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Railroad commissioners voice doubts that Permian Basin flaring is more prevalent than reported

The Environmental Defense Fund concluded that oil producers burned off more natural gas than they reported to the state. But Texas officials expressed skepticism of those findings during a state Senate hearing Wednesday.

A gas flare burns bright on a production site northeast of Andrews, Texas.

Top officials from the Texas Railroad Commission pushed back Wednesday morning on recent reports that companies drilling for fossil fuels in the Permian Basin could be under-reporting flaring — a big source of greenhouse gas emissions.

In January, an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund found that satellite data shows gas flaring in the Permian is roughly double what companies report. Scientists at the environmental group compared data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the amount of flared gas reported to the state agency, which supervises oil and gas production, not railroads.

At a hearing of the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee, state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, asked railroad commissioners about reports he’d heard and methane emissions being “much higher than the EPA predicted in West Texas.”

Ryan Sitton, one of three commissioners to testify, said the agency had heard the claims but did not believe them to be accurate.

“We believe the volumes reported to us are very close to accurate,” Sitton said, referencing the numbers the agency has received from operators.

From 2016 through May 2018, the agency issued more than 6,300 permits allowing companies to flare across the Permian. By comparison, between 2008 and 2010, the agency issued less than 600 flaring permits for all of Texas.

Production of oil and gas in the Permian is growing at an unprecedented rate, with the U.S. now standing as the world’s top oil producer. Companies in the region are producing twice as much oil as they did in 2014 — during the last major boom. At the hearing, Wayne Christian, another agency commissioner, said that if Texas were a country, it would be the third largest oil producer in the world.

Railroad commission Chairman Christi Craddick told Rodríguez that operators must have permits to flare and that if a company is flaring without one, they’ll be shut down until one is obtained. Craddick declined to comment on reports about companies flaring off more gas than reported but said she was “not sure if that report is accurate or not.”

“We do have rules in place for flaring, and we enforce those rules,” Craddick said.

Rodríguez pressed the commissioners, asking if the agency had all of the necessary rules in place to prevent emissions into the air. Sitton said it did. He said both the industry and agency are “doing a good job of containing and maintaining it.”

Still, their testimony did not make Colin Leyden at the Environmental Defense Fund think there was anything wrong with the satellite analysis.

“There has to be some sort of an explanation as to why the data is not matching up,” Leyden, the Fund’s senior manager for state regulatory and legislative affairs, said in an interview after the hearing. “They seem to dismiss the reports on the grounds they believe that the data they have is correct. I did not hear any sort of technical analysis of the satellite data indicating they had found any sort of flaws or errors.”

Disclosure: The Environmental Defense Fund has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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