Opinion: the damaging practice is how Texas oilfields wasted enough gas in 2019 to meet Ireland's entire energy needs for 12 years

Recent satellite images over south-western Texas display flickering lights dancing in the night sky often outshining regional cities like Odessa. These lights are flames from the deliberate burning or flaring of natural gas from thousands of oil wells; an environmentally damaging and wasteful exercise that is on the rise in the US. Enough gas was wasted in this way last year to meet Ireland's entire energy needs for 12 years.

In parts of the US, a lack of pipeline infrastructure and an inadequately regulated industry has contributed to a surge in flaring. Data gathered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation has shown it has increased for the third year in a row.

The problem occurs when companies drill for oil and also find gas or what the industry calls "associated gas". Although a major source of gas supply from oil rich basins in Texas, it cannot be transported by rail or road and needs a network of pipes. When pipeline infrastructure is not available, companies choose to either flare the gas or release it to the atmosphere. Flaring the natural gas is incredibly wasteful and causes local air pollution. A bigger problem arises when the gas is vented or leaked to the atmosphere from wells, rigs or pipes without being flared.

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From NBC News Left Field, a report on the polluting flares from fracking in west Texas oilfields

Natural gas is an unusual fuel because it is mainly composed of methane which is an extremely strong greenhouse gas that traps heat and contributes to global warming.  Depending how it is viewed, methane is between 28 or 85 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

The exact level of methane emissions released by oil and gas operations is contested by the industry and environmental scientists. What is not contested, however, is that this is a big problem that must be addressed. Solutions do exist and work by the International Energy Agency points to measures that would reduce approximately a quarter of these emissions at no net cost to the industry. However, the industry at large, particularly smaller companies, have been slow in dealing with the problem and this is causing considerable reputational damage beyond the US

In Ireland, most of our gas comes from pipeline imports through the UK and is likely sourced in the North Sea or Norwegian Sea, although it is impossible to know exactly what country gas molecules come from. However, proposed plans to build infrastructure in Shannon for liquefied natural gas (LNG) delivered by ships would give Ireland access to US gas and methane emissions from the industry have come under the spotlight here.

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From RTÉ One's Six One News, report on the 10 recommendations on climate change from the RTÉ Youth Assembly

The plans have attracted strong opposition from environmental groups. The RTÉ Climate Youth Assembly called on the Irish government to block the infrastructure and ban the importation of gas from the US. A banning would not reduce emission in Ireland, but would send a signal that it is not wanted.

At a wider level the requirement for the infrastructure in Shannon to import gas is questionable. Our analysis in UCC found that Ireland’s current gas infrastructure is sufficient to meet our needs and is robust to withstand protracted supply interruptions from different countries such as Russia. Brexit has renewed concerns about security of supply and Ireland’s need to diversity gas sources. But maintaining and building better relationships with existing supplier countries rather than building infrastructure is also an option to improve gas security.

Nevertheless, our research does shows that natural gas will be an important part of the energy system in Ireland for the foreseeable future, even under ambitious efforts to move away from fossil fuels. Natural gas power stations provide a backbone to the Irish electricity system when wind generation is not enough to meet demand. It also provides an important source of heating for homes and industry. In the absence of viable long term energy storage, or the ability to affordably capture carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground, the current role of natural gas will remain.

Flaring the natural gas is incredible wasteful and causes local air pollution

The climate strikers in Ireland are correct to hold the industry accountable. Failure by US gas suppliers to deal with methane leaks and excessive flaring risks wider reputational damage and contagion for the gas industry globally. Natural gas is one of the world’s most useful and flexible energy sources and the industry must step up to the mark. Volumes of natural gas from the US are today increasingly shipped to Europe, but the environmental movement is also stepping up its scrutiny of its bad practice. Ireland could be the first country to implement a ban on gas imports from the US, but others may follow if the night skies over Texas continue to be lighted up by flaring. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