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Methane from Oil and Gas Production Explained

What is methane?

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), with a global warming potential (GWP) around 28 times greater than the same mass of carbon dioxide emissions on a 100-year basis, and over 80 times more powerful on a 20-year basis. This makes methane’s contribution to climate change second only to carbon dioxide.

Why is methane important?

While methane has a significantly higher GWP than carbon dioxide, it also has a shorter atmospheric lifetime. Methane remains in the atmosphere for around 12 years. In contrast, carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for over a century.  As a result of both its high GWP and short atmospheric lifetime, the rapid reduction of methane emissions is one of the most important climate actions we can undertake in the short term to quickly address climate change. 

Whereas gas flaring creates intense hotspots that can be easily observed on the ground and measured using satellite observations, methane is an odorless gas that is not visible to the human eye. Detecting and measuring it is particularly challenging and often requires intensive on-the-ground and airborne surveys using specialized equipment. 


How does oil and gas production contribute to methane emissions?

The global energy sector accounts for approximately 40% of methane emissions from human activity, with the oil and gas industry representing over 60% of the emissions from the energy sector, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Oil and gas operations release methane into the atmosphere through the wasteful practices of intentional flaring and venting, as well as through unintentional releases such as fugitive methane emissions or venting during unexpected incidents. The table below lists some of the common sources of methane emissions found in oil and gas operations as identified by the Oil & Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 (OGMP 2.0).

Methane Emissions Category




  • Methane slip due to incomplete combustion during flaring


  • Planned releases as a result of equipment design (designed to vent) OR
  • Planned venting during maintenance OR
  • Unplanned venting during incidents or equipment malfunction*
  • Pneumatic devices (controllers and pumps)
  • Centrifugal compressors seal systems
  • Reciprocating compressor rod packing systems
  • Glycol dehydrators
  • Tanks
  • Well liquids unloading
  • Well casinghead venting
  • Hydraulic fracturing completions
  • Purging & venting during process maintenance
  • Incidents, emergency stops, and equipment malfunctions*

Fugitive Losses (Leaks)

  • Unintentional releases as a result of leaking components
  • Flanges, valves, connectors, open-ended lines

Incomplete Combustion

  • Methane slip during incomplete combustion in stationary combustion equipment
  • Gas turbines (compressor drivers and generators)
  • Gas engines
  • Gas-fired heaters and boilers

*In some regulatory jurisdictions and definitions, these emissions may be called ‘fugitive emissions’ rather than venting. 

In recent years the scale of methane emissions from oil and gas operations has become apparent, with advances in detection technology allowing previously undetected sources to be identified. These emissions, typically resulting from poor maintenance and malfunctioning equipment, can account for enormous amounts of methane and are often labeled “super-emitters.” While oil and gas operations are a significant source of methane globally, the industry is also ideally placed to respond quickly to and address these emissions through flaring and venting reduction, fixing leaks, and tackling super-emitters.

Why are flares a source of methane emissions?

Flaring is a direct source of methane emissions as flares do not completely combust all the hydrocarbons in the gas they burn (View our flaring explained guide). However, how much flaring contributes to methane emissions is poorly understood.

Typically, GHG estimates of gas flaring emissions are based on two core assumptions:

  1. that flares have a methane destruction efficiency of 98%, resulting in 2% of the methane in the flare gas stream being emitted to the atmosphere un-combusted; and
  2. that flares are lit and operating properly all of the time.

These assumptions, used widely, have formed the foundation of estimates of GHG emissions from flaring for decades. We estimate that in 2022 flaring resulted in 357 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions (MMtCO2e), of which 319 MMtCO2e was in the form of carbon dioxide and 42 MMtCO2e was in the form of un-combusted methane.

The 98% value for flare destruction efficiency is attributed to controlled studies conducted for the United States EPA as far back as the 1980s. Flare destruction efficiency has not been widely field-tested to date because direct measurement in real-world environments is highly complex and problematic.

However, given its importance in understanding the methane emissions associated with flaring, it has become a critical area of research. In 2022, a study detailing the findings of a field campaign in the United States to measure flare destruction efficiency was published. The study found an average destruction efficiency of 95.2% for Permian, Eagle Ford, and Bakken basins facilities, considerably lower than the default 98% commonly used.

Unlit flare
An unlit flare stack.
In another study, researchers found that 3.2% of the flares assessed in the Bakken were operating unlit. In other words, directly venting gas, including methane, to the atmosphere. Using these findings and building on an earlier study in the Permian that found that 5% of the flares assessed were unlit, the study estimates an average of 4.1% of flares may typically be unlit across all three basins.

Bringing together the measured destruction efficiency of 95.2% and the prevalence of unlit flares, the researchers suggest that flares in these basins effectively operate with a destruction efficiency of 91.1%. However, the study looked at a relatively small number of flares that operate in a way that is not typical of many other locations. Nonetheless, if these findings are applicable across the US, let alone the world, the true scale of the contribution of gas flaring to methane emissions could be significantly underestimated.

