A night time satellite image of the United States shows a few concentrations of glowing lights, but not in the places you’d expect. The brightest spots aren’t the big cities but are instead clustered over North Dakota, west Texas and eastern New Mexico. That’s because this infrared photo, produced by the nonprofit SkyTruth, captures not the lights of urban centers but heat from oilfields burning, or flaring, natural gas in 40-foot-tall stacks. It’s also capturing a big problem. Satellite-detected natural gas flaring on August 12, 2020. Map by Skytruth The United States is fourth in the world in the volume of gas flared, following only Russia, Iraq and Iran. There are a number of reasons why drillers flare gas. “The most benign reason for flaring is safety,” says Gunnar Schade , an associate professor in atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M. Flaring releases pressure so that highly combustible materials don’t explode as wells are being drilled and prepared for production. Sometimes gas is also vented, without combustion, directly into that atmosphere. “But that’s actually the exception in the oil and gas field,” he says. “The bulk is routine flaring.” And “routine flaring” isn’t done for safety; it’s done solely to […]

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