Satellite images show infrared radiation emitting from the Portovaya gas plant
London — As Europe’s energy costs skyrocket, Russia is burning off large amounts of natural gas, according to an analysis shared with BBC News.
Experts say Russia would previously have exported the gas to Germany. The plant, located near the Finland border, burns an estimated $10m (£8.4m) of gas daily.
Scientists are worried that the large volumes of carbon dioxide and soot created could hasten Arctic ice melt.
It comes from a new liquified natural gas (LNG) plant at Portovaya, northwest of St Petersburg. Finnish citizens at the nearby border were the first to feel something was awry who spotted a giant flame on the horizon earlier this summer.
Portovaya is close to a compressor station at the start of the Nordstream 1 pipeline. It carries gas under the sea to Germany.
Russia stopped supplies through the pipeline in mid-July for technical issues. Germany has called it a purely political move in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But since June, there has been a significant increase in heat emanating from the facility.
Although burning off the gas at processing plants is common for technical or safety reasons – the magnitude of this burn has baffled experts.
Dr. Jessica McCarty says, “I’ve never seen an LNG plant flare so much.” Dr. Jessica McCarty is a satellite data expert from Miami University, Ohio.
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“We saw this huge peak around June, and it wouldn’t go away. It’s stayed very anomalously high.”
Mark Davis, the CEO of a company that solves gas flaring issues, says the flaring is not accidental but more likely a deliberate operational decision.
He told BBC News, “Operators don’t often shut down facilities fearing that they may be technically difficult or costly to start up again. This is probably the case here,” he told BBC News.
Others believe there could be technical challenges in dealing with the large volumes of gas supplied to the Nordstream pipeline.
Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, may have intended the gas to make LNG at the new plant and now has had problems managing it. It could also be due to Europe’s trade embargo on Russia.
“This type of long-term flaring could mean the Russians are missing some equipment,” said Esa Vakkilainen, a professor of energy engineering at LUT University, Finland.
Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, did not respond to requests for comment. Meanwhile, scientists point out that the mounting financial and environmental costs mount each day the flare continues.
With the exact reasons for the giant flare unknown, the emissions and location of the flare are a potent reminder of Russia’s dominance of Europe’s energy needs.
“There can be no clearer sign that Russia could bring energy prices down tomorrow. Russia would otherwise have exported this gas via Nordstream 1 or alternatives.”
Energy prices saw a sharp rise worldwide with the lifting of Covid restrictions, and economies normalized. Many industries, workplaces, and leisure places were suddenly in need of more energy simultaneously, putting unprecedented pressure on supplies.
Prices increased again in February this year, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. European governments scrambled for alternative sources of energy. Russia, till then, supplied 40% of the gas used in the EU.
As a result, prices for alternative gas sources went up, and now EU nations – like Germany and Spain – are bringing in energy-saving measures to counter the shortfalls.
The environmental impacts of the giant flare are worrying scientists
According to researchers, flaring is far better than simply venting the methane, a potent climate-warming agent and the critical ingredient of the gas.
According to the World Bank, Russia’s track record of burning off the gas is the number one country in the flaring volume.
But as well as releasing about 9,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent every day from this flare, the burning causes other significant issues.
Black carbon is the sooty particles produced through the incomplete burning of fuels like natural gas.
“Of particular concern with flaring at the Arctic latitudes is the northward transport of the emitted black carbon, where it settles on snow and ice and significantly accelerates melting,” said Prof Matthew Johnson from Carleton University in Canada.