As pollution and green energy gain more attention from today’s environmentally conscious public, efforts to further reduce gas flaring should be strengthened, as they will bring significant long-term dividends for the international community. 

Although some flaring reduction has occurred in recent years, petroleum companies across the world still burn off a colossal 140 billion cubic meters of byproduct gas a year — enough to more than meet Africa’s entire electricity needs.

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Policymakers and industry can — and must — do better.

Until the past decade or so, most oil and gas producers routinely practiced gas flaring, preferring to burn off the natural gas that rose to the surface during production rather than capture it. To a large extent, this approach was driven by the lack of cost-competitive alternative options to flaring, as the price for equipment capable of capturing and distributing byproduct gas was considerably higher than flaring.

Given flaring’s relative low cost and convenience, many producers neglected to look for alternatives, choosing to focus on exploiting vast underground pools of gas rather than capturing oil-byproduct gas. 

This has been the case in some of the world’s largest oil- and gas-producing countries, which have also been among the biggest gas flaring nations thus far.

Recognizing the significance and impact of gas flaring on the global economy and environment, the World Bank began issuing periodic progress reports on flaring since it launched its anti-flaring initiative in 2001. 

As such initiatives raised awareness of flaring, a growing number of countries began to realize that reducing flaring could offer important dividends. Firms and policymakers, however, had to progressively employ careful strategic planning and vision instead of focusing on the immediate cost burdens presented by methods of capturing byproduct gas. 

The United States, Russia and Nigeria — traditionally among the world’s largest gas flaring countries — led the charge in these efforts, as they have reduced their flaring activities by enforcing limits and environmentally friendly policies. Yet, despite their efforts, flaring still accounts for billions in lost revenues for the industry and continues to harm our environment. 

As we move forward to a cleaner, more environmentally sustainable world, more investments and regulations will be needed from these countries and others to truly tackle this issue. 

From a policy and regulatory perspective, producers can create the frameworks required to reduce flaring by joining the efforts of the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Public-Private Partnership, which Azerbaijan and SOCAR joined alongside other governments and companies to better identify solutions to eliminate flaring from the energy industry by 2030.

The global oil and gas industry has widely recognized the importance of mitigating the negative effects of ecological and climate change, and has integrated environmental protection into the international agenda as a matter of priority. 

Azerbaijan, as an oil-producing country, has undertaken bold actions in this regard, achieving significant results over the past several years. 

Regardless of how we look at it, anti-flaring investments should have a long-term structural style, similar to Azerbaijan’s gas-flaring-reduction program. 

The program is part of a 24-year-old, multi-billion-dollar government and SOCAR joint effort to reduce petroleum-company pollution and clean up already polluted soil and water.

As a practical example, SOCAR and its international partners cooperated to decrease the ratio of flared gas equivalent to 1.7 percent in 2013 and 1.6 percent in 2014, respectively. The captured flare gas was eventually channeled into the transportation network and delivered to end consumers.  

Before Azerbaijan began its anti-flaring program in 2008, byproduct gas accounted for 20 percent of all the gas produced by its national petroleum enterprise — the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, or SOCAR. 

Between 2008, the year SOCAR began its anti-flaring efforts, and 2010, the company cut the amount of gas it was flaring by 45 percent. The 2008 figure was 494 million cubic meters, the 2010 figure 276 million.

The flaring reduction also eliminated 396,000 tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions a year.

But just as the World Bank estimated in 2012, Azerbaijan’s investments and byproduct-gas recovery plan “will put 1.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas to productive use” by 2017, creating considerable additional sources of gas revenues.

Given my direct responsibility and involvement in addressing environmental issues, I must note the crucial contributions of our strong and trusted global energy partners, without whom such results would have been impossible.  

SOCAR has also joined the World Bank’s initiative “Zero Routine Flaring 2030” in conjunction with other major oil companies and was the fifth company to sign up.

Transitioning into cleaner and more efficient energy production is not an easy step. Large energy consumer markets like the United States and China continue to face complications in maintaining clean, yet profitable domestic production markets, for instance. 

This often means that investments in broader environmental technology are sidelined to make way for short-term economic gains. It is certainly understandable, and in an industry no short of uncertainties like oil and gas, both these countries face the challenge of finding more advantageous and secure domestic alternatives to fossil-fuel imports from foreign partners.

But anti-flaring initiatives offer a rather unique value proposition for producers. Just as in Azerbaijan, they can lead to substantial business gains for the industry and the country — while at the same time protect the environment and the public’s health.

Flaring generates 300 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, plus tons of other pollutants.

Bringing flaring down to zero in the coming years would be good news for all. 

The global economy will gain billions in additional unused energy assets, while our environment will keep breathing the way it is intended to.

Huseynzade is the vice president of ecology at SOCAR, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic.