Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), with a global warming potential (GWP) around 25 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 second only to carbon dioxide in its contribution to climate change.
While methane has a significantly higher GWP than carbon dioxide, it also has a shorter atmospheric lifetime, and so after about 12 years, the methane in the atmosphere breaks down into GHGs with a lower GWP. In contrast, carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for over a century.
As a result, the rapid reduction of methane emissions is:
one of the most effective ways to quickly slow the rate of climate change,
critical to global efforts to limit global warming to within 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels; and
probably the single most important climate action we can undertake in the short-term.
How does oil and gas production contribute to methane emissions?
The global energy sector accounted for approximately 40% of methane emissions in 2021, with the oil and gas industry representing over 60% of the emissions from the energy sector, and industry estimates suggest that methane emissions from fossil fuels have been increasing in recent years.
The oil and gas industry is a significant source of methane emissions globally. In fact, methane emissions from venting, leakage, and flaring in the oil and gas sector are currently estimated to be responsible for roughly 25% of global anthropogenic methane emissions. Oil and gas operations release methane into the atmosphere through the wasteful practices of intentional flaring and venting, as well as through the unintentional release of fugitive methane emissions.
Methane from fugitive emissions
During the production and transportation of natural gas (associated or non-associated gas), leaks and unintentional releases result in methane escaping into the atmosphere. While gas composition varies, natural gas typically comprises about 80-95 percent methane, with the remaining comprising heavier hydrocarbons like ethane, propane, and butane.
In recent years the scale of these fugitive emissions has become apparent, with advances in methane detection technology allowing previously undetected leaks to be identified. These leaks, typically resulting from poor maintenance and broken equipment, can release enormous amounts of methane and are often labeled “super-emitters.”
Methane from flaring
Flares are a direct source of methane emissions, as flares do not completely combust all the hydrocarbons in the gas stream, but by how much is not well understood.
Typically, greenhouse gas (GHG) estimates of gas flaring emissions are based on two core assumptions:
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
that flares are lit and operating properly 100% of the time.
These assumptions, used widely for decades across the oil and gas industry, have formed the foundation of estimates of GHG emissions from flaring, and using them 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 uncombusted methane.
However, until recently, neither of these assumptions had been rigorously tested in real-world operational environments. GFMR has developed an interactive toolkit to help demonstrate the likely GHG emissions from flaring across a range of circumstances.
The 98% value for flare destruction efficiency is attributed to controlled studies conducted on behalf of the United States EPA as far back as the 1980s. To date, flare destruction efficiency has not been widely field-tested because direct measurement in realworld 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 paper was published in Science detailing the findings of a field campaign in the United States to measure flare destruction efficiency. The study found an average destruction efficiency of 95.2% facilities in the Permian, Eagle Ford, and Bakken basins, considerably lower than the default 98% commonly used.
Methane from venting
Venting sometimes occurs as a result of faulty flaring equipment and unlit flares. However, in the absence of flaring equipment or the infrastructure to bring the gas to market, some operators choose to deliberately and routinely vent gas. Given the high methane content of associated gas and methane’s high GWP, venting is a particularly polluting industry practice that can be easily and cost-effectively addressed with existing technologies.
In another study, researchers found that 3.2% of the flares assessed in the Bakken were operating unlit, i.e., 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 flare 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 the Permian, Eagle Ford, and Bakken actually operate with an ‘effective’ destruction efficiency of 91.1%. If these findings are widespread across the US, let alone world, the true scale of the contribution of gas flaring to methane emissions could be hugely underestimated.
While oil and gas operations are a significant source of methane and carbon dioxide emissions globally, the industry is also well placed to quickly respond to and address emissions through flaring and venting reduction and tackling fugitive methane emissions.
How can we reduce the amount of methane emitted?
Taking quick and decisive action on methane from oil and gas operations could avoid as much as 0.1 degrees C of warming by mid-century—equivalent to zeroing out the emissions of every car and truck in the world. Cutting methane emissions is low-hanging fruit in tackling climate change. It is vital to aligning the global energy sector with a global 1.5˚C warming trajectory.
