By Jennifer Huang | World Power II: Environment
When 19th century entrepreneurs began drilling and refining oil, natural gas was an unwelcome byproduct.
The fledgling industry lacked the pipeline technology now used to capture and transport the volatile fuel released when oil is extracted from the ground. Instead, gas was simply burned off -- a process known as flaring.
Today the natural gas industry is worldwide, netting billions of dollars each year. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that demand for natural gas will double by 2020. Yet gas flaring continues in epic quantities and at a huge economic and environmental cost.
Between 100 and 135 billion cubic meters of gas are burned globally each year -- more than the annual demand of France and Germany combined. Flaring also produces toxic emissions and the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. In the 1990s flared gas released an average of 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
"What we're talking about here ... is called associated gas, which means that it's gas that's associated with oil production," said Philip Swanson, an economist and flaring consultant for the World Bank. "The oil when you find it in the ground is generally under pressure. It's a bit like opening a can of Coke, or bottled water. There's all this fizz that comes out of the liquid when the pressure is released."
Associated gas is unpredictable and difficult to collect, he said, requiring huge investments in infrastructure that oil companies don't find profitable.
Conflicts over flaring have arisen across the globe, with disputes in Africa and North America revealing the depth of the problem.
In Nigeria, gas flaring illuminates the countryside around rural villages with no electricity. The practice provokes health complaints and ill will towards an industry that insists it is not profitable to capture that gas and deliver it to the country's citizens -- or anywhere else in the world.
In Alberta, Canada, oil and natural gas brought $10.6 billion (Canadian) to the province's coffers in 2000/2001, and provide Canadians with a stable domestic energy source. But residents near the oil wells struggle with severe health problems associated with drilling and flaring, and say that the government there is unwilling to address the problem.