With energy spokesmen and critics facing off in a red-hot debate, oilfield flaring is a flashpoint with oil producers taking steps to curb it and naysayers calling it a symbol of the industry’s harmful effect on the environment.
The Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO) says new technology has lowered methane intensity in the Permian Basin by 70 percent in the past eight years.
Marvin Nash, co-founder of the Encore Green Environmental Co. in Cheyenne, Wyo., says natural gas byproduct flames spouting from flare stacks on the tops of oil wells make good graphics for opponents who claim the smoke is a big contributor to global warming.
“For most people who protest, complain or demand, their end game is the demise of fossil fuel,” Nash said. “There isn’t a solution for them till you completely stop drilling operations. What they do with flyovers and infrared photos is create the narrative that the energy industry is destroying the air quality.
“Emissions from motor vehicles, jet airplanes and factories in China and Third World countries are more damaging than flaring, but I don’t see any of those people wanting to drive a covered wagon for the rest of their lives.”
Nash said Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, a former U.S. secretary of state and senator from Massachusetts, “has more emissions from his private jet than some of the wells do flaring gas.
“The environmentalists see a roughneck with his steel-toed boots, fire-retardant shirt and hard hat, driving his jacked-up pickup and making $130,000 a year, and they say, ‘My gosh, he is dirty, he is uneducated!’ and this and that,” he said. “But he’s paying taxes, sending his kids to college and giving up half his life to get the energy out of the ground that we all take for granted.
“Is there flare gas? Yes, there is. My company has three permits in Wyoming to take it as an energy source for clean water to grow grass.”
Odessa oilman Kirk Edwards said great progress has been made with vapor recovery units on tank batteries and gas lines laid by such companies as DCP Midstream and the Energy Transfer Co. to catch the gas at wells and move it to market on the Gulf Coast. “Each line cost $1 billion and took over a year to build and the permitting on ranches and across the state wasn’t easy,” said Edwards, who explained that the lines should be extended to every flaring well.
From 2017-19, he said, wells were being drilled so fast that there was no immediate access to gas lines, “which caused a lot of flaring.
“Since 2019, many new pipelines have been built and that has alleviated the problem,” Edwards said. “There is no reason now why a new shale well doesn’t have that gas going into a market immediately.”
He said the worst flaring is in the North Dakota oilfields that don’t have gas lines.
Virginia Palacios of Laredo, executive director of a consumer protection group called Commission Shift that wants to reform the oil-and gas-regulating Texas Railroad Commission, said the commission’s claim of increased vigilance is unfounded. “When the Earthworks environmental group in Austin said 84 percent of the Permian Basin’s flaring was unpermitted by the Railroad Commission, the commission responded by saying 69 percent of the flares in Texas were unpermitted,” Palacios said.
“So even the Railroad Commission admits it is not preventing most operators from flaring, which can release volatile organic compounds and other harmful substances associated with pre-term births and respiratory conditions.”
Discounting the RRC’s recent assertion that it is issuing flaring permits for shorter durations and smaller volumes, she said, “We can see from the Earthworks report that the RRC’s changes in permitting practices don’t mean anything if they aren’t following up with appropriate monitoring.
“We need better monitoring and enforcement,” Palacios said. “The Railroad Commission should be issuing more violations to companies that are not complying with their permits.”
TIPRO President Ed Longanecker said from Austin that there “has been a huge emphasis on flaring from a regulatory standpoint by the Railroad Commission and from within the industry, driving a number of initiatives to reduce flaring and its intensity.
“The data reflects the emphasis the industry is putting on this through best practices and investments in green house-mitigating technology,” Longanecker said. “Oil and gas production grew 66 and 96 percent between 1990 and 2019 while emissions from U.S. energy production declined by 17 percent and methane intensity in the Permian Basin has been cut by 70 percent in the last eight years.”
He said operators and energy associations have formed the Texas Methane & Flaring Commission to address the issue and the Environmental Partnership, comprising companies throughout the nation, has joined the effort.
Longanecker said the industry has invested $300 billion in the past 20 years in pipelines along with such mitigating technologies as leak detectors and repair programs. “There’s been a concerted effort to replace high-bleed pneumatic controllers,” he said.
“Natural gas is a valuable product and the same critics who attack us are standing in the way of energy companies’ trying to build out new pipelines. The Biden Administration has dropped its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline and given Russia its blessing to tighten the grip on European natural gas markets.”
Tim Tarpley, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Energy Workforce & Technology Council in Houston, said the advances of technology and pipelines “should get to a point where flaring is rare.
“A lot of companies are involved in this technology in places like the Permian Basin,” Tarpley said. “Instead of flaring gas, which is a waste of energy, it’s a great opportunity to create energy.
“Demand went way down during COVID, but once production starts to peak again we may start seeing pipelines be an important part of the equation to get gas to the Gulf Coast. If we can’t use it all domestically, we could export it to allies like India and Japan, who need gas desperately, rather than having them get it from Russia and other geopolitical rivals.”