The human cost of flaring in the oil and gas industry is an under told story – but it’s one that deserves to be at the forefront of policymakers’ concerns. A recent population analysis by CATF reveals that nearly 10 million people live within 5km of active flares in countries that export oil and gas to the EU. As the world’s largest importer of fossil energy, the EU is in a unique position to drastically reduce flaring in the oil and gas sector by leveraging its buying power to accelerate the adoption of strong standards in countries that sell Europe its oil and gas.
Why is flaring a problem?
Flaring of natural gas is a wasteful practice that has demonstrable negative impacts on the climate and the health of nearby populations. Flaring can occur anywhere that produces oil or natural gas, but it is most prevalent in countries and basins that primarily produce oil, with natural gas considered a secondary product, often referred to as “associated gas”. Despite voluntary initiatives by the World Bank and other institutions to curtail the practice of flaring in the oil and gas industry around the globe, this problem continues being a major contributor to climate change and threatening the health of millions of people.
Flaring has a significant climate impact: carbon dioxide (CO2) is released when gas is combusted and large quantities of methane (CH4), a powerful greenhouse gas with a warming potential more than 80 times larger than that of CO2 over a 20-year period, is released by inefficient or unlit flares. The World Bank estimates total carbon emissions from gas flaring to be more than 350 million tons annually, or approximately 1 percent of total global carbon emissions.
Equally important, flaring has been found to have detrimental impacts on nearby populations due to the release of harmful chemicals found in the burnt gas. Flaring releases a multitude of harmful air pollutants, including benzene, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter (PM), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2) among others. Living near active flaring sites has been linked to respiratory issues, disease, premature deaths, preterm births, and low birth weight, while exposure of children to flaring pollutants increases the probability of developing pediatric asthma.
Health impacts of natural gas flaring
The table below shows a summary of health effects from exposure to air pollutants as a result of gas flaring. The negative effects of flaring on human health have been studied in several regions around the world, as shown in the following examples.
- Niger Delta Region: Studies in this region revealed a substantial risk to human health associated with flaring activities, resulting in a high incidence of respiratory and dermal diseases among those residing near flaring sites.i,ii
- Iran: Research in Iran found an increased health risk associated with benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX) emissions from flaring in industrial and residential areas.iii
- US-wide: Flaring of natural gas in the United States emitted approximately 16,000 tons of black carbon (BC), which accounted for 8% of nationwide total BC emissions or 10% of total anthropogenic BC emissions. BC emissions from these flares caused approximately 26-53 premature deaths in 2019.iv
- Texas: A study in Texas found higher pediatric asthma hospitalization rates near natural gas production sites, highlighting potential health risks for children in proximity to these operations.v Another study found that pregnant women living within close proximity to flaring activities, experienced higher rates of preterm birth, shorter gestation periods, and lower birth weights.vi
Table 1: Health impacts of pollutants released from flaring
|Air Pollutant||Health Impact||Reference|
|Benzene||Cancer, anemia, brain damage and birth defects, and respiratory tract irritation||Mirrezaei, et al. 2020|
|Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)||Asthma, and respiratory tract irritation||Willis, et al. 2020|
|Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)||Asthma, and respiratory tract irritation||Mirrezaei, et al. 2020|
|Particulate Matter (PM) and Black Carbon (BC)||Cancer, birth defects, asthma, bronchitis, cardiovascular, and respiratory illness||Chen, et al. 2022, Cushing, el al. 2020, Anejionu, et al. 2015|
|Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons |
|Cancer, and respiratory tract irritation|
Mirrezaei, et al. 2020
10,000,000 lives at increased risk
This report highlights populations that are facing detrimental health effects due to flaring in 20 countries with significant oil and/or gas exports to the European Union (EU). While flaring in exporting countries occurs outside of EU borders, it is directly connected to EU oil and gas consumption.
