Texas regulators adopt new measures to cut gas flaring

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith January 27th, 2021
For business

Gas flaring permits could become more difficult to obtain for providers.

Gas flaring in Texas may become more difficult due to new measures adopted by the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas companies. A new application procedure for flaring permits could cut the length of time they are valid by between 50 and 80 percent. It would also ask producers to supply more information to justify the need to flare gas.

The changes alter the application process for a flaring permit, not the flaring rule itself. The RRC said these changes will provide incentives to companies that flare less gas. It will also enable the collection of more data to ease audits of flaring practices.

RRC chairman Christi Craddock believes the new procedures are “a great step forward for the energy industry in Texas.”

Fellow commissioner Wayne Christian added, “Texas has done a tremendous job reducing flaring this year, flaring less than a half a percent of gas produced in May 2020. This form change is a big and important step towards minimizing routine flaring in Texas, allowing our agency to collect the information it needs to better determine who is following the rules when it comes to flaring and who is not.”

Do the changes go far enough?

The new application procedures are unlikely to satisfy critics. Many have long attacked the RRC for approving almost every flaring request. Flaring in the Permian Basin reached all-time highs before the pandemic.

The economic slowdown triggered by COVID-19 produced a temporary decline in flaring levels. Christian’s reference to the low level of gas flared in May was related to the impact of initial lockdown measures. The pandemic lockdowns sharply reduced the amount of activity in the Permian.

Colin Leyden, director of regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, described the proposals as “largely empty measures advanced by an oil and gas trade group.” Leyden criticized the RRC as a “rubber stamp” for flaring requests made by producers. He explained that the RRC has approved 35,000 flaring permits since 2013 with no rejections.

“The commission’s new proposal aims to collect better data and offers guidelines and time limits for initial flaring permits,” Leyden wrote in August. “Notably, it does not stop companies coming back for endless extensions, as they do now. This wouldn’t be a bad starting point for a comprehensive plan. Unfortunately, it seems to be where the effort is stopping.”

Do regulators efficiently measure gas flaring?

Another criticism of the RRC is that it fails to account for the amount of gas released into the atmosphere. If true, reducing official flaring levels may have little impact on the amount of methane and other harmful substances released into the air.

According to atmospheric scientist Gunnar Schade at Texas A&M University, the comparison of RRC data alongside data gathered from satellite imaging between 2012 and 2015 revealed that twice as much gas was released into the atmosphere as the regulator’s records suggested.

“These large differences may be explained by reporting errors and by several flare operations that are simply exempted from volume reporting,” wrote Schade. “But we suspect that there is an even more systemic, mundane explanation: venting – the direct release of raw gas to the atmosphere.”

Venting gas is even more harmful than gas flaring because it “emits hydrocarbons, including air toxins such as benzene that can cause cancer, birth defects or other serious health problems,” Schade added. Additionally, the release of raw methane into the atmosphere accelerates global warming faster than carbon dioxide produced from flared gas.

Do oil companies have what it takes to stop flaring?

Large investors in the energy sector believe oil companies can do more to tackle gas flaring. Alliance Bernstein, California State Teachers Retirement System, and Legal General Investment Management manage over $2 trillion in investments combined. These investors have called on energy firms to commit to banning flaring from their onshore operations by 2025.

While ending gas flaring is possible, it would be difficult. Energy providers often have a financial incentive to burn off extra gas when the pipeline capacity cannot transport it to market. What’s more, gas prices and transportation costs make flaring economically attractive.

“Actions of leading operators demonstrate the financial and technical viability of ending routine flaring,” the investors note in a letter sent to the RRC. “It is clear, however, that voluntary actions alone have been insufficient to eliminate routine flaring industry-wide.”

The investors also argue that the RRC’s new regulations fail to go far enough. “Strong and effective regulatory action — beyond initial steps to improve data gathering and transparency — is essential to build stakeholder confidence and solve this challenge across the industry,” they wrote.

 

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views and at the Canadian Labour Institute.

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