acceptable either as it contains harmful gases such as methane. However, burning it is worse because the process releases Co2, nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.

It is critical that these producers either find sustainable ways to use up the gas within their premises or look for eco-friendly alternatives for its disposal. Scientific research into technologies that can help reduce gas flaring has made rapid strides. India must ensure that these methods are banked upon in order to reduce its gas flaring signature. Flare gas power generation programmes based on gas-driven turbines and internal combustion engines can be used to gainfully employ the gas output instead of routing the same for gas flaring. Similarly, gas can also be routed into aged wells. This will help recoup dwindling natural formation pressure, thereby maintaining production output. Also, liquefying the same gas and storing it for later use either commercially or for domestic purposes is yet another viable and eco-friendly alternative.

Deliberately emitting Co2 into the environment is unpardonable, especially when practical and viable alternatives for the same exist. They just need implementation but for that, it is crucial for gas flaring to be recognised as a critical problem in the first place.

 (The writer is an environmental journalist)

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