The U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of petroleum and natural gas.  That level of production brings real challenges, particularly when it comes to production processes known as flaring and venting that cause greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). 

Flaring is the process of burning excess natural gas at the production well using a dedicated flare to ignite the methane and other components in the gas, which can result in both methane and carbon dioxide emissions (CO2). Venting is the direct release of natural gas into the atmosphere, typically in small amounts.

These practices are used by producers for operational, safety, and economic reasons.  But both flaring and venting are sources of GHG emissions– especially methane, which has a greater global warming potential than CO2. Because of this greater potential, flaring is preferred when possible because the methane released as a result of venting is a more potent greenhouse gas than the CO2 released during flaring.

But both practices – as well as incomplete combustion, which also releases methane – represent critical challenges for upstream operators and regulators who must work together to significantly reduce emissions in the oil and natural gas sectors.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the volume of U.S. natural gas reported to be vented and flared in 2019 reached its highest average annual level since 1961, at 1.48 Bcf/d. The States of North Dakota (0.50 Bcf/d) and Texas (0.75 Bcf/d) accounted for 85 percent of the reported vented and flared natural gas, or 1.25 Bcf/d.

Flaring and venting pose obvious environmental challenges and represent losses of valuable natural resources.  While there are technologies that can capture some otherwise non-marketable gas, economic conditions can serve as barriers for their routine use in field production and reduction of flared or vented gas volumes.

But what if we could turn that captured gas into valuable commercial products?

The Department of Energy (DOE) is committed to accelerating technologies, tools, and best practices to reduce flaring and venting during oil and gas production. Our research and development (R&D) is focused on reducing the environmental impacts of flaring and venting, making more efficient use of these resources, and converting natural gas coupled to carbon capture and reliable storage into valuable products like clean hydrogen, chemicals, and carbon materials that can be used in high tech applications.  As we move toward a net-zero carbon economy, these low-carbon products will become even more critical and valuable as supply chains are reimagined across new and emerging industrial sectors.

DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM) recently released a new report that identifies opportunities to advance and expand this R&D.  The report – Flaring and Venting Reduction Research & Development Activities explores the potential to develop natural gas conversion technologies that will provide additional options for converting flared or vented gas into value-added products.

The report highlights the need for effective and efficient modular technologies that are inexpensive to build and can be easily moved from one well to another.  Ideally, these technologies would be capable of converting various natural gas and chemical compositions into products that have value not only in the larger commercial marketplace, but also at the well site or at nearby market centers.

You can download the report here.

Flaring and venting represent a serious environmental challenge, as well a waste of valuable resources. But through technology development, we have the potential to tackle both of those challenges.   DOE will continue to work with our partners to develop and deploy smart solutions to reduce flaring and venting – and to turn wasted natural gas coupled to carbon capture and reliable storage into valuable products that will help us advance a net-zero carbon economy.

For more information about FECM’s oil and natural gas R&D, check our website here.