Although Russia has made great strides to decrease methane flaring in recent years, it still lags badly behind neighbouring gas producing countries like Norway. And gas flaring is only part of the story, because it doesn’t take account of leakage, says Lukas Trakimavičius.
Lukas Trakimavičius works at the Economic Security Policy Division of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously, he held several positions at NATO, where he worked on energy security, arms control, and non-proliferation. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are contributed in a purely personal capacity.
Last week word got out that the European Commission is preparing a strategy aiming to curb the negative climate effects of natural gas in the energy sector. This initiative is part of the broader policy plan related to the European Green Deal and it marks a step in the right direction. If followed thorough, it could equip the European Union with the right tools to help cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet, there is potential for the EU to do even more in this domain. Considering the serious environmental damage caused by widespread gas flaring and methane leaks, the EU should consider urging neighbouring energy producers such as Russia to end its gas flaring addiction and fix its reportedly leaky gas system.
In recent years the fossil fuels industry came under severe fire for its role in increasing greenhouse gas emissions. While some have argued that not all hydrocarbons are equally bad for the environment and that energy resources, such as natural gas may provide a cleaner alternative to coal, bad industry practices like excessive flaring or methane leakages tend to undermine this claim.
Generally speaking, flaring is the controlled burning of natural gas (mostly methane), which is often released as a by-product of oil drilling. There are legitimate reasons to allow limited use of flaring, including safety testing and the safe disposal of potentially harmful gases. Yet, quite often, gas is wastefully burned on-site because energy companies deem it to be insufficiently profitable to be collected and sold.
It is estimated that globally some 145 billion cubic metres (BCM) of gas were flared in 2018, which is almost equivalent to a third of the EU’s total annual gas consumption.
Meanwhile, methane leaks in the long and complex natural gas supply chain may be accidentally caused by technical error or malfunctioning equipment. Methane may also be released into the atmosphere via operational or maintenance vents. It is estimated that gas supply chains typically leak some 1-3% of the total gas produced within a country.
While from an environmental point of view it is likely better to flare the gas and turn it into CO2, rather than simply vent the gas into the atmosphere (as methane is some 80 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than CO2), flaring still significantly contributes to global warming.
Flaring also has other detrimental consequences for the environment, which go beyond mere greenhouse gas emissions. The burning of gas creates black carbon, or soot. It settles on the ice in the Arctic, darkens its surface, and causes the ice to melt faster. Evidence indicates that flaring may cause up to 40 percent of the black carbon in the Arctic.
Out of all the oil and gas producing countries, Russia is the largest gas flare emitter. According to the World Bank, Russia is responsible for nearly 15% of global gas flaring, closely trailed by Iran and Iraq, which are responsible for 12% each. To put this in perspective, the 21.2 BCM of gas that Russia flared in 2018 is roughly equivalent to the total annual gas consumption of Poland and Lithuania combined.
It is also worth mentioning that in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula — which in the coming years will provide the bulk of Russian-sourced gas to Europe — there are reportedly about 1,500 gas flares alone.
Though in recent years Russia has made great strides in decrease its flaring output, it still lags badly behind neighbouring energy producers like Norway, which successfully banned routine flaring already back in 1971.
However, gas flaring is only part of the story.
Russia’s mammoth-sized gas production, transmission and distribution system may also be a major source of methane leaks. According to one study, the entire Russian gas system could potentially leak some up to 5-7% of its gas. Considering that Russia produced some 669 BCM of gas in 2018, this could possibly mean that it leaked anywhere between 33 BCM and 47 BCM of gas in the form of methane into the atmosphere. In other words, as much gas could have been squandered as countries like Spain or France consume in an entire year.
Granted, methane leakage rates should be generally taken with a pinch of salt as it is quite difficult and expensive to get accurate measurements. Still, there is growing consensus both within the energy industry and the scientific community that methane leakages pose a serious and previously somewhat underreported challenge to environmental security.
Evidence also suggests that as little as a 3% leakage of methane along the natural gas supply chain would cancel any immediate climate benefits from retiring coal-fired power plants in favour of natural gas power plants. Considering that Russia is the EU’s largest supplier of gas, accountable for around one-third of its gas supplies, this could spell trouble for the bloc’s bold carbon neutrality plans for 2050. This is particularly worrying as there are few signs that the EU’s dependence on Russian gas would decrease anytime soon.
The European Green Deal, along with the climate actions initiatives, which are currently under development, should be seen as an opportunity not only to tackle climate change domestically, but also abroad.
Given what is at stake, it would be wise for the EU to explore the various options and instruments, which could persuade countries like Russia to kick its gas flaring habits and ensure that as little methane would leak from its gas supply chain as possible. After all, the fate of the environment and the EU’s credibility as a global climate action champion might be on the line.