Russia’s Effort to Limit Pollution Is Going Up in Smoke

The nation is wasting $3.6 billion a year by burning off unsellable fossil fuels at the wellhead. Constrained by international sanctions and entering its first recession in six years, Russia is unable to invest enough to stop the practice known as flaring.

The result is that the nation’s oil industry leads the world in flaring natural gas — setting alight supplies where they are produced because it’s not profitable bring them to market. While those volumes have been dropping substantially since 2009, Russia’s waste is more than double the next biggest offender. And it runs counter to a United Nations effort to reach a landmark deal on fossil fuel emissions this year.

“It’s hard to imagine there are sufficient resources available to commit full steam to realizing these targets at this time,” Emily Stromquist, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, said of the effort to eradicate flaring.

The UN discussions involving more than 190 nations lurched forward on Tuesday when China became the largest developing nation to make a pledge for reducing greenhouse gases and Brazil announced measures to protect its forests. That’s added to pressure on others to act.

Pollution Plan

Russia’s proposal for the UN climate talks in March outlined an emissions cut of much as 25 percent by 2030 when compared with 1990 levels, roughly the same reduction as it previously promised for 2020.

That would lead to a 30 percent increase in pollution levels when compared with 2012, according to Climate Action Tracker, a group of four researchers analyzing individual national targets that branded Russia’s plan “inadequate.”

The Russian government, a signatory to previous climate deals including the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol, recognizes flaring as damaging and is working to stop it.

“In addition to being a waste of a finite natural resource, flaring of produced gas releases harmful substances into the atmosphere, which change the composition of the atmosphere every year,” Kirill Molodtsov, Russian deputy energy minister, said on April 17 on the World Bank website.

Russia’s View

Flaring fell 17.5 percent last year and will decline 11.5 percent this year, the senior energy minister Sergei Donskoi said. At the same time, there’s no plan to increase fines against flaring, since company balance sheets are under pressure from oil’s drop.

“While some oil companies cut investments in general at the beginning of the year, the economic situation is better now,” Donskoi said by e-mail on June 23.

The predicament is that Russia, whose main export earnings come from oil, can’t afford to cut back on flaring at the moment. The gas that’s being burned off comes up with oil produced for export. Options such as erecting a gas pipeline to markets, building power plants to use the gas or re-injecting it at the wellhead all require greater funding.

OAO Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer, cut flaring volumes more than 11 percent last year as it developed its domestic gas business. Even so, the company projects it will take another three years for another 8 percent reduction.

Companies Involved

Some of world’s biggest oil producers led by BP Plc, Statoil ASA, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Total SA have joined the Russian government in a World Bank initiative to end routine flaring by 2030. Other Western companies working in Russia including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. haven’t signed that pledge.

“If we can stop the routine gas flaring in our industry this alone can cut 300 million tons of CO2 emissions,” Statoil Chief Executive Officer Eldar Saetre said on May 20 in Paris.

Getting emissions under control would be difficult without dealing with flaring, which contributes as much as 10 percent of Russia’s carbon pollution, according to the environmental group WWF.

“This type of gas can indeed be useful, Alexander Kornilov, an oil and gas analyst at Alfa Bank, said by e-mail. ‘‘The companies need to minimize burning this gas off.’’