The destruction efficiency of a flare is likely to be a product of many factors, including flare gas composition, flow rate, flare system design, operation and maintenance, and local environmental factors such as wind speed.

While research continues, there are three critical steps operators can take now to reduce methane emissions from flaring:

Critical actions to tackle methane emissions

  1. Ensure flares are always lit and have automatic systems to re-ignite if they should go out.
  2. Ensure flares are operating effectively and optimize flare destruction efficiency.
  3. Reduce and ultimately eliminate the gas going to the flare, which should always be the end goal.

GGFR has developed an interactive dashboard to help demonstrate the likely GHG emissions from flaring across various circumstances.

Why do oil and gas operators vent gas?

Venting can occur at oil and gas operations for several reasons. Some equipment may have been designed to vent small volumes. In these cases, the solution may be to replace the equipment, install vapor recovery units, or ensure that the equipment is properly maintained and operated. Venting may also occur during planned maintenance, for example, during blowdown or the purging of equipment.

However, in the absence of infrastructure to transport the gas to market, some operators may deliberately and routinely vent gas as a waste by-product. In these circumstances, and because of methane’s exceptionally high GWP, flaring is always preferable to venting.

Sometimes, venting from oil and gas operations may also be unknown and unintentional. For example, during incidents or due to faulty equipment. These events can release significant amounts of methane and may be considered ‘super-emitters.’ In some countries, these releases may be called ‘fugitive emissions’ rather than venting.

What are fugitive emissions?

During the production and transportation of natural gas (associated or non-associated),  components such as valves, flanges, or seals may allow methane to escape into the atmosphere. These emissions are typically referred to as fugitive emissions or fugitive losses. Unplanned venting during equipment malfunctions or incidents may also be considered fugitive in some countries.

How can we reduce the amount of methane emitted?

Successful efforts to tackle flaring, venting, and fugitive methane emissions typically work on the basis that ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure.’

Drone methane survey
An oil and gas worker surveys equipment using a drone.
Firstly, operators and governments should use methane detection and measurement technologies to survey facilities and identify significant sources of methane emissions. Robust Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) programs often require several approaches, from satellites and aerial surveillance down to on-the-ground teams operating handheld devices. Such surveys are important and help prioritize opportunities for methane reduction. Following years of detailed surveys at oil and gas operations in North America, the data strongly suggest that most emissions come from a minority of super-emitting sources. As a result, early identification of super emitters should be a priority opportunity for quick and effective emissions reduction from the global oil and gas sector.

In addition, flare elimination efforts, such as efforts to achieve Zero Routine Flaring by 2030, are important methane reduction initiatives as any methane emissions associated with the flare will also be eliminated. Flare elimination strategies also support reductions from other sources, such as venting and fugitive releases. Without an outlet to export or utilize the gas, any methane conserved from these sources will ultimately be sent to flare. While there may be an overall emissions reduction, methane is still released, and this energy source is still wasted. This highlights the importance of flare reduction and gas management to overall oil and gas decarbonization strategies.

What is being done about methane emissions?

Methane abatement solutions have been underprioritized, considering their climate change mitigation potential, and low- and middle-income oil-producing countries need technical and financial support to implement methane detection and reduction projects and policies.

Flaring and methane reductions can be achieved with currently available technology. However, in the case of flaring, the World Bank’s most recent Global Gas Flaring Tracker report shows that gas flaring persists in many countries, despite available technology.

GGFR works with governments to end gas flaring and methane emissions as part of the global journey to a low-carbon future. It's also about not wasting a valuable natural resource that could help accelerate economic development and improve energy access. We help governments identify the technical, regulatory, and financial solutions to finally ending gas flaring and venting.

The World Bank's GGFR is also a supporting organization for the Methane Guiding Principles initiative, a coalition of industry, multilateral institutions, non-governmental organizations, and academia working together to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sector.

GGFR and partners in the Methane Guiding Principles initiative have published a Methane Flaring Toolkit, which provides helpful important information and guidance on the technologies and solutions to reduce methane emissions from flaring.

We continue to encourage all industry operators and governments to commit to the World Bank’s Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 (ZRF) initiative, with a goal to establish a de facto industry standard and end the 160-year-old practice. We have also published several other helpful tools to support flaring and venting reduction, including our comprehensive review of Global Flaring and Venting Regulations, Financing Solutions to Reduce Natural Gas Flaring and Methane Emissions, and, in partnership with IPIECA and IOGP, the Flaring Management Guidance for the O&G Industry.

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Methane Reduction Resources


  • External Affairs
    Adam Pollard
  • Program Assistant
    Gloria Whitaker