Itty Bitty Carbon Footprint: The Easy Part

The next time some grumpy (and uninformed) curmudgeon tells you that the only way for the world to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases is to drink warm beer (give up refrigeration), freeze in the dark (take electricity and heat conservation to an extreme) and drive dangerous little tin cans (have vehicles meet fuel-economy standards not through smart engineering but by downsizing cars), offer them two words: gas flaring.

When petroleum is pumped out of the ground, some natural gas comes with it. Typically, it’s burned at the wellhead, a process called gas flaring. Countries report how much flaring goes on within their borders, but the World Bank, taking a cue from Ronald Reagan, has gone the “trust but verify” route: it asked the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to use the military weather satellites at its disposal to peer down at oil wells from 400 miles up in space to measure who is really burning how much. Two more words: Russia lies.

According to the imagery, some countries are burning more gas than they admitted to. Russia, for instance, copped to 14.9 billion cubic meters in 2004; the satellite imagery measured 50.7. That makes Russia number one, replacing Nigeria for that dubious honor. China, Oman, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia hadn’t even made the top-20 based on their own reports; the satellites say otherwise. On the other hand, Venezuela reported 5.4 billion cubic meters, but actually flared just 2.1 billion. What, Hugo Chavez thought a big flare number makes him seem more macho?

Worldwide, gas flaring is sending into the atmosphere the greenhouse-warming equivalent of 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. That’s more than one-third of the 1,197 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from every home in the U.S. last year, according to the Energy Information Administration, and more than one-fifth of the 1,965 million metric tons from all the trucks, planes, SUVs and every other vehicle in the U.S. that year.

And it’s all wasted: flaring natural gas makes the stuff go up in smoke, literally. Looked at from the point of view of sheer waste, the 168 billion cubic meters of flared gas equals 27 percent of all the natural gas used in the U.S. last year, with a market value of $40 billion. As the World Bank says, “Capture and use of the flared gas is an obvious candidate in efforts to reduce global carbon emissions. It is a so called low-hanging fruit relative to other carbon emissions reductions.” Are we still going to claim that cutting carbon emissions means unacceptable sacrifices in how we live?