HOUSTON – (February 25, 2022) – Recently published research by environmental engineers at Rice University suggests that flaring of natural gas from oil and gas fields in the United States, primarily in North Dakota and Texas, contributed to dozens of premature deaths in 2019.
According to Daniel Cohan of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and colleagues, who published their findings in the journal Atmosphere, satellite observations and computer models may link gas flares to air pollution and health.
Oil and gas producers flare excess gas when the infrastructure to bring it to market is unavailable. Although flaring reduces the direct venting of the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, it also produces black carbon particles, also known as soot. Where particular case. These particles, with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, can impair lung function and cause respiratory diseases, heart disease and strokes.
The Rice team teamed up with researchers from the Clean Air Task Force to produce calculations, based on infrared satellite observations of oil fields where 97% of flaring takes place, showing that the United States emitted nearly 16,000 tons of black carbon in 2019. The researchers used computer-efficient reduced-form models to estimate that 26 to 53 premature deaths were directly attributable to the air quality associated with the eruptions.
“Our research shows that flaring not only wastes valuable fuel, but is also deadly,” said Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, who led the study with first-year graduate student Chen Chen. “Particles cause more deaths than all other air pollutants combined, and flares are a significant source.”
Flares are not the only source of particles in the atmosphere. Particles are also produced whenever fossil fuels are burned, including by vehicles, and from forest fires, cooking meat and other sources.
The researchers’ models took into account that the heat content of the burning fuel varies greatly from one oil field to another and has a strong impact on black carbon emissions.
“For this study, we used 10 different emission factors for flares, and using the reduced-form models made the calculations lightning-fast,” Chen said. “Other studies show a good relationship between full and reduced form models, so we are confident in our results.”
Cohan said black carbon emissions also contribute to climate change by absorbing solar radiation in the atmosphere, influencing cloud formation and accelerating the melting of snow and ice, although all of these consequences go beyond the framework of their study.
The researchers noted that there are cost-effective technological alternatives to flaring, including gas gathering pipelines, small-scale gas utilization and re-injection of excess into the ground. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering regulations to reduce both methane emissions and associated gas flaring, there are currently no federal limits on the widespread practice of flaring, they wrote.
“We didn’t initially think of publishing a peer-reviewed article,” Chen said. “The Air Quality Task Force asked us to estimate these health impacts to support their advocacy for reducing harmful pollution from oil and gas production. But because it clearly shows dozens of deaths per year from flaring, we thought a paper would provide regulators with new angles to consider in their efforts to minimize the impacts of air pollution from oil and gas. .
Co-authors are senior scientist David McCabe and senior analyst Lesley Fleischman of the Clean Air Task Force.
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Rice University engineers show that natural gas flaring at well sites in the United States, primarily in North Dakota and Texas, contributed to dozens of premature deaths in 2019. (Credit: 123rf)
Located on a 300-acre wooded campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the top 20 universities in the nation by US News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of architecture, business, continuing studies, engineering, humanities, music, natural sciences, and social sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 4,052 undergraduate students and 3,484 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6 to 1. Its residential college system creates close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, one reason for which Rice is ranked #1 for many race/class interactions and #1 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also ranked as the best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.