Hesperian Health Guides

Gas Flares

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 22: Oil, Illness, and Human Rights > Gas Flares

When oil is found together with natural gas, oil companies may burn the gas to separate it from the oil. Burning gas makes giant flares that light up the sky and make a loud, terrible noise. Gas flaring is dangerous, wasteful, and very polluting.

Oil companies can sell the gas rather than burn it off. But this is more costly and difficult because gas must be stored under pressure, increasing the risk of fires and explosions. So companies flare off the gas simply because it is less costly, even though it increases the harm to people and the environment.

Health and safety around gas flares

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Gas flares that are taller than a person are less harmful.
Gas flares that are the height of a person, or flares that are horizontal to the ground, are very dangerous.

All gas flares pollute the air and can cause health problems. But some flares are worse than others.

Gas may be flared occasionally as a safety measure to prevent explosions (called safety flares), or every day as part of oil operations (called routine flares). Each kind of flaring requires a different response.

Safety flares

Refineries use safety flaring to relieve pressure when too much gas is in the pipes. Even though it does not happen all the time, it is still very harmful! If there is safety flaring in your community, demand advance notice from the company about when flares will occur. The company should always warn nearby communities 24 hours before flaring will happen.

When there is a flare, everyone should stay as far away as possible. Stay inside with doors and windows closed. (For what to do in an emergency, see “When there is a toxic release.”)

Routine flares

In some places, gas is flared every day, simply because it is cheaper for the company. It is very difficult for people who live near routine gas flaring to take precautions all the time. The only way to be safe from routine flaring is to stop it.

Flaring can be stopped!

The worst routine gas flaring in the world occurred for many years in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Gas flaring by international oil companies in Nigeria has cost many lives. And the poisons released by Nigerian gas flares have contributed more to climate change and global warming than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined.

Comrade Che Ibegwura, a man from Rivers State, Nigeria, said: “For years, we have lived with continuous flaring of gas. Our farmlands have been polluted. We labor hard to plant, but little comes out. Our roofs are corroded. Our air is polluted. Our children are sick. Even the rainwater we drink is contaminated with black soot from the gas flares. We cannot continue with this suffering.”

In 2005, after many years of protest and struggle, routine gas flaring was outlawed in the Niger Delta. A judge ruled that all the oil companies in Nigeria must stop gas flaring right away because of the health problems it causes, and because it violates the human right to a healthy environment.

A group of people sit and talk.
The company refuses to talk to us about the flaring. Who can we try to talk to next?

If there is routine flaring near you:

  • Discuss the dangers of gas flaring and form a committee to complain to the company and government officials. Also speak with health workers, journalists, and NGOs.
  • Keep a record of your campaign. Encourage people to mark the days and times of flares and the problems they caused.
  • Organize meetings to share these records with other communities, journalists, and government officials. Keep records of your talks with them. Writing down or filming what the officials say will also show that you are serious. Most importantly, do not give up!

These actions may not stop flaring right away. But the common goal of stopping the flaring can unite the community and build strength to protect everyone’s health in the long term.