Slow Burn – Tagesspiegel Background
by Christian Schaudwet
Translated from original German to English. Original piece found on the Tagesspiegel website here. We are grateful to the author for allowing us to republish the work.
Hundreds of billions of cubic metres of gas are burned each year because they stand in the way of oil production and processing. A British start-up is analysing this environmentally harmful waste of resources using satellites. German refineries are also under scrutiny.
On the evening of 13 January 2020, concerned citizens called the fire brigades of the German cities of Gelsenkirchen, Bochum, and Recklinghausen: the clouds above the northern Ruhr region were glowing. However, the cause was not a major fire, but an unusually severe gas flare from the petroleum refinery in Gelsenkirchen-Scholven, as local media reported.
High flares used to burn off gases generated during oil processing are part of the standard and safety procedures of refineries, oil, and gas production plants. 18 refineries from Heide in Schleswig-Holstein to Burghausen in Upper Bavaria are listed by the German Commercial Petroleum Association (MWV). Systematically prepared data on flaring in Germany and elsewhere were rare for the past decades. However, the British company Capterio is now using satellite images and algorithms to create a more accurate picture of this so-called flaring and the greenhouse gases emitted in the process on its platform “FlareIntel“.
For 2020 in Germany, FlareIntel shows a flare-off volume of 17 million cubic metres of gas and estimates its value at 1.7 million euros. According to the platform, the CO2 emitted during combustion corresponds to an annual output of almost 11,000 cars. Flares at the few remaining German oil production sites are also included. The largest flared-off volume of seven million cubic metres last year was registered by FlareIntel at the BP refinery in Gelsenkirchen-Scholven, followed by the refinery site in Lingen in Emsland with two million cubic metres.
The industry does not collect data about flaring
If an oil refinery works in normal operation, the so-called process gases are collected and processed, according to company information. However, if the operators shut down and then restart the systems, for example in the event of operational disruptions or for technical inspections, the gases are flared off for safety reasons. A comparatively small natural gas flame always burns at the top of the flare, which ensures that larger quantities can be burned off immediately in case of a problem. At the same time, this prevents oxygen from accumulating in the flare pipe and an explosive mixture from forming.
Unlike FlareIntel, the industry association MWV does not collect any data about flare-off events, which are not systematically recorded. The volumes in Germany, which possesses a strong refinery industry, are not completely trivial, as the British analysts’ passenger car emissions comparison shows.
However, in an international comparison, the quantities in Germany are hardly significant. “The satellite data show that most operators burn off relatively little gas,” says John-Henry Charles, head of FlareIntel. In Germany, “no continuous or routine burning” takes place. More likely, the torches displayed profiles which probably resulted from problematic situations or maintenance, according to Charles. This is “a normal component of downstream operation”.
FlareIntel analyses global flare-off events based on heat anomalies, granulated by location and company, and documented by earth observation satellites. The data are evaluated using an algorithm called “Nightfire” from the Colorado School of Mines in the USA.
Russia flares off the most gas
Massive quantities of so-called accompanying gas are flared off by oil and gas companies in extraction countries. In part, natural gas escapes unnoticed from leaks or is simply drained off (venting), which is even more harmful than burning due to the strong climate effect of methane (Background reported on this). When it comes to flaring, there is one country that also stands out due to large-volume venting: According to FlareIntel, Russia flared off 25.7 billion cubic metres (BCM) of gas last year, followed by Iraq (17.6 BCM), Iran (14.5 BCM), and the USA (12.7 BCM). In Europe, the UK was the leader with 1.3 BCM, followed by Norway (0.15 BCM), Hungary (0.13 BCM), and France (0.09 BCM).
According to FlareIntel, the oil and gas industry fires around 150 BCM of gas per year throughout its flare systems worldwide. This corresponds to the annual gas consumption of Germany and Great Britain. Gas valued at almost 19 billion euros was wasted, with more than one billion tonnes of equivalent CO2 entering the atmosphere.
Exacerbating the situation: Flaring often does not completely burn off the gas and produces air pollutants. Soot, for example, is harmful to both the climate and health (Background reported on this). According to investigations by the US non-governmental organisation Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), methane burns only up to 90 per cent, in contrast to industry data, which specifies a level of 98 per cent combustion efficiency versus the EDF. According to the oil and gas experts of the NGO, however, companies do not have to release or flare off the raw material, but could sell it, provided they made the effort to invest in technical systems necessary to collect and transport the gas.
Germany’s imported oil causes high flaring emissions
Even Germany, which hardly produces any oil and gas and is comparatively clean when it comes to refining, is not as harmless as the FlareIntel figures suggest at first glance: With regard to the so-called integrated emissions of flaring (embedded flaring emissions) in oil production, Germany has one of the worst balance sheets in Europe, since it largely covers its oil requirements with products from suppliers like Russia and Libya, who find flaring completely acceptable. UK analysts expect Germany to have eight cubic metres of flared gas per imported barrel of oil, which is significantly above the global average. The balance sheet for imported natural gas looks similarly poor, which comes largely from Russia.
In Siberia, the largest German gas and oil producer is Wintershall Dea, which operates together with Gazprom. As is the case in many other places in the world, for example in the Al-Jurf oilfield. Although the platforms off the Libyan coast are operated by Total from France, Wintershall Dea is involved financially. Since at least 2012, two torches in the Al-Jurf field light up the sea in continuous operation. According to FlareIntel, they burn around 165 million cubic metres of gas per year.