Data indicates that the UAE, as the host of Cop28, is violating its own prohibition on regular gas flaring.
The Guardian has uncovered that despite promising 20 years ago to stop routine flaring, state-owned oil and gas fields in the United Arab Emirates continue to flare gas on a daily basis.
The United Arab Emirates will host the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop28) beginning on November 30. Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the national oil company Adnoc, will lead the global discussions in addressing the pressing issue of the climate crisis.
Flaring is the burning of extracted gas that is not captured and sold, and it has been called “wasteful and polluting” by the World Bank. Flaring occurs when no equipment has been installed to capture it or when gas has to be unexpectedly released for safety reasons. Flaring also allows the escape of some unburned methane gas, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.
The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) provided data to the Guardian indicating that Adnoc LNG flared gas on over 99% of the days tracked by satellite between 2018 and 2022. According to one specialist, this level of flaring is considered routine by standard standards.
A study was conducted on flaring activities in 32 oil and gas fields located in the UAE, with 20 of them being operated by Adnoc. The results revealed that four of these fields had a flaring rate of at least 97% on the days for which data was collected. The measurements were affected by cloudy weather only on one out of every five days.
The World Bank has a goal to eliminate all common flaring by the year 2030. While neighboring countries and companies, such as Bahrain and Saudi Aramco, are involved, the UAE and Adnoc are not members.
The Adnoc spokesperson disputed the accuracy of the data, citing that satellite images cannot differentiate between intentional flaring and normal operational use of a pilot flame. However, experts have cast doubt on this explanation, as the frequent flame detections are unlikely to be solely caused by pilot flames. When asked for data regarding their use of pilot flames, Adnoc did not provide a response.
Dr. Paul Balcombe from Queen Mary University of London, who was not involved in creating the Crea data, stated that pilot flames are not typically visible from space. He explained that for a pilot flame to be seen, it would have to be very large, which would contribute to unnecessary emissions.
For safety purposes, all fields will contain pilot flames and the majority of UAE fields do not exhibit daily flaring.
Balcombe stated that the flaring of gas has a significant effect, accounting for approximately 1-2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. However, he also noted that the majority of this impact can be prevented. He believes that with current technology, we have the ability to greatly reduce flaring and virtually eliminate non-emergency flaring at a reasonable cost. On a positive note, advancements in satellite technology have improved our ability to monitor flaring and methane emissions, making it easier to hold companies responsible for their actions.
Hubert Thieriot from Crea, the producer of the flaring data, emphasized the importance of the UAE reinforcing and honoring its commitments in order to fulfill its role as a leader in reducing flaring, especially as they are set to host Cop28.
According to Pascoe Sabido, who is a co-coordinator for the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition and also works for Corporate Europe Observatory, the recent data reveals the lack of significance in voluntary and self-reported commitments made by oil and gas companies. This highlights the industry’s lack of reliability as a partner in the process of eliminating fossil fuels. Therefore, they should not have a role in the climate talks, especially not as the chair.
According to Adnoc’s “minimising flaring” webpage, the company implemented a zero routine gas flaring policy in the early 2000s. This was seen as a significant achievement in their efforts to eliminate flaring. However, the webpage has not been updated since July or August and the claim was also mentioned in a 2022 press release. Earlier this year, Al Jaber stated that Adnoc was a pioneer in implementing a zero routine flaring policy.
Some of the UAE fields with frequent flaring are run by another state-owned company, Dubai Petroleum, which says it is committed to an aim to “minimise flaring”. Flaring usually burns gas released while drilling primarily for oil. It can also occur at LNG plants, which compress gas into a liquid for export.
Data indicates that flaring occurred on the majority of days between 2018 and 2022 at Adnoc’s LNG and Umm Al Dalkh fields, as well as Dubai Petroleum’s Rashid and Fateh fields. Flaring was observed on over half of the days at three specific locations: Adnoc’s Al Dabbiya and Al Nouf fields, which are in close proximity, and Adnoc’s Bu Hasa field and Dubai Petroleum’s Fateh South West field. These seven sites were among the highest ranking fields in terms of gas flared.
In 2023, satellite data from 12 October indicates a decrease in the occurrence of flaring. The locations that were previously flaring on 97% of days have now reduced to flaring on 65-75% of days. The remaining three fields began to experience a decline in flaring frequency in 2020 or 2022.
A representative from Adnoc stated that their policy of zero routine flaring, which has been in place for over 20 years, is solely aimed at eliminating routine flaring. Non-routine and safety flares are necessary for maintaining facility integrity, ensuring safe operations, and preventing uncontrolled emergencies. Adnoc is dedicated to continuously improving their flaring practices by updating their older facilities and implementing advanced technologies.
According to the World Bank, routine flaring occurs when gas produced during oil production cannot be re-injected, used on site, or sold due to a lack of necessary facilities or suitable geology.
According to two experts in flaring, the current definition is deemed as highly inadequate and unclear. One of the experts, who wishes to remain anonymous, stated that despite the UAE’s denial of routine flaring, the data proves otherwise. Using standard criteria, it can be classified as routine flaring.
The other specialist stated, “A company can essentially use whatever method they were already using and claim it falls under the definition. This is absurd.”
According to Zubin Bamji from the World Bank, using satellite data allows us to accurately determine the activity of over 10,000 flares globally. However, it is usually only the operator or regulator on site who can determine if the flaring is routine, non-routine, or related to safety. The European Commission also follows this definition for routine flaring.
In terms of flaring, the UAE ranks 27th on the World Bank’s list of countries that produce fossil fuels. This shows that the country has relatively low levels of flaring. From 2018 to 2022, there has been no significant change in annual flare gas volumes in the UAE, according to World Bank data.
According to Mark Davis, who works at Capterio, a company that recovers flare gas, it is great to see the significant improvements the UAE has made in reducing flaring. In the 1970s, the country flared 15 billion cubic metres of gas, but now it has reduced it to 1 billion. However, there are still many chances for the UAE to further reduce flaring and enhance their operational performance.
From 2018 to 2023, Adnoc LNG in the UAE released the highest amount of gas through flaring, resulting in approximately 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. In 2022, Adnoc announced its goal to nearly double its LNG export capacity. In August, it was revealed by The Guardian that the UAE had neglected to report its methane emissions to the UN for nearly ten years.
Hosting the Cop28 climate summit has focused attention on the country’s environmental performance. Al Jaber recently told the 196 countries attending Cop28 that “the phasing down [of] demand for and supply of all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential”. The Cop28 office and Dubai Petroleum did not respond to requests for comment on the flaring data.
Researchers have made it evident that the utilization of fresh oil and gas fields is not feasible in order to limit global warming to the 1.5C goal, and that a majority of current resources must remain untapped. According to new data released on Wednesday, the UAE holds the largest plans for expanding net-zero emissions, surpassing all other companies worldwide. In June, The Guardian uncovered that emails from the Cop28 office were sent through Adnoc servers, making them accessible to the company until The Guardian brought attention to the matter.
The Crea data was created using data that was collected by the visual and infrared radiometer suite of instruments on the Suomi NPP satellite. The instruments are able to detect areas of high heat, such as flares.
The flare gas volumes were calculated using a published method, which is utilized in World Bank analyses. The findings were compared with the World Bank’s annual data on flare volumes and showed a high level of consistency.