MethaneSAT (Image credit: Environmental Defense Fund)

Fossil Fuel Companies Build Structures To Hide Methane Flaring From Satellites

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For decades, fossil fuel companies have tried to bamboozle the public into thinking that the methane they sell under the deceptive name “natural gas” is a clean “bridge fuel” to the future. It is not. Although it does burn cleaner than coal, methane itself is 80 times more destructive to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Humans have been rigorously monitoring the so-called Keeling Curve that tracks the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for decades, but until quite recently no one has been monitoring the amount of methane entering the atmosphere as well.

But now there are satellites that can perform that task, and they have found the amount of unburned methane being released from drilling sites, pipelines, distribution lines, and even inside buildings is orders of magnitude greater than previously known. The industry has been characteristically cavalier about those emissions, calling it simply a cost of doing business, even though their product is a significant factor in global heating. They insist that trying to capture all of the methane that comes out of the ground is simply too expensive and would ruin their business model. If methane were gold, we can be pretty sure ways would be found to capture it all, but because it is invisible and odor-free, it is treated as a commodity that can be recklessly wasted.

There are two ways to dispose of excess methane at the wellhead. Either release it directly into the atmosphere — known as venting — or burn it — known as flaring. If it is released freely, satellites will detect it. But flaring, which uses a giant Bunsen burner like the one we used in chemistry class in high school, converts the methane to carbon dioxide and other waste products. The flame is large enough to be seen by satellites in space, so the fossil fuel companies have come up with a diabolical workaround. It is too expensive to capture the methane, but there is plenty of money to build large shelters over those flaring operations to hide what they are doing from those satellites.

Fossil Fuel Companies Seek To Hide Flaring Activities

According to a report in The Guardian, oil and gas equipment intended to cut methane emissions is preventing scientists from accurately detecting greenhouse gases and pollutants, a satellite image investigation has revealed. In the US, UK, Germany, and Norway, they have installed technology that could stop researchers from identifying methane, carbon dioxide emissions, and pollutants at industrial facilities that regularly employ flaring.

The World Bank, along with the EU and other regulators, has been using satellites for years to find and document gas flares, asking energy companies to find ways of capturing the gas instead of burning or venting it. The bank set up the Zero Routine Flaring 2030 initiative at the Paris climate conference to eradicate unnecessary flaring. Its latest report finds that flaring decreased by 3% globally from 2021 to 2022. But since the initiative began, “enclosed combustors” have begun appearing in the same countries that promised to end flaring. Experts say enclosed combustors are functionally the same as flares, except the flame is hidden.

Tim Doty, a former regulator at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told The Guardian, “Enclosed combustors are basically a flare with an internal flare tip that you don’t see. Enclosed flaring is still flaring. It’s just different infrastructure that they’re allowing. Enclosed flaring is, in truth, probably less efficient than a typical flare. It’s better than venting, but going from a flare to an enclosed flare or a vapor combustor is not an improvement in reducing emissions.”

The only method of detecting flaring globally is by using satellite-mounted tools called Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite of detectors (VIIRS), which find flares by comparing heat signatures with bright spots of light visible from space. But when researchers tried to replicate the database, they saw that the satellites were not picking up the enclosed flares. Eric Kort, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said, “The VIIRS satellite database is still the standard product that scientists use globally. It’s the best, most consistent product we currently have. If you enclose the flare, people don’t see it, so they don’t complain about it. But it also means it’s not visible from space by most of the methods used to track flare volumes.”

Without the satellite data, countries must rely primarily on self-disclosed reporting from fossil fuel companies, researchers said, and the ability of researchers to understand pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector could be jeopardized. Colorado became the first and only US state to ban routine flaring in 2021. But Maxar satellite imagery shows enclosed flares replacing open flares in the run-up to the Colorado ban on flaring.

In November 2023, the EU announced a plan to phase out routine flaring as part of legislation designed to tackle methane emissions. But now enclosed flares have started to appear in the EU, according to information from fossil fuel equipment supplier websites, which suggests the devices are being sold in multiple member states.

Zubin Bamji, the program manager for the World Bank Global Flaring and Methane Reduction Partnership, said volumes from enclosed flares were “very small and are unlikely to have a significant impact on flare volume estimates at a regional, country or global level,” but confirmed that VIIRS did not classify enclosed flaring devices as flares.

A source with knowledge of upcoming EU methane legislation said it “covers all flares, not just those detectable by satellite,” and added that flaring in emergency situations would still be allowed. It was not immediately clear how the EU would determine whether flaring inside enclosed flares was routine or for emergency situations.

The Takeaway

The game of cat and mouse between fossil fuel companies and regulators continues. Governments try to reduce emissions for the benefit of society and fossil fuel companies continue to scheme how to circumvent them, proving once again that for these companies, profits are more important than a sustainable environment. The fossil fuel industry is the only one we know of that thinks killing its customers makes sense from a business point of view. Will this madness ever end?

Well, yes, of course it will, when the last molecule of oil, methane, or coal has been extracted from the Earth. Until then, it’s business as usual — lie and cheat if you have to, but keep all those lovely profits flowing.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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