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Methane flare

Europe’s new gas deals should prioritize wasted methane

May 17, 2022 Work Area: Methane

UPDATE May 18 2022: The European Commission’s RePowerEU strategy included the innovative ‘You Collect/We Buy’ initiative that reflects many of the suggestions CATF made in this post below. Read more about RePowerEU here.

To wean Europe off Russian gas, leaders are scrambling to find new supplies to quench their countries’ thirst for energy. Recently, Italy’s Prime Minister Draghi signed a deal with Algeria for an additional nine billion cubic meters per year of methane gas from new gas wells and enhanced production. But this drilling simply isn’t needed. European states could instead make smart investments in Algeria to upgrade existing fossil fuel infrastructure to capture billions of cubic meters of gas wasted each year through flaring, venting, and leaking. This could very quickly provide energy security  for Italy and help ease Europe’s gas crunch, while reducing the climate impact of Algeria’s oil and gas production. 

Gas flaring is a significant contributor to climate warming. In fact, global flaring wastes 2.1 times as much methane gas as Italy consumes annually. Flares emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, but also large amounts of methane because they go out frequently, and even lit flares fail to burn all the gas they receive. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a twenty-year period. And methane pollution is skyrocketing, according to latest data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Last year, it is estimated that Algeria flared 10.5 billion cubic meters of methane gas, vented another 2.4 billion cubic meters of gas, and lost 0.6 billion cubic meters through fugitive emissions and leaks, so the volume of wasted gas in Algeria is several billion cubic meters per year more than Italy is planning to buy under Draghi’s new deal. According to a new report from Capterio, a firm that tracks gas flaring worldwide, a significant proportion of this waste could start to be eliminated within the next 1-2 years through investments in existing infrastructure, providing the gas Italy needs without any new drilling. Other nations in Europe would also benefit if Italy rapidly brought more non-Russian gas into the European gas network. 

Overview of flaring, venting, and leaking in North Africa

Breakdown of flaring, venting and leaking by country (left) and the largest flare capture opportunities by oil/gas field and country (right). Source: Capterio

In 2018, Algeria’s national oil company committed to phase out routine gas flaring entirely by 2030. Yet, Algeria remains one of the top six gas flaring countries in the world in absolute terms, and its “flaring intensity” (flaring per barrel of oil), is four times higher than the global average, exceeded only by Venezuela among the 25 largest oil producing nations. More than 73% of the gas flaring in Algeria occurs within 20 kilometers of a gas pipeline. Adding these short pipelines to bring gas from an oil well to a processing facility can be accomplished quickly. Many of these flares are continuously burning throughout the year, making them excellent candidates for projects that capture currently flared gas for sale.      

Given the current price of gas in Europe, investments in pipelines and processing facilities will be lucrative. In fact, Capterio estimates that a €45 million investment in an example flare capture project would generate between €70-460 million annually (at €15-110 per MWh). 

Investing in these kinds of flaring waste reduction projects is a no-brainer due to the clear climate benefits. Not only does the captured gas displace Russian gas and therefore eliminate the CO2 produced by each extinguished flare, it also reduces methane pollution currently released through inefficient combustion. The combined impact of eliminating CO2 and methane emissions by obtaining the nine billion cubic meters of gas a year that Italy is seeking by capturing gas being sent to flares, rather than from new drilling, is a reduction of over 32 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions, or about the amount of climate pollution produced by Italy’s entire agricultural sector in 2018.  

Last year, the European Commission laid out its first ever proposal to cut methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, but measures to tackle emissions from imported fuels were notably absent. Targeted investments designed to reduce emissions overseas, such as by capturing gas currently being flared, would be an excellent step. 

Currently, much of Europe is seeking to negotiate new supplies of gas, as contracts with Gazprom are cancelled.  Europe has an opportunity to use these negotiations to accelerate methane mitigation and flaring reduction.  Adding provisions to contracts that incentivize flaring reduction, or apply standards for venting, flaring and leak detection and repair will ensure that methane is not leaking throughout the value chain of the gas.  Wasted methane gas is literally going up in flames and leaking right on Europe’s doorstep. Better deals can be a win-win-win for Europe, for Algeria and other producing nations, and the world. 

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