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U.S. Fossils Severely Under-Report Methane Flaring, Investigation Finds

With new satellite data revealing that some United States oil and gas operators are flaring nearly double the volume of natural gas they self-report to regulators, observers are urging the Biden administration to keep its COP 26 pledge to regulate methane emissions.

Over much of the last decade, fossil operators in Texas and a dozen other U.S. states have flared, or burned off, at least 3.5 trillion cubic feet (well over 99 billion cubic metres) of natural gas, according to an analysis of satellite data by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. That’s the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of nearly 42 million cars driving for a year, writes Inside Climate News. 

“The industry has also directly released unknown amounts of gas into the atmosphere through a process called venting. Between them, flaring and venting release a noxious cocktail of carbon dioxide, methane, and other pollutants.”

Texas oil and gas companies self-reported a combined flaring and venting volume of more than 27 million cubic metres of gas between 2012 and 2020, but satellite data indicates “the volume of flared gas alone could be almost twice as high,” Inside Climate says.

And in some cases, the stacks may not be burning all the gas that goes through. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assumes a 98% efficiency of flare combustion stacks, writes ICN, the only way to tell is with an onsite inspection.

With “hundreds of thousands of sites” across the America, Tim Doty, a former technical adviser at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the EPA lacks both the staffing and the inclination to pursue such oversight.

ICN reports that “more than one in 10 flares were only partially combusting or entirely unlit,” according to a 2020 Environmental Defense Fund survey of the Permian Basin.

This spells bad news for the climate, given that methane is a super-potent greenhouse gas, able to trap heat 80 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year period.

Howard Center found that regulators are largely unaware of the amount of gas being flared and vented, a “blind spot” that still exists 18 years after the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended standardized, nation-wide reporting on both flaring and venting data, and that satellite data (rather than ground-level reporting) be used to improve accuracy. 

“As recently as 2016, the same office warned that natural gas emissions from oil and gas production on federal land weren’t being tracked consistently.”

That’s a problem, because “you can’t regulate what you don’t measure,” said Gunnar Schade, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University who is an expert in using satellite data to study flaring. As for why so much natural gas is being released in the first place, ICN writes that the industry frequently cites releasing pressure buildups as a safety concern, but costs are a significant driver: “Natural gas is far less profitable than oil, and it’s often cheaper for companies to get rid of the gas associated with operations than to transport and process it for sale.” 

As well, ICN explains, the regulatory climate tends to be very permissive of venting and flaring.

Jim Wright, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) that has jurisdiction over the industry in the state, said he trusts companies to correctly self-report. He dismissed the validity of satellite data, suggesting it includes heat sources other than flares.

But scientists who developed the infrared satellite methodology said their algorithms “filter out heat signatures from sources other than oil and gas flares, including wildfires and flares at coal mines.” 

RRC’s three commissioners “have accepted donations from members of the oil and gas industry over the course of their political careers totaling from about a half-million dollars to $3 million,” writes ICN, citing Open Secrets, a national campaign finance watchdog. Commission chair Wayne Christian claimed in a 2018 op-ed that “the science of climate change is far from settled.” 

Still, in 2020 the RRC ordered companies seeking venting and flaring permits to justify their applications. That move was toothless by design, said Colin Leyden, Texas political director at the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund. By law, operators can’t flare or vent without a permit unless they’re exempt or authorized under Texas Statewide Rule 32. But the list of allowances is long, including provisions letting operators flare and vent while setting up wells, during repairs and maintenance, and for safety reasons.

 “At the end of the day, if you don’t outlaw routine flaring like other states—Colorado, New Mexico—if you don’t outlaw it as an operational procedure, it will continue,” Leyden told Inside Climate.

Nearly a dozen Democrat-sponsored bills aimed at reducing flaring or venting—or increasing oversight of the practices—died in committee in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature during the session that ended in May 2021, writes ICN.

“It’s probably going to take federal action” to see change, said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Biden administration has signalled some intention here, unveiling a proposal to slash domestic emissions during COP 26. The proposal “would eliminate venting at both new and existing oil wells, and require companies to capture and sell gas whenever possible,” ICN says.