Flaring is (Still) Flamingly Stupid, but Unlit Flaring is Worse

In May, Earthworks’ Senior Field Advocate, Sharon Wilson, wrote a blog post about the increasing prevalence of unlit flare stacks at oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin. Unlit and otherwise malfunctioning flares can release large volumes of pollution directly into the air. Unfortunately, since then there’s been no indication that operators have gotten their act together to address the problem. 

Sharon’s blog post references two aerial flare surveys conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) concluding that 1 in 10 flares in the Permian Basin were either malfunctioning or unlit and venting. EDF conducted the survey again in June and reached the exact same conclusion–marking the third time in four months that clear evidence has surfaced of a recurring pattern of neglect by operators and regulators to address the growing problem of unlit and malfunctioning flares. This data is all represented in EDFs PerminanMAP

According to the law, flaring is intended to be uncommon. For example, according to Texas regulations, operators of wells are given ten days after construction to flare. Any flaring that occurs after that period requires a Rule 32 exception given by the Railroad Commission (RRC). Unfortunately, over the past eleven years, the number of Rule 32 exceptions given by the RRC has increased 65x to nearly 7,000. Texas now flares off enough natural gas each year to meet the demands of every home in the state. While the RRC recently made some changes to the documentation operators have to produce to claim flaring exceptions, the agency refused to take action to rein in the practice.

Many operators argue that at current prices, natural gas does not have enough value to be worth bringing to market. The RRC considers a profit motive, such as potential loss from bringing gas to market, to meet the necessity justification needed for a Rule 32 exception.

Flaring, even if done flawlessly, is a high-polluting activity. In oil-producing regions like the Permian, the practice often involves burning off “waste” natural gas—releasing large volumes of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) and health-harming volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Methane and CO2 exacerbate a climate crisis that is getting worse every day, and the VOCs cause respiratory problems and other symptoms for frontline residents, as well as potentially worsening regional air quality. 

Unlit and malfunctioning flares are worse still. When flares are unlit they effectively vent greenhouse gases and VOCs straight into the air—particularly alarming since methane is 86x more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 in the short term. According to EDF, unlit and malfunctioning flares are potentially the single greatest cause of fugitive emissions in the Permian Basin, turning the area into a “climate bomb.” 

Pollution from unlit flares may also be escaping accounting, since unlit flares emit less heat they are harder for satellites to detect. What’s so maddening about unlit flares is that the only benefit to the operators is that their pollution can’t be seen by the naked eye or from satellites, which only matters to operators if they are trying to skirt accountability. 

The well operators are able to get rid of the gas regardless of whether the gas is combusted as it escapes, so why are they so defensive of the practice? Our Senior Field advocate was even cursed out by the manager of MDC Texas Operator LLC’s Seattle Slew for simply asking whether they could reignite an unlit, venting flare at the facility.

Why are they so touchy about this practice? The operators are able to get rid of the gas either way. Flaring is a dangerous unsustainable practice, but for as long as regulators allow it to happen, the least operators could do is light the flares so that they are spewing CO2 rather than methane. 

While oil and gas operators should be responsible for properly maintaining their equipment, the burden falls on regulators to keep operators in check. Each year the RRC increases the number of Rule 32 exceptions despite publicly claiming that the agency opposes routine, unnecessary flaring. The RRC created a Blue Ribbon Committee in order to determine a course of action to reduce flaring. While this was a key step in recognizing the problems posed by flaring and venting, RRC should pursue a more effective solution: stop issuing Rule 32 exceptions and prohibit routine flaring, just as Texas legislators asked the agency to do in two recent letters. 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is also to blame for excessive flaring and venting. The TCEQ is supposed to monitor well sites to ensure that they are not creating excessive air pollution beyond permitted levels. Documenting pollution from unlit flares requires specialized optical gas imaging (OGI), which makes otherwise invisible gases visible. A public information request revealed that over the past three years the Region 7 TCEQ office has used this equipment 47 times. During that same time, Earthworks investigated over 300 wells using OGI equipment. Clearly, a regulatory agency with a budget of nearly $400 million should be able to conduct far more inspections than Earthworks’ field program. The TCEQ needs to be held accountable by the Texas legislature for failing to enact the regulations that it exists to enforce.

Finally, the third organization that should be taking steps to curtail unlit flaring is the General Land Office (GLO). The GLO leases state lands to oil and gas companies who pay a royalty that is distributed into the Permanent School Fund. The GLO’s mismanagement of this money is already well documented. The GLO is supposed to earn a royalty on all gas coming out of its leased wells, even if that gas is ultimately flared. However, with the proliferation of unlit flares, the reliability of operator reporting of flared gas, and thus the royalties they pay on it, is questionable. It is highly possible that the GLO is losing out on funds due to unreported unlit flares. The best way for the GLO to resolve this problem and maximize revenue is to be much more aggressive about pulling leases from companies that violate RRC and TCEQ rules.

Currently, the regulatory agencies of the state of Texas are failing to mitigate pollution. They have the mechanisms they need in order to crack down on unlit and malfunctioning flares, and to end the practice of routine flaring. Unless the agencies get their acts together, the legislature needs to step in. Both Texas communities and the climate are waiting.

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