Tackling fugitive methane emissions and unlit flares (venting) requires the development of new technologies capable of not only detecting methane but of accurately measuring these emissions. The accuracy of detection and measurement technologies has increased dramatically over the last few years. Still, effective leak detection and repair (LDAR) often requires using several complementary approaches, from satellites and aerial surveillance down to on-the-ground teams operating handheld devices.
In addition, flare elimination efforts also support methane 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, and 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.
At any given time, flares may be:
lit and operating effectively;
lit and operating ineffectively, with incomplete
combustion of methane;
unlit and active, venting methane directly to the
unlit and inactive, with no associated emissions.
Research has revealed that 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:
Ensure flares are always lit and have automatic systems to re-ignite if they should go out.
Ensure flares are operating effectively and optimize flare destruction efficiency.
Reduce and ultimately eliminate the gas going to the flare, which should be the end goal.
What is being done about methane emissions from oil and gas operations?
Cutting methane from oil and gas production is low-hanging fruit in tackling climate change, and critical to aligning the global energy sector with a global 1.5˚C warming trajectory, as agreed in the Global Methane Pledge launched at COP26.
Despite this, methane abatement solutions are underfunded, considering their climate change mitigation potential, and low- and middle-income oil-producing countries need technical and financial support to implement methane 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 continues unabated in many countries, despite available technology.
For the last two decades the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring reduction Partnership (GGFR) provided technical advice and support to help developing countries end routine gas flaring, which is a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions. Launched at COP28 in December 2023, the GFMR Partnership builds on this legacy and has expanded the World Bank’s efforts to decarbonize the global energy system by also helping reduce the methane emissions associated with oil and gas production.
GFMR works with developing countries to end gas flaring and methane emissions as part of their journey to a low-carbon future, and supports their efforts to avoid wasting a valuable natural resource that could help accelerate economic development and improve energy access. By 2030, this new fund will disburse more than $250 million to support methane mitigation efforts and expects to leverage billions more in public and private sector finance.
We advise governments and operators on the technical solutions and regulations which will contribute to finally ending gas flaring and venting. This includes providing technical assistance, enabling policy and regulatory reform, institutional strengthening, and mobilizing financing to support action by governments and operators.
GFMR applies clear eligibility criteria so that support to developing countries drives long term emissions reduction projects and initiatives. For example, access to project development and financing support through GFMR will be subject to a commitment to
measure and report emissions through the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 framework,
achieve near-zero absolute methane emissions by 2030 by reducing methane intensity to below 0.2%, and
achieve zero routine flaring by 2030.
The World Bank and GFMR are also supporting organizations for the Methane Guiding Principles, a coalition of industry, multilateral institutions, non-governmental organizations, and academia working together to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sector.
On effective flare operation, GFMR and partners in the Methane Guiding Principles initiative recently published a Methane Flaring Toolkit, which seeks to provide important technologies and solutions to reduce methane emissions from flaring.
We continue to encourage all operators and governments to commit to the World Bank’s Zero Routine Flaring (ZRF) initiative, which aims to end the 160-year-old industry practice. We have also published several important knowledge products 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.
Gas flaring is the burning of the natural gas associated with oil extraction. The practice has persisted since the beginning of oil production over 160 years ago. It takes place due to a range of issues.
For Faith Nwadishi and her community in Nigeria, gas flaring negatively impacts their fundamental way of life. She tells us why this oil and gas industry practice must end as soon as possible. #EndRoutineFlaring
This guidance, developed with Ipieca and IOGP, outlines new flaring management and reduction developments, and examines industry experiences with eliminating flaring, new technologies, business models, operational improvements, and regulatory policy.
The World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Tracker is the only global and independent indicator of routine gas flaring. The estimates allow us to monitor global flaring levels and track progress toward our goal of Zero Routine Flaring by 2030.
GFMR’s global regulatory review provides a systematic analysis of regulatory frameworks governing the flaring and venting of gas in 21 oil-producing countries. The framework for comparing regulations described in this report will help regulators and policymakers reach the goal of Zero Routine Flaring by 2030.