The amount of natural gas that oil companies burn off in Texas as a waste product could power every home in the state. It’s an industry practice known as flaring, and as it grows, so do pollution and waste associated with oil extraction. So last week, a top state oil and gas regulator produced a report on it.
The Railroad Commission of Texas regulates the oil and gas industry in the state. It's run by three commissioners who are elected statewide. Commissioner Ryan Sitton wrote that he produced the paper “to evaluate the nature of potential changes to regulation [around flaring] and the potential impacts of those changes.”
The report was notable for naming names. Sitton ranked oil producers by how much they flare. It also provides some historical context for flaring. The commissioner also argued the state is actually flaring less than it did decades ago.
Industry groups applauded the effort, but a leading flaring researcher has found plenty to criticize.
“It’s not a report,” said Gunnar Schade, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “It looks more like a political manifesto to me” because it relies so heavily on pro-industry talking points.
Schade also said the report is misleading.
In the paper, Sitton wrote that he “established a metric that relates the amount of gas flared to the amount of oil produced, referred to herein as flaring intensity.”
When Schade read that, it made him think Sitton is trying to take credit for creating a metric that is nothing new and often used to downplay the impact of natural gas flaring.
Sitton “would receive an F for this report at A&M [his alma mater] for blatant plagiarism” of a well-known research metric, Schade wrote in an email.
“The industry has been promoting this flaring intensity metric for a very long time,” he said. “One of the reasons the industry likes this type of metric is that it lets them compare themselves against others in terms of efficiency.”
It's a way for the industry to brag about how efficient it is, he said, while downplaying the amount of gas being burned off.
"The metric itself is not too useful from an environmental point of view,” he added, “because what matters to the environment is the total amount of flaring that you have in the region.”
KUT reached out to Sitton's office last week, but it has not replied.
Schade, whose research uses satellite data to measure flaring, said the report likely underestimates the magnitude of flaring in Texas.
“There’s much more gas going up in flames than is on the books,” he said.
The report offers an “evaluation” of options to reduce flaring, including waiting for private companies to build out gas-capturing pipelines, shutting down Texas oil wells that flare too much, convincing OPEC and China to take market-based anti-flaring measures and establishing stricter Texas flaring regulations.
It concludes that none of the options “should be pursued without understanding the broader impacts to other segments of our economy and other areas of environmental impact.”
But Schade said this list of options is notable for what it omits.
“Industry has numerous technological choices available to reduce up to eliminate flaring. And it is using those all over the world,” he said. “So it’s a joke that he does not have a single word about technological options.”
Schade is not the only one finding fault with Sitton’s research. The report's focus on how flaring is worse in Iran and Iraq than it is in Texas has prompted some to accuse Sitton of “whataboutism.”
Colin Leyden, who works on regulatory affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the report tries to “move the goal posts” in the debate over flaring.
“We know that there are operators that are performing very well and flaring at very low rates, so let’s figure out what they’re doing,” he said. “Let’s come up with some standards that make sense.”
Limiting flaring in Texas is something the Railroad Commission has, so far, not done.
In a lawsuit filed against the commission last year, a pipeline company notes that it “has not denied any of the more than 27,000 requests for flaring permits received in the past seven years.”
Schade does not believe the report will change that trend.
“I do not expect anything to come from an open discussion of these data,” Schade said. “That said, I appreciate that he’s willing to hear people criticizing what he’s done.
“I wish I had time to actually write a rebuttal to this report,” he added.
Disclosure: Texas A&M and the Environmental Defense Fund have been financial supporters 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.