According to satellite data estimates, 350 million tons of natural gas were wastefully burned at the wellhead in 2012, about 3.5% of worldwide natural gas production. To put this into perspective, this amount of natural gas could provide electrical power to the entire continent of Africa. The CO2 emissions from natural gas flares are roughly equivalent to 10% of all CO2 emissions of the European Union.
The problem, as you might surmise, is the handling and transportation of the natural gas produced as a by-product of oil wells in areas without the infrastructure to handle gas. In addition, some gas produced as oil by-product has relatively low levels of methane. Russia flares more natural gas than any other nation, followed by Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela, Algeria, and the United States.
The World Bank is trying to stop all routine flaring of natural gas by 2030. North Dakota and New Mexico are taking steps to reduce gas flares.
The problem with this, unfortunately, is that most of the gas that is burned off (at least is many wells) is a mixture of C1 - C4 hydrocarbons (methane, ethane, propane, butane, and isobutane) as well as some hydrogen sulfide for good measure. The hydrogen sulfide is deadly stuff, but even after you remove it, the infrastructure for natural gas is specifically for methane. At first the difference may not seem that important, but combustion temperature and properties are all different, and the regulations regarding natural gas are understandably strict.
So you can't just pump this stuff into peoples' homes and let them burn it. Separating it into its constituent parts and then burning the methane seems like a good idea, but the cost here is pretty significant.
So, unfortunately, we have an incredibly valuable resource (oil) that is mixed up with a reasonably valuable resource (natural gas) and a bunch of stuff we'd rather not have (the rest). The cheapest way to get out the really valuable stuff cheaply is to burn off the rest. If you could invent a way to separate out the natural gas at a low price, you'd be a wealthy wealthy person. But in the meantime, money talks, and you know the rest.
This concurs with something I was told when I was working for my Dad's firm (Engineering) and a client of his who was an oil platform manager, was asked the naive question by yours truly! The gas is considered too dangerous and although burning it seems wasteful, the prevention of unplanned explosions is foremost.I also generally believe that corporations are not known to be so profligate if it were worth the effort to recover. ....
Somehow, it looks like there oughta be some engine that will run on this stuff... make electricity. Use what you need locally. Ship any excess to the grid.
Exactly right. This article is not a "flaring is evil the world's gonna end" article. It's the news that the World Bank and some states are planning to make it more expensive to flare gas and/or subsidize the capture of the gas by-products, reducing or eliminating routine flaring. It's all in the economics.