Natural gas flaring from operations in the Permian Basin, Eagle Ford and Bakken shales does not work as efficiently as it could, with as much as 10% routinely unlit or malfunctioning, new research indicates.

Permian Basin

The Permian, Eagle Ford and Bakken account for about 80% of the gas flaring in the country, according to the University of Michigan (U-M), which led a collaborative study on the efficacy of gas flaring.

Researchers found that the active flares tracked during the study destroyed about 95% of the methane, not 98% as previously estimated. In some areas, as much as 5% of the flares were unlit, bringing overall efficiency down to about 91%. 

“Flaring is widely used by the fossil fuel industry to dispose of natural gas,” researchers said. “Industry and governments generally assume that flares remain lit and destroy methane, the predominant component of natural gas, with 98% efficiency. Neither assumption, however, is based on real-world observations.”

The study found a “fivefold increase in methane emissions above present assumptions and constitutes 4-10% of total U.S. oil and gas methane emissions, highlighting a previously underappreciated methane source and mitigation opportunity.”

U-M’s Eric Kort, senior scientist of the new research, said, “There is a lot more methane being added to the atmosphere than currently accounted for in any inventories or estimates.”

Over the course of three years, the research team conducted 13 flights in planes equipped with air monitoring equipment to assess how much methane was released from flares across the oil and gas production basins. The aircraft flew downwind of the flaring sites, crisscrossing the direct pathways of the flaring plumes. Instrumentation and laser scanning measured the amounts of carbon dioxide and methane released.

Measuring the two gasses simultaneously allowed researchers to estimate the “destruction removal efficiency” of flaring at an individual site. The findings were published in the journal Science.

“If the flare is operating as it should be, there should be a large carbon dioxide spike and a relatively small methane spike,” said U-M assistant research scientist Genevieve Plant, lead author of the study. “And depending on the relative enhancement of those two gasses, we can tell how well the flares are performing.”

Controlling the methane emissions “seems quite addressable,” Plant said. “With management practices and our better understanding of what’s happening to these flares, we can reduce this source of methane in a tangible way.”

U-M’s research partners included Stanford University’s Department of Energy Resources Engineering, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Scientific Aviation of Boulder, CO. and Utrecht University’s Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research.

Recent research led by EDF similarly discovered that roughly 10% of flares were unlit or malfunctioning. The EDF has long worked with Lower 48 producers to voluntarily reduce methane emissions and flaring. Aerial methane measurements taken in the Permian by EDF during August 2021 indicated the oil and gas industry was having issues controlling flaring and venting.

[Want today’s Henry Hub, Houston Ship Channel and Chicago Citygate prices? Check out NGI’s daily natural gas price snapshot now.]

“This study adds to the growing body of research that tells us that the oil and gas industry has a flaring problem,” said EDF’s Jon Goldstein, senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs. “The Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management should implement solutions that can help to end the practice of routine flaring.”

Research was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, with additional support from the EDF, Scientific Aviation and U-M’s College of Engineering, Graham Sustainability Institute and the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering.

The White House earlier this year launched a series of measures to reduce methane emissions, including a $1.15 billion program to plug orphan oil and gas wells and to enforce tighter emissions rules for natural gas pipeline operators. The announcement was in line with the Global Methane Pledge begun a year ago by the United States and the European Union.