When many hear the term “flare,” the first thing that comes to mind is the misguided pant style of their youth. Also known as bell-bottoms, flared trousers, which become wider from the knees downward, were very fashionable for men and women from the 1960s through to early 1980s. John Travolta wore them. So did Farrah Fawcett.
Energy companies and regulators are working hard to put flares out of fashion. Photo credit: iStockphoto
To those familiar with energy production, however, the term flare is probably memorable for different reasons. Anybody who has worked at or toured a natural gas processing plant, oil refinery or oil sands site (or has been close to an energy facility) will probably tell you that there is nothing quite as unsettling as seeing open flames spewing out of tall stacks.
While it might seem like Dante’s inferno, what’s actually being observed is the burning of excess hydrocarbons in a controlled manner through a process called flaring. Flaring is a necessary and important practice at any energy facility to manage the gases that accumulate as hydrocarbon feedstocks are transformed into other useful forms of energy.
There are safety and environmental reasons for flaring. Operators like Suncor deliberately flare to safely let go of excess gases when they start up or shut down equipment or in emergency situations. Essentially, flaring is used to safely de-pressurize a process unit, reducing the risk of explosion.
Flaring is also done to reduce the toxicity of gases by converting hydrogen sulphide (often found in sour gas with a smell like rotten eggs) into less harmful substances like sulphur dioxide. It can also be used to convert hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide, which has less impact on the atmosphere.
Like other aspects of energy production, flaring is tightly regulated. In Alberta, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) oversees companies which flare (and vent, which is done to deliberately release excess gases into the atmosphere without burning them). The ERCB ensures flaring is controlled and monitored.
Since 1999, the ERCB has mandated oil and gas producers to reduce the amount of gas being flared. Suncor and other companies are addressing the challenge. (For a summary of gas flaring in Alberta over the last 10 years, take a look at the ERCB's Upstream Petroleum Industry Flaring and Venting Report).
New technologies show promise of being able to reduce or even eliminate flaring by using flare gas in production, instead of releasing it into the air. Doing so enables producers to capture the energy value of what would otherwise be wasted. Another innovation involves re-injecting the gas back into an oil reservoir to raise pressure so oil flows to the well more easily.
Perhaps one day energy production flares will join its trouser counterpart as an idea whose time has come and gone. Until then, flaring serves an important purpose in creating the energy we all want and need.