Flaring & Fossil Fuels: Uncovering Emissions & Losses

F3UEL Findings on Flares

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Fossil energy production, processing, flaring, and transmission all can harm climate and air quality by emitting greenhouse gases and air pollutants.

Thanks to extensive research, the understanding of and ability to monitor onshore energy system emissions has improved in recent years. Studies now show that onshore oil and gas production emit much more methane than what is inventoried, and that local air quality impacts can be significant.

But natural gas flaring and offshore systems have been largely overlooked.

Even small fugitive losses of methane and pollutants from offshore systems could have substantial impacts on global climate and local air quality given that nearly one-third of global oil and gas is produced, processed, and transmitted offshore. Yet we presently have almost no observations on actual emissions from this essential portion of the energy supply chain and no demonstrated way to monitor it.

Moreover, although government and industry estimate that flaring combusts 98% of methane, limited field evaluations suggest the combustion efficiency is actually lower. Given the volume of gas flared annually—approximately 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas, or nearly 1% of all withdrawals, in the U.S. alone—the practice of flaring could be contributing far more greenhouse gas emissions than is currently recognized.

More field measurements across all major U.S. flaring locations and several offshore sites are needed to assess the impacts of both offshore production and flares, as well as to identify monitoring methods that work.

Research Goals

The F3UEL (Flaring & Fossil Fuels: Uncovering Emissions & Losses) project aims to address these gaps by improving our understanding of offshore emissions, characterizing how flares behave in the real world, identifying what portion of the offshore system is responsible for emissions, and determining how such systems can be monitored.

This work will provide updates to emissions estimates and explore new monitoring strategies for a large and neglected sector of the oil and gas industry of interest to scientists, policy makers, industry, and an engaged public invested in the impacts of our energy production supply chain.

Expected Outcomes

  • Enhanced public and scientific understanding of environmental impacts of offshore energy production and natural gas flaring
  • Quantification of methane and nitrogen oxide emissions from offshore systems and natural gas flaring
  • Linkage of emissions to processes responsible to improve inventories and provide mitigation guidance
  • Methods for using satellite remote sensing products to monitor offshore emissions
  • Engagement with stakeholders on improved management and policy

Project Approach

Spanning three years (2020-2022), the project will employ aircraft and satellite data, including both greenhouse gas and air quality measurements. To sample the largest regions of current and potential future offshore production and flaring, airborne measurements will target the Gulf of Mexico, offshore California and Alaska, the Bakken Formation (North Dakota) and the Permian and Eagleford Basins (Texas).

Information from the airborne measurements will be used to develop space-based approaches that have the potential for semi-continuous monitoring. Simple (mass-balance) to sophisticated (inverse modeling) analysis tools will quantify emissions and link them with processes.

Engagement with a multisector advisory group and public dissemination of the results and summary reports will inform the research plan and motivate informed action based on the findings.

This project is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation with additional support from the Environmental Defense Fund, Scientific Aviation, and University of Michigan (College of Engineering, Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering; Graham Sustainability Institute).