A. Gvakharia, E. Kort, A. Brandt
Apr 21, 2017
Environmental science & technology
Incomplete combustion during flaring can lead to production of black carbon (BC) and loss of methane and other pollutants to the atmosphere, impacting climate and air quality. However, few studies have measured flare efficiency in a real-world setting. We use airborne data of plume samples from 37 unique flares in the Bakken region of North Dakota in May 2014 to calculate emission factors for BC, methane, ethane, and combustion efficiency for methane and ethane. We find no clear relationship between emission factors and aircraft-level wind speed or between methane and BC emission factors. Observed median combustion efficiencies for methane and ethane are close to expected values for typical flares according to the US EPA (98%). However, we find that the efficiency distribution is skewed, exhibiting log-normal behavior. This suggests incomplete combustion from flares contributes almost 1/5 of the total field emissions of methane and ethane measured in the Bakken shale, more than double the expected value if 98% efficiency was representative. BC emission factors also have a skewed distribution, but we find lower emission values than previous studies. The direct observation for the first time of a heavy-tail emissions distribution from flares suggests the need to consider skewed distributions when assessing flare impacts globally.