North America’s shale gas boom is now so big that that it is now visible from space. According to a report by the Financial Times, the volume of unwanted excess gas being burnt off is increasing so quickly that shale fields can now be easily identified in night-time satellite photography, leading to concerns about wastage and environmental pollution.
According to data from the World Bank, global gas flaring rose by around 2 billion cubic meters to 140 billion cubic meters in 2011, mostly due to the rise in shale oil exploration in the United States.
The volume of unwanted gas being flared off in the U.S. has tripled in just five years, the bank said, propelling the U.S. into the ranks of Russia, Nigeria and Iraq – the epitomes of environmental pollution and disruption caused by oil production.
Gas is often present alongside oil in the same reservoirs and is released during oil production. As a result of the low price of natural gas in North America, it is often uneconomic to build pipelines and tanks to handle the gas released and flaring is often the safest and most convenient means of disposal.
Investors managing a total of $500 billion last year wrote to oil companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Statoil and U.S. independents urging them to do more to cut their flaring. They warned that “excessive flaring, because of its impact on air quality and climate change, poses significant risks for the companies involved.”
Estimating that flaring amounts to around 4.5 percent of global industrial emissions, environmental group Greenpeace says current legislation fails to tackle the issue.
Charlie Kronick, senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace, said:
At the same time, despite their massive oil and gas reserves, many top flaring countries suffer from chronic power shortages and stagnating gas export volumes which experts say could be addressed if they used the gas instead of burning it.
"Nigeria loses billions of naira to wasted gas while the nation's power projects are crippled as a result of lack of gas supply," Nigerian pressure group Social Action said.