For years now, excessive flaring in the oil field has been a black eye for Texas’ oil and gas industry. Flaring — the process of burning away the natural gas that companies either can’t or don’t want to sell — has drawn ire from stakeholders across the state.
“Burning off gas for safety reasons — like to prevent a pressurized explosion — makes sense. But routinely burning it because you don’t have a plan for what to do with it is wasteful, harmful and irresponsible.”
Land and mineral-rights owners are rightly upset by the lost royalties that can’t be claimed for wasted gas. Since 2013, the oil and gas industry has flared more than a trillion cubic feet of gas. Permian operators sent 280 billion cubic feet of gas worth about $420 million up their flare stacks in 2019 — more than enough to supply every home in Texas.
Meanwhile, the communities near the oilfields are left wondering about potential health impacts of nearby flares. Research is ongoing, but a study from the University of Southern California found elevated pre-mature birth rates in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale region.
It’s also important to note that flares don’t always operate as designed, and can leak massive amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, directly into the atmosphere. Recent EDF surveys of flares in the Permian Basin at high production sites consistently reveal that about 10% of flares are either not functioning properly or are completely unlit. When we expanded our approach to examine flares at low-production sites, the number tripled. Approximately 30% of flares were pumping methane into the air rather than burning it as they are designed to do.
These malfunctioning flares drastically add to the industry’s carbon footprint at a time when it is under intense scrutiny to decarbonize. As a result, the industry’s emissions and waste have become a business liability. Just last year, Texas lost out on a $7 billion deal to export Permian gas to France over concerns about the state’s flaring and methane leakage.
For all these reasons, major oil and gas investors are calling for a quick end to the practice of routine flaring. Leading companies are making their own commitments. BP pledged to end routine flaring by 2025 and Apache Corp. pledged to end it this year.
Regulators in other oil and gas states like New Mexico and Colorado recently adopted rules outlawing the practice. But the Texas Railroad Commission has been slow to act. Despite some minor reforms, the commission has been unwilling to end routine flaring and bring its rules into the 21st century. For example, just weeks after creating a working group to “crack down on flaring,” the commission approved 100% of the flaring permits it received.
Fortunately, ending routine flaring doesn’t require expensive, moonshot actions. According to a recent report from Rystad Energy, about 84% of routine flaring volumes and 40% of total flared volumes in the Permaian basin could be mitigated without cost if Texas were to adopt a 98% gas capture policy.
This is good news at time when we know many operators are looking for ways to produce a cleaner product that can have role in the net-zero carbon future. What’s less clear is to what extent the Railroad Commission will take concrete action to end the practice of routine flaring. It’s time for the commission acknowledge the health, environmental and economic threat that routine flaring poses and end this reckless practice.