Top oil-producing nations, companies pledge to curb flaring, a major source of CO2

By Lisa Friedman | 04/17/2015 09:00 AM EDT

Top oil-producing nations, including the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Angola, as well as Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other companies say they will stop flaring natural gas by 2030 as part of a landmark agreement with the World Bank.

Top oil-producing nations, including the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Angola, as well as Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other companies say they will stop flaring natural gas by 2030 as part of a landmark agreement with the World Bank.

The deal was unveiled this morning during the World Bank’s Spring Meetings, where leaders said the voluntary agreement will curb 40 percent of the global gas flaring that results in 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

"Gas flaring is a visual reminder that we are wastefully sending CO2 into the atmosphere," said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in a statement. "Together we can take concrete action to end flaring and to use this valuable natural resource to light the darkness for those without electricity."

Gas flaring
Flaring emissions from gas and oil production are a worldwide problem. Part of the U.S. contribution comes from the northern Great Plains states, as seen by a NASA satellite. | Photo courtesy of the Niskanen Center.

The agreement by nine oil-producing countries, nine major oil-producing companies and all six global development banks calls routine gas flaring "unsustainable." Under it, they agreed to cooperate to eliminate flaring "as soon as possible, and no later than 2030," while also publicly reporting their progress toward the target annually. They also pledged that routine flaring will not occur in new oil field developments.

"As we head towards the adoption of a meaningful new international climate agreement in Paris in December, these countries and companies are demonstrating real climate action," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "Reducing gas flaring can make a significant contribution towards mitigating climate change. I appeal to all oil-producing countries and companies to join this important initiative."

Flaring occurs when unwanted natural gas released in oil extraction is burned, and according to the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, it accounts for 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But experts say the pollutants it emits, like methane and black carbon, also contribute to the melting of the polar ice caps as well as local health problems, particularly in developing nations. Plus, they say, it’s a waste of energy that could be used.

A relatively easy win for the planet

The World Bank estimates that 140 billion cubic meters of natural gas produced with oil is flared at thousands of oil fields worldwide. The result: emissions equivalent to that of 77 million automobiles — or, translated into power generation, more electricity than the entire continent of Africa currently consumes.

"Even though it has been declining over the past several years, we thought it was necessary to speed up the reduction," said Bjorn Hamso, the World Bank’s program manager for the Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership.

The bank also has its eye on U.N. climate change negotiations expected to deliver a global deal in Paris in December. Under the deal, all nations, including developing countries, will be expected to contribute to curbing emissions.

"We think that to eliminate routine gas flaring is the low-hanging fruit on the climate agenda," Hamso said. "Oil-producing countries who decide to join us in this effort, they can make that CO2 reduction part of their contribution to the negotiations in Paris."

Russia is the world’s top flarer, followed by Nigeria and Iran, according to the World Bank. The United States ranks fifth, but authorities say flaring has grown sharply because of the boom in oil and gas production. The United States is part of the World Bank’s partnership but not of today’s agreement to end flaring. Hamso said he believes Nigeria will join the pact when its newly elected government settles in.

Also part of the World Bank agreement are: Norway, Cameroon, Gabon, Uzbekistan, the Republic of Congo, France, the Kuwait Oil Co., Société Nationale des Pétroles du Congo (SNPC), Petroamazonas EP (Ecuador), the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), Société Nationale des Hydrocarbures (SNH-Cameroon), Italian multinational oil and gas company Eni, Norwegian multinational oil and gas company Statoil, and French multinational oil and gas company Total.

Jorma Ollila, chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, called on all governments to support the initiative. "Ending routine flaring is a practical way to lower CO2 emissions while meeting the world’s energy needs," he said.