Gas flares linked to air pollution and premature death

March 2, 2022
Gas flares linked to air pollution and premature death

Flaring of excess natural gas occurs when oil/gas producers lack the necessary infrastructures to bring it to market. Flaring reduces the direct venting of the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, but also produces harmful particulate matter known as black particulate matter, or soot.

Recently environmental engineers at Rice University (Rice) in Houston have suggested flaring of natural gas from oil and gas fields in the US contributes to premature death – based on computational models, the Rice team estimated that 26-53 premature deaths in 2019 were directly attributable to air quality associated with gas flares.

According to Associate Professor Daniel Cohan of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and his colleagues, black carbon particles, although smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, can impair lung function and cause respiratory disease, heart disease and strokes. Based on infrared satellite observations of US oil fields where 97% of flaring takes place, nearly 16,000 tonnes of black carbon was emitted in 2019.

“Particulate matter causes more deaths than all other air pollutants combined, and flares are an important source of it,” said Cohan. “Our research shows that flaring not only wastes a valuable fuel but is deadly, too.”

Cohan added thar black carbon emissions – of which flaring has a “strong impact” – contribute to climate change by absorbing solar radiation in the atmosphere, influencing the formation of clouds, and accelerating snow and ice melt, though all of those consequences were beyond the scope of the current Rice study.

The Rice team noted cost-effective technological alternatives to flaring, including gas-gathering pipelines, small-scale gas utilization, and reinjecting excess back into the ground. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering regulations to reduce both methane emissions and associated gas flaring, but there are currently no federal limits to the widespread practice of flaring.

[NOTE: Flares are not the only source of particulate matter in the atmosphere. Particles are also produced whenever fossil fuels are burned, including by vehicles, and by wildfires, cooking meat, and other sources.]

Read: Air pollution exposure may elevate Hispanic babies’ obesity risk

Category: Features, Health alert

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