Domestic natural gas prices skyrocketed from 1995 through 2006, but during the same period flaring of associated gas production worldwide has remained constant, according to research sponsored by The World Bank and released last week.

The first globally consistent survey of gas flaring was conducted using satellite data, and a series of national and global estimates of gas flaring volumes have been produced covering a 12-year period from 1995 through 2006. The survey, which was commissioned and funded by the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR) partnership, was executed by scientists at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Gas flaring estimates, which were produced for 60 countries or areas around the world, show that global gas flaring has remained largely stable over the past 12 years, in the range of 150 to 170 billion cubic meters (Bcm).

According to the satellite data, in 2006 oil producing countries and companies burned about 170 Bcm of natural gas worldwide or nearly five trillion Tcf. That's equivalent to 27% of total U.S. gas consumption and 5.5% of total global production of gas for the year. If the gas had been sold in the United States instead of being flared, the total U.S. market value would have been about $40 billion. Gas flaring also emits some 400 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Gas flaring not only harms the environment by contributing to global warming but is a huge waste of a cleaner source of energy that could be used to generate much needed electricity in poor countries around the world, said Bent Svensson, manager of the Bank's GGFR partnership. "In Africa alone about 40 Bcm of gas are burned every year, which if put to use could generate half of the electricity needed in that continent," he said.

Flaring of gas liberated during oil production and processing often occurs in remote areas far from potential users, where there is often no infrastructure on site to make use of the gas. In recent years, however, renewed efforts are being made to eliminate flaring, such as re-injecting gas into the ground to boost oil production, converting it into liquefied natural gas (LNG) for shipment, transporting it to markets via pipelines, or using it on site for generation of electricity.

"This study proves that it is possible to monitor gas flaring from space and make reasonable and independent estimates of the volume being wasted," said Christopher Elvidge, a scientist with NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) and lead author of the study. "In the past, the only way to track gas flaring was through official estimates, but now those days are over. These independent figures should help governments and companies alike to get a better sense of how much gas they are actually flaring."

Since this is the first study of gas flaring using satellite observations, scientists warn that these preliminary results should be used with caution, as there still are several sources of error and uncertainty, including variations in flare efficiency, mis-identification of flares, noncontinuous sampling and environmental effects. The top ten countries according to volumes of gas flared in 2004 are: Russia with 50.7 Bcm flared: Nigeria with 23 Bcm; Iran, 11.4 Bcm; Iraq, 8.1 Bcm; Kazakhstan, 5.8 Bcm; Algeria, 5.5 Bcm; Angola, 5.2 Bcm; Libya, 4.2; Qatar, 3.2 Bcm; and Saudi Arabia, 3.0 Bcm. The country totals compiled using satellite data is quite different from those reported by the countries themselves.

According to the satellite observations, 22 countries have increased gas flaring over the past 12 years. These include: Azerbaijan, Chad, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritania, Myanmar, Oman, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Russia (excluding Khanty Mansiysk region), Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

On the other hand, 16 countries have decreased gas flaring from 1995 to 2006, including Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, Cameroon, Chile, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, North Sea, Norway, Peru, Syria, United Arab Emirates and the U.S. (offshore).

Nine countries have had largely stable gas flaring across the 12-year period. These include Australia, Ecuador, Gabon, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Khanty-Mansiysk (Russian Federation), Romania and Trinidad.

The authors used low-light imaging data from the U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program to assess the volumes of gas burned in flares, which are visible in observations of nighttime lights under cloud-free conditions. Current and planned satellite sensors will continue to provide data suitable for estimating gas flaring volumes for decades to come, The World Bank said. GGFR encourages on-site monitoring as well to help track changes in gas flaring volumes and to report progress in reducing flaring.

The study report is available on The World Bank homepage, www.worldbank.org.

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