Texas regulators are deliberately turning a blind eye to methane flaring in fracked oil and gas fields, according to an advocacy report released just days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed to methane controls as an essential step in getting climate change under control.
Earthworks based the study on 2020 data from the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund, which conducted helicopter flyovers with optical gas imaging cameras and observed 227 flares at oil and gas sites, the Washington, DC-based non-profit reports. After comparing those records to a permitting database maintained by the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), which has authority over the state’s oil and gas industry, Earthworks concluded that 69 to 84% of the flares had not received state permits.
Methane is a shorter-acting greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but produces 80 to 86 times more atmospheric warming over the 20-year span when humanity will be scrambling to get climate change under control.
The RRC’s Rule 32 makes flaring illegal barring specific circumstances, and operators have to apply for an exception to the rule before lighting a flare, Earthworks explains. Those applications have increased 65-fold over the last 11 years, from just over 100 in 2008 to almost 7,000 in 2019, but the new study cites multiple instances where the companies didn’t even bother applying.
“Even as Texas regulators, oil companies, and environmentalists have come to agree that flaring of gas—methane and associated toxic volatile organic compounds—produced by oil extraction should cease, flaring in Texas has continued to increase in frequency,” the report states. And “the scale of unpermitted flaring—84%—is not the result of a mistake by the RRC, or a few bad actors. It is a conscious choice by the RRC not to put sufficient effort into determining if the law is being violated, never mind enforcing the law when it is violated.”
Earthworks says the companies responsible for unregulated flaring include ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, “both of which have made prominent climate commitments and called for stronger federal oversight of oil and gas air pollution.” Exxon only had permits for two flares, the organization says, and Shell had none.
The report was lead news in yesterday’s edition of Politico’s Morning Energy newsletter, with reporter Matthew Choi commenting that “methane emissions are running amok in the Permian Basin”.
“The flyovers found emissions coming from wells operated by both small companies and multinational giants, including companies that have made public commitments to rein in emissions,” Politico writes. “Exxon had six stacks emitting methane without a permit, according to the study, and Shell had eight.”
Exxon claimed the study was “deliberately misleading”, arguing that some of the flaring was either exempt from or pre-authorized by state regulations. Shell flat-out denied it was flaring without a permit.
“Shell takes methane emissions reduction very seriously and is dedicated to conducting operations in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” spokesperson Natalie Gunnell told Morning Energy. “We cannot make the case for natural gas playing a pivotal role in the energy transition if methane emissions go unchecked.”