Results from this study show that, in these 20 countries:
- nearly 10 million people live within 5 kilometers (km) of active flares;
- Iraq and Nigeria have the most people affected, with 3.0 million and 2.5 million respectively;
- another 2.9 million people live within 5km of flares in the United States, Mexico, Azerbaijan, and Egypt combined;
- more than half a million people live extremely close to flares, less than 1 km away; and,
- while most flaring sites are located far from densely populated areas, around 10% of flaring sites are located very near urban or suburban areas.
Population affected by flaring
An opportunity for the EU to curb flaring pollution
The tools for such a drive are already in preparation. Since December 2021, EU institutions have been working to develop regulations to reduce methane emissions from fossil energy produced or consumed in the EU.vii The regulation proposed by the European Commission includes provisions on monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV), leak detection and repair (LDAR), and banning routine venting and flaring practices for all EU fossil fuel companies. In its visionary proposal for the regulation, the European Parliament extends the same requirements to oil and gas produced outside of and imported into the EU, introducing the world’s first methane import standard.viii
By implementing such a methane import standard for oil and gas, the EU can take steps to drive methane reduction amongst its trade partners and simultaneously reduce health risks for millions of people who live near flares in these countries. Moreover, this standard would notably deliver a core goal of the EU’s new Global Health Strategy, adopted in 2022, which aims to integrate global health considerations into all EU policy areas, including climate, energy, and trade policy.ix
With COP28 just around the corner, and progress towards achieving the Global Methane Pledge at risk of slowing, the EU cannot miss this opportunity to demonstrate global leadership on methane emissions reductions. By implementing a methane import standard, the EU would not only reduce more than 30% of global methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and bring us closer to achieving the Global Methane Pledge goal by 2030, but it would also be promoting health-beneficial practices across dozens of countries.
i Anejionu, O. C. D., Whyatt, J. D., Blackburn, G. A., & Price, C. S. (2015). Contributions of gas flaring to a global air pollution hotspot: Spatial and temporal variations, impacts and alleviation. Atmospheric Environment, 118, 184–193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2015.08.006 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sciaf.2021.e00762
ii Nwosisi, M. C., Oguntoke, O., Taiwo, A. M., Agbozu, I. E., & Noragbon, E. J. (2021). Spatial patterns of gas flaring stations and the risk to the respiratory and dermal health of residents of the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Scientific African, 12, e00762. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sciaf.2021.e00762
iii Mirrezaei, M. A., & Orkomi, A. A. (2020). Gas flares contribution in total health risk assessment of BTEX in Asalouyeh, Iran. Process Safety and Environmental Protection, 137, 223–237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psep.2020.02.034
iv Chen, C., McCabe, D. C., Fleischman, L. E., & Cohan, D. S. (2022). Black carbon emissions and associated health impacts of gas flaring in the United States. Atmosphere, 13(3), 385. https://doi.org/10.3390/atmos13030385
v Willis, M., Hystad, P., Denham, A., Hill, E. (2020). Natural gas development, flaring practices and paediatric asthma hospitalizations in Texas. Int. J. Epidemiol. 49, 1883–1896. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyaa115
vi Cushing, L. J., Vavra-Musser, K., Chau, K., Franklin, M., & Johnston, J. E. (2020). Flaring from Unconventional Oil and Gas Development and Birth Outcomes in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas. Environmental Health Perspectives. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP6394
vii European Commission. (2021). Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on methane emissions reduction in the energy sector and amending Regulation (EU) 2019/942. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=COM%3A2021%3A805%3AFIN
viii European Parliament. (2023). Amendments adopted by the European Parliament on 9 May 2023 on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on methane emissions reduction in the energy sector and amending Regulation (EU) 2019/942. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2023-0127_EN.html.
ix Refers to Section 3 and Guiding Principle 12 of the EU Global Health Strategy, which calls for a ‘health in all policies’ governance that builds policy coherence across all EU policy areas that have an impact on global health. See, European Commission. (2022). EU Global Health Strategy: Better Health For All in a Changing World. https://health.ec.europa.eu/publications/eu-global-health-strategy-better-health-all-changing-world_en