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Report: Permian Basin Oil Producers Flaring More Natural Gas Than Reported


Scientists at the environmental advocacy group used satellite data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine how much gas operators burned in 2017 in the oil-rich Permian and compared that with the amount of flared gas they reported to the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency.

They discovered a big gap. The satellite data showed Permian operators burned 104 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2017 — about 4.4 percent of all gas produced in the region — while state records showed they reported burning just 55 billion cubic feet of gas.

“In 2017 alone, Permian oil and gas operators burned enough gas to serve all the heating and cooking needs of the state’s seven largest cities,” wrote Colin Leyden, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior manager for state regulatory and legislative affairs, in a blog post describing the findings. “That’s roughly $322 million of natural gas that went up in smoke.”

Natural gas is a fossil fuel hitchhiker that comes up with oil. When burned off, it releases earth-warming greenhouse gases and pollutants that can wreak havoc on the human respiratory system.

While drilling for oil and also striking natural gas might seem like a bonanza for companies — two commodities for the price of one — there often isn’t enough room in pipelines to move it all to market, and new pipelines haven’t come online in the region fast enough. Increasingly, the gas, which sells for far less than oil, has instead been burned off.

As oil and gas production has picked up in the Permian Basin in recent years, the number of permits the Railroad Commission has issued allowing companies to flare has skyrocketed. Those permits allow substantial flaring for a maximum of six months. But the commission also has repeatedly granted extensions.

It’s not always how the commission has always operated: Decades ago, faced with rampant flaring, it shut down 17 oil and gas fields to stop what it called unlawful waste. The court system backed it up in 1949.

Railroad Commission Chairman Christi Craddick told the Tribune last year that she thinks flaring is a shame — a waste — but not an urgent reason for a regulatory crackdown. This is just what happens in a boom, she said. Flaring will drop as additional pipelines come on line.

In his blog post, Leyden said that argument rings hollow.

“The data show, waste and pollution from flaring in the Permian has been consistently high since at least 2012,” he wrote. “The truth is, the economics of each well are built around the oil. The market and industry, left to their own devices, is neither willing, nor able, to solve the problem in any sort of reasonable time frame.”

Asked to comment on the Environmental Defense Fund’s analysis, Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said in an email that “Operators are required to be in compliance with all RRC rules at all times.”

“The RRC takes enforcement action against any operator found in violation of our rules,” she said, noting that the agency this week launched an online database where anyone can look up inspection and violation data for any oil and gas lease in the state.

“This is an important tool for the public and stakeholders and enhances our commitment to transparency,” she said.

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.

Copyright 2019 Houston Public Media News 88.7

Kiah Collier reports on energy and the environment for the Tribune, where she began working in July 2015. Since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 with degrees in philosophy and multimedia journalism, Kiah has reported on government and politics for publications across the state, including the Austin-American Statesman and the Houston Chronicle. A Central Texas native, Kiah began her career at the San Angelo Standard-Times in West Texas, where she covered the city council and 83rd Legislature and won awards for her reporting on the oil-and-gas boom and prolific drought. When she is not reporting the news, Kiah enjoys consuming the news, cooking, exercising and belly laughing with friends and family. She also enjoys spending time with her calico cat, Carol.