Cygnus field in the UK North Sea (for illustration purposes); Source: Neptune Energy

Pushing for cleaner oil & gas production pays off, as UK North Sea flaring gets halved

UK’s regulator North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) has been putting new measures in place to bring down the waste of gas and make the United Kingdom’s oil and gas production cleaner. These efforts seem to be bearing fruit, allowing the UK to reap rewards, as the North Sea flaring has been cut in half, following four consecutive years of reductions.

Cygnus field in the UK North Sea (for illustration purposes); Source: Neptune Energy

According to a new analysis, offshore flaring fell by 13 per cent in 2022 to 22 billion cubic feet (bcf) of gas, contributing to a total decrease of 50 per cent since 2018, when volumes totalled 44 bcf. This was driven by tough measures to make UK oil and gas production cleaner, says the NSTA while adding that last year’s reduction was equivalent to the gas demand of 80,000 UK homes, representing a boost for the UK’s energy security and net-zero ambitions.

Hedvig Ljungerud, NSTA Director of Strategy, commented: “It is hugely encouraging to see North Sea flaring cut in half in just four years, something the NSTA has made a priority, and which supports both the UK’s energy security and net-zero ambition. Industry also deserves credit for making this progress.”

As about a fifth of emissions from the North Sea oil and gas production activities come from flaring, the UK regulator explains that some flaring is unavoidable for safety and operational reasons. However, the North Sea Transition Authority claims that more can be done to prevent the waste of gas needed to heat and power homes and businesses.

In line with this, the NSTA started benchmarking flaring performance in 2020 and the following year issued tougher guidance, stating all new developments should have no routine flaring and venting, with zero routine flaring across all North Sea platforms, whether new or existing, by 2030 at the latest.

Aside from tracking, monitoring and reporting performance, the regulator scrutinises operators’ applications for flaring consents, pushes back against requests to increase flaring and has ordered operators to temporarily restrict production to stay within agreed limits. In addition, the NSTA has used sanction powers for consent breaches, with £215,000 worth of fines issued in late 2022.

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While the offshore flaring intensity – the amount of gas flared per unit of oil produced – decreased from 90 cubic feet of gas per barrel (scf/bbl) in 2021 to 84 scf/bbl in 2022, a 12-year low, flaring at onshore terminals totalled 2 bcf in 2022, down by 7 per cent compared to 2021, and 44 per cent lower than in 2018.

Furthermore, the UK regulator has been working with the oil and gas industry on initiatives to support the UK government’s net-zero 2050 target since its revised strategy came into force in February 2021. The commitment to cleaner operations was shown in the North Sea Transition Deal, which pledged to halve overall production emissions by 2030.

Even though the oil and gas industry was making progress on emission reduction targets, the NSTA said in September 2022 that more action would be required to halve emissions by 2030, as agreed in the North Sea Transition Deal.

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The UK regulator points out that operators have made substantial investments in equipment designed to minimise flaring, namely flare gas recovery units, each estimated to save up to 22 tonnes of flared gas per day. Another contribution to the drop in flaring over the recent years came from production operations coming to an end on older platforms with higher emissions, though last year’s reduction in flaring was still against a backdrop of a 17 per cent rise in gas production. 

Meanwhile, the NSTA underlines that venting – when gas is released without being burned – went up by 5 per cent to 2.9 bcf in 2022, having been at particularly low levels in mid-2021 due to prolonged maintenance shutdowns across multiple platforms, timed to coincide with work to upgrade major pipelines. The regulator highlights that venting represents about 0.15 per cent of total UK greenhouse gas emissions and less than 5 per cent of North Sea production emissions.

“The NSTA expects reductions to continue and remains firmly focused on both supporting and challenging industry on emissions, including from flaring and venting,” concluded Ljungerud.