• Unreported gas flaring endangering public health in Gulf, claims BBC

Industrial Emissions

Unreported gas flaring endangering public health in Gulf, claims BBC

Nov 28 2023

In a revealing investigation, the BBC has brought to light a critical environmental and public health issue in the Gulf region – illegal and unreported gas flaring by major oil companies. This practice, involving the burning of excess natural gas during oil extraction, emits harmful pollutants, posing grave risks to both the environment and human health. The revelations come at a critical time as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) prepares to host the UN's COP28 climate summit, drawing attention to the stark contrast between environmental commitments and ongoing harmful practices.  

Gas flaring is a common practice in oil extraction, where excess natural gas is burned off. It's considered wasteful and environmentally harmful, releasing a cocktail of carbon dioxide, methane, and black soot into the atmosphere. Not only does this contribute to global warming, but it also leads to air pollution with serious health implications. 

Investigations have identified millions of tons of undeclared emissions from gas flaring in oil fields operated by giants like BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell. These emissions significantly contribute to greenhouse gas levels, yet often go unreported due to loopholes and lax regulations in reporting standards. These practices are particularly prevalent in Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait, but they can be seen in the UAE, too, with the pollution spreading across the Gulf, impacting air quality over vast distances. 

The human cost of gas flaring is alarming. Communities near flaring sites, particularly in Iraq, show increased incidence of cancer, particularly childhood leukemia. The burning of natural gas releases carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and naphthalene, leading to elevated levels of these toxins in nearby populations. In Basra, Iraq, for instance, cancer cases have risen sharply, with a direct correlation to air pollution from gas flaring.  

This issue gains additional significance in the light of the upcoming COP28 in the UAE. While the UAE banned routine flaring two decades ago, satellite images and data analysis reveal continued flaring activities. These findings highlight a disconnect between the public environmental commitments of Gulf nations and their actual practices on the ground.  

Oil companies, when confronted with these findings, often point to industry-standard reporting methods, which only account for emissions from sites they directly operate. This loophole means emissions from non-operated sites go unreported, creating a significant blind spot in environmental accountability. The World Bank's pledge to end routine flaring by 2030, which many of these companies have committed to, is thus undermined by these practices.  

The issue of gas flaring is mired in complex legal and regulatory frameworks. In many cases, the responsibility for declaring emissions is passed between the primary contractors and the operators, leading to a lack of accountability. While some countries like Norway have successfully regulated gas flaring, others in the Gulf region lag behind, often due to the intertwined interests of national oil companies and government policies. 

Capturing and utilizing the gas that is currently flared could offer significant environmental and economic benefits. However, the initial investment required for this transition is substantial. The World Bank estimates the global cost for ending routine flaring could reach $100 billion, though the potential annual revenue from captured gas could be around $16 billion. 

The challenge ahead is to reconcile economic interests with environmental and health imperatives. Countries in the Gulf region, particularly the UAE as the host of COP28, face increasing pressure to align their practices with their environmental commitments. The issue of gas flaring serves as a litmus test for these nations' dedication to genuine climate action. 

As the eyes of the world turn to the UAE for COP28, the Gulf's struggle with illegal gas flaring underscores a broader challenge facing many oil-producing nations. Balancing economic benefits with environmental responsibilities is not just a regional issue but a global concern. The health implications for local communities and the broader impact on climate change demand urgent attention and action. The success of COP28 and future climate initiatives hinges on bridging the gap between policy and practice, ensuring that environmental commitments translate into tangible actions on the ground.  

For further investigation of this issue and other similar challenges in the Gulf region, consider CEM Middle East, a dedicated conference and exhibition on emissions monitoring, in 2025.

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