While a recent USA Today editorial demonstrates the outlet’s desire to add some “flare” to its content, it also showcases a limited knowledge of the oil and natural gas industry’s flaring process.
As Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Wayne Christian explained in a rebuttal to the piece:
“’Flaring’ is an important part of America’s rise to global energy dominance. Most flaring occurs when the well is first drilled, during facility maintenance or during unplanned events. It also happens when an oil well produces natural gas and there is no pipeline available to transport it.
“In these instances, without the option to flare (the limited, safe, controlled burning of natural gas at the well site), an oil well would have to shut down.” (emphasis added)
Here are just a few examples of USA Today’s inaccurate portrayal of flaring. And for more information on flaring, check out our fact sheet to learn about this important practice.
Claim: “It might come as a shock that amid this growing sense of planet accountability, oil companies are still allowed to pull billions of cubic feet of natural gas from the ground and simply set it on fire.”
FACT: Flaring is used in specific and necessary circumstances.
Oil and natural gas companies have every incentive to capture gas, a valuable commodity. Afterall, by flaring off their product, they are losing out on potential profits. In other words, it’s not in their best interest to “simply set it on fire.”
Nonetheless, there are times when it is necessary to flare a well. As Christian explains, flaring is often a “safer environmental option” to alternative methods of dealing with associated gas, or that which is a byproduct of oil production, particularly when there is limited pipeline takeaway capacity available. In fact, there are times when regulators like the Texas Railroad Commission will actually require companies to flare excess gas:
“The Commission may require flaring of releases of gas not readily measured if the Commission determines that flaring is required for safety reasons (e.g. high concentrations of H2S).”
A buildup of excess gas can create significant safety hazards for workers and the environment. In order to safely alleviate pressure buildups, gas is more commonly burned, rather than vented. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains that this practice greatly reduces potential emissions:
“Methane emissions reductions of 2,000 Mcf per year apply to a single flare with a single pilot.”
Claim: “Apart from granting flaring permits, regulators also lack resources to properly monitor the process. The result can be methane vented directly into the air rather than fully burned.”
FACT: Flaring is strictly regulated at both the state and federal level.
State and federal regulations are in place to properly monitor flaring activities and any resulting emissions. Enforcement of such regulations is also improving. For example, earlier this this year in Texas, the RRC announced a new inspector training called “Boots on the Ground” meant to ensure both technical knowledge and uniform enforcement across the state.
The EPA also regulates flaring under the federal Clean Air Act through a variety of rules and guidelines targeting methane and other volatile organic compound emissions. These include New Source Performance Standards, the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, and the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants.
Claim: “It’s a shameful waste in the United States where oil field flaring increased by 48 percent from 2017 to 2018 and is rising precipitously this year.”
FACT: The United States flares much less gas than the rest of the world.
The United States is the world’s top oil and natural gas producer, yet has a lower flaring intensity than other nations. In relation to the amount of oil and gas produced, U.S. flaring intensity is very low. In fact, the United States ranks 44th overall in flaring intensity according to data from the World Bank.
Methane emissions are also declining, despite record production in places like Texas. According to a new report by the Environmental Partnership, in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas, oil and gas production grew by 130 percent from 2011 and 2017, while methane emissions relative to production fell nearly 70 percent over the same period of time.
USA Today ultimately calls for “limits on flaring…until pipeline infrastructure can handle what’s pumped out of the ground.” But realistically, that could actually increase flaring. The greatest incentive for building new pipelines is the need to do so. In order to limit flaring without adequate pipeline takeaway capacity, production would also have to be limited, and in turn, the demand for building new pipeline infrastructure would also be diminished. It’s simple supply and demand.
The reality is that flaring is a safe and strictly regulated practice used to address associated natural gas. And until more pipelines are built, it will continue to be a necessary part of oil production.
For more information, check out EID’s fact sheet: Flaring 101.
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