2020 has been a turbulent year for the energy industry. The impact of COVID-19 has been felt around the globe as demand fell earlier this year and operators were ultimately forced to reduce supply.
As COVID-19 directly impacted demand, it has also had secondary affects. The most notable is the acceleration of the energy transition. The energy transition and the initiatives that come with it were always going to be a focus for 2020 and 2021. However, this year has seen an increasing number of countries vow to move away from non-renewables in a bid to become carbon neutral in the coming decades.
So, what impact has COVID-19 had on flaring figures?
Flaring – the figures
According to the World Bank, before 2020, global gas flaring had reached highs last seen in 2009, with around 150 billion cubic meters (BCM) of gas being flared. This was mainly due to increased levels in three countries; the US, Venezuela and Russia, all being in the overall top five countries for flaring. Excluding these countries, global gas flaring actually declined by 10% between 2012 and 2019.
However, as COVID-19 spread around the globe, the first quarter of 2020 saw global gas flaring fall by 10%. This includes a reduction in the top four countries in the world. As life slowly returns to normality in 2021, will those countries go back to their old habits, or will 2020 spark a turning point for flaring?
2020’s top flaring countries – what happens next?
As with 2019’s flaring review, Russia, Iraq, Iran and the US continue to account for almost half of global flaring. Notably, these countries also account for around 40% of global oil production.
It is assumed that the 2020 decrease in flaring is in direct response to a reduction in supply, however flaring in the U.S. decreased in the first quarter of 2020 despite an increase in production. This means that there were other factors involved. One such factor could be increased capacity to recover and use the associated natural gas. This would be evidence for improved infrastructure, and as such it can be assumed that this decrease could continue.
The US has also announced regulation changes. Just this month, Colorado became the second state to tighten gas flaring regulations, joining Alaska in an effort to end routine gas flaring.
The Permian Basin, often top of the list of routine flaring culprits, saw a decrease in figures this year, while several of the large operators in the area vowed to decrease routine flaring. These include Chevron and Pioneer Natural Co.
The Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) also announced changes to their flaring regulations for the Permian, reducing the length of time operators can flare.
Although efforts have been made, Russia’s flaring increased by 9% to 23.12bcm in 2019, and it remains the top country in the world for flare gas volumes.
As Russia continues to be the EU’s largest supplier of gas, an interesting dichotomy occurs as the EU strives for carbon neutrality and to end routine gas flaring. There is the potential for pressure from these countries to finally end routine flaring in Russia.
This year, Iraq stated they are looking to increase oil production capacity by 2million b/d while elimination gas flaring. Despite this, the IEA predicts that this year, Iraq has flared 14.2bcm of gas, and recovered and brought to market 15.5bcm. Therefore, flaring almost half of the associated gas produced.
Iraq has implemented multiple gas projects, with the largest, the Ar Ratawi NGL processing facility, still in the tendering stage. The Ar Ratawi facility will ultimately produce 1 billion cubic feet of gas per day (bcf/d), further enabling Iraq to process and utilize their gas resources. This will both meet rising demand and reduce gas flaring, increasing the countries capacity to recover and reuse associated gas. A recent article suggested that if Iraq could capture just 30 – 40% of the gas currently being flared, they could generate over 3.5GW of power, around a tenth of what the country uses.
Last year, Iran announced they would stop routine gas flaring in at least four of their southern fields, the area associated most with gas flaring. Then last July the National Iranian Oil Company reported that flaring had reduced by 40% in their oilfields since 2017. The World Bank’s data does show a decrease of 3.50bcm between 2018 and 2019 and a 3.89bcm difference between 2017 and 2019. This correlates with a reduction, albeit not as significant as stated.
Early this year, Iran also announced that in March 2021, the Persian Gulf Bid Boland Gas Refinery would come online. This refinery is being labelled as a ‘flare gas refinery’ with the capacity to process 56 million cubic meters of associated gas a day. The countries minister of Petroleum, Bijan Zangeneh states that the refinery will be “the source of a major change in reducing environmental pollution and developing the petrochemical industry”.
The IEA states “there is an increasing number of voluntary government and industry commitments to eliminate flaring by 2030”. This includes an increase in endorsers of the World Bank’s Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 initiative.
This initiative has now been endorsed by 32 governments, 41 oil companies and 15 development institutions, with Occidental Petroleum becoming the first American company to join the list.
This October, the EU announced its strategy to reduce methane emissions, which states an examination of all options and legislation to eliminate routine venting and flaring in the energy sector alongside supporting the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Partnership.
With the acceleration of the energy transition, and an increasing number of environmental initiatives, could the short-term effects of Covid-19 turn out to be long term trends? Could this year mark the turning point for flaring in the industry?