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Russia top offender in gas-flare emissions

US study uses satellite images for findings

Many oil wells, such as this one off the coast of Mexico, burn off natural gas that is a byproduct of drilling. A study said such practices produce 400 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. Many oil wells, such as this one off the coast of Mexico, burn off natural gas that is a byproduct of drilling. A study said such practices produce 400 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. (EUNICE ADORNO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE 2006)

WASHINGTON -- A little-known but major contributor to global warming -- gas flaring at oil wells -- has been measured for the first time using satellite imagery and shows that Russia is burning three times more gas than previous estimates, making it the world's worst offender, according to a new US study.

At many oil drilling sites around the world, producers ignite excess gas, sending huge balls of fire into the sky. Environmentalists and World Bank analysts say the practice -- called gas flaring -- needlessly harms the environment and wastes a lucrative energy source.

When companies drill for oil in underground caverns, their equipment brings to the surface both petroleum and natural gas. Producers burn the gas because they have no infrastructure to use it, or no immediate consumer. In some cases, such as at some of Russia's isolated oil wells, the nearest possible user of natural gas could be more than 1,000 miles away.

The report was completed by scientists at the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration in Colorado using Air Force meteorological satellite images dating to 1995. It reveals that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from Russia's gas flaring alone equals the combined emissions from all cars and trucks in New York state and New England.

In all, the emissions from global gas flaring send 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year -- equivalent to the emissions from all the vehicles in Great Britain, France, and Germany.

The World Bank is convening a meeting today in Rome to discuss the 108-page report's findings. Experts estimate that the amount of gas released and burned at oil installations is equivalent to a quarter of the US natural gas market, potentially worth $69 billion annually at current prices.

The study's main author said he hoped the report would begin to curtail the practice.

"It's possible this will provide some impetus toward reducing the flaring," said Chris Elvidge , a physical scientist at NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center . "Countries know they no longer will be able to flare and have no one know about it. Now there is a technology that allows gas flares to be identified and tracked over time."

Despite the logistical difficulties and costs in channeling the excess gas to users, officials say it could be done. The gas could be funneled into pipelines and delivered to cities or industries. It could be turned into a liquid diesel, or it could be reinjected into oil wells to help the process of excavating more oil.

Peter J. Robertson , Chevron's vice chairman of the board, said in an interview yesterday in Washington that his oil company has plans to use all three approaches in Nigeria and Angola, including a project that pipes gas from Nigeria to Togo, Benin, and Ghana in West Africa. In Nigeria, he said, the company "will put out all our flares" within the next few years.

"I think we will see major reductions" globally in the next two to three years in gas flaring, said Bent Svensson , program manager for the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Reduction program, which started five years ago. He cited commitments from Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Kazakhstan to phase out flaring entirely within the next several years.

David Hawkins , director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center in Washington, said gas flaring "is very important to address. Global warming is a problem that requires addressing a fairly long list of activities, and this is one of them."

The US report focuses just on gas burned at sites, not gas that is released, or vented, into the atmosphere. Some of the natural gases are methane, which traps 23 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Experts do not know the severity of the problem since venting is so difficult to measure.

The report found that global gas flaring worldwide has remained "largely stable" during the past 12 years, emitting roughly 150 to 170 billion cubic meters of gas. But during that time, individual countries fluctuated greatly in the amount of gas flared.

Countries that decreased flaring included Nigeria, Angola, and Cameroon, according to the report. Russia had the largest increase, followed by Kazakhstan and Iraq, the report said.

In Iraq, experts say, the amount of gas flaring appeared to be related to the US invasion in 2003, citing an increase in 2004 to 8.3 billion cubic meters, up from 6.7 billion the year before. Since 2004, the amount of flaring has decreased slightly, but still remains roughly double the amount from 1995, during the early years of sanctions against Saddam Hussein's government.

World Bank officials said they were hopeful that Russia would reduce gas flaring, which the report estimated at 50 billion cubic meters, or roughly one-third the world's output; Nigeria is second, at 23 billion, following by Iran, Iraq, and Kazakhstan.

In 2004, Russia reported flaring just 15 billion cubic meters. President Vladimir Putin , in his address to the Duma two months ago , increased that estimate to more than 20 billion cubic meters.

Putin told the Russian federal assembly, "Such wastefulness is unacceptable. It is necessary without further delay to create an accounting system for associated gas (burned during excavation), increase environmental penalties, and introduce stricter requirements" to capture the gas.

François-Régis Mouton , an adviser on gas flaring at the World Bank, said that "as soon as Putin decided to put it at the top of the agenda," federal Russian officials showed more interest in tackling the problem.

A Duma committee on energy recently decided to host a meeting in Moscow in October on ways of reducing flaring.

The United States has several oil production sites that flare gas, but they use 99.5 percent of gas from oil installations, said James Slutz , deputy assistant secretary for oil and natural gas at the US Department of Energy.

Slutz said the US report should help reduce gas flaring globally because satellite imagery would keep countries honest. "As reporting gets better," he said, "we should see more action."

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com

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