Exploration

Flaring in Texas reaches levels not seen since 1950s, oil industry regulator says

Flaring, methane

Houston Chronicle – The oil and natural gas industry practice of burning surplus gas from oil wells, or flaring, has reached levels not seen in Texas since the 1950s, a report released Tuesday by Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton states.

In 1953, with an oil boom producing more natural gas than companies could sell, they burned off a record 815 million cubic feet per day.

Today, wells across the state — particularly at fracking sites in West Texas — again are producing more natural gas than pipelines can move, raising daily flaring volumes to an estimated 650 million cubic feet in 2018 — more than twice the 268 million a day a year earlier.

The daily amount of natural gas burned off in 2018 could have supplied nearly 4 million U.S. homes for a single day. At current market prices, it would have generated $1.3 million of revenue per day.

Sitton, one of three elected commissioners who oversee the state’s oil and gas industry, said he released the report to provide concrete data about the issue and to help environmentalists, companies, regulators and landowners develop solutions.

Options include building more pipelines and gas-processing plants, halting production at wells with the worst flaring rates and setting flaring goals that companies would need to hit.

“Everybody talks about flaring levels being higher for the past couple of years, but just using total flaring volume is a pretty poor data point,” said Sitton, who is up for re-election this year. “The insight into what these numbers actually mean and what they tell us takes a unique skill set.”

Using publicly available data on the agency’s website, Sitton compared the amount of natural gas a company flared to the amount of crude oil the company produced from November 2018 to October 2019 to create a flaring intensity score. That index, he said, can be used to compare flaring among companies, states and countries.

With an average of nearly 23.4 million cubic feet of natural gas burned per day during the one-year period, Irving-based Exxon Mobil burned the most gas. But the company produced more than 181,000 barrels of crude oil per day during that time, giving it a relatively low flaring intensity score of 0.13, Sitton’s report states. The company said it’s working to reduce the numbers.

“We are making significant investments in gathering, processing and natural gas pipelines to enable resource development and reduce flaring intensity,” Exxon Mobil said in a statement.

Exxon Mobil’s score was much lower than the 2.93 score of Oklahoma City-based Continental Trend Resources, the most flaring intense company operating in Texas, according to the index.

Continental produced 62 barrels of crude per day from its Texas Panhandle wells and burned 181,000 cubic feet of gas per day.

Irving-based Pioneer Natural Resources is considered to be the top oil producer in Texas, generating more than 360,000 barrels of crude per day. With the company’s wells flaring 7.7 million cubic feet of gas every day, Pioneer received a 0.02 flaring index score.

Pioneer typically doesn’t put an oil well into production until gas gathering pipelines are in place.

As a whole, Texas flared 410 million cubic feet of gas per day during the one-year period of Sitton’s report and produced an average of 4.4 million barrels of crude oil per day, meaning the entire state had an index score of 0.09, lower than oil-producing states such as North Dakota and nations such as Iran, Iraq and Russia.

“I’m not putting the spotlight on anybody, this is all publicly available data,” Sitton said. “All I’m doing is the analysis and saying these are results.”

Elected to office in 2014, Sitton is seeking re-election to another six-year term. The Friendswood Republican faces one challenger in the Republican primary. Four Democrats, two Libertarian Party candidates and a Green Party candidate also are making a run at Sitton’s seat.

Some of those candidates say the release of the report was timed to boost Sitton’s election effort.

“I started this analysis five or six months ago, before any of those candidates filed for office, so that’s a pretty weak political claim,” Sitton said. “But I’m not surprised; that’s what weak political candidates do.”

Chrysta Castañeda, a Dallas energy attorney among the four candidates seeking the Democratic Party nomination, called the Railroad Commission race the most important environmental race in the United States this year. Over the past seven years, the Railroad Commission has not denied any of the more than 27,000 requests for flaring permits that came to the agency for review.

“The report unsuccessfully attempts to reframe the issue to take scrutiny away from Sitton’s poor decisions on flaring,” Castañeda said.

Environmentalists are against flaring but open to the dialogue. Colin Leyden, with the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the report echoes previous figures and reports about flaring issued by the Washington-based environmental group.

The Railroad Commission, he said, has the authority to handle the issue through its own rules, regulations and permits without the Texas Legislature needing to pass new laws.

“The truth is that under its existing structure, the Railroad Commission has wide authority to make those changes,” Leyden said. “They just need to the political will to do it.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sitton’s report received endorsements from pro-industry groups such as the Texas Oil and Gas Assocation and the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association.

“Oil and gas is an industry defined by innovation and results,” TIPRO President Ed Longanecker said in a statement. “TIPRO looks forward to continuing its work with partners and stakeholders on realistic solutions, collaboration and innovation to reduce emissions. Cleaner operations, facilities and products all are part of this sector’s commitment to responsibly develop our nation’s energy resources.”

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