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Natural Gas Flaring Significantly Underestimated In Texas, Study Suggests

By Travis Bubenik, Houston Public Media

A new study reveals more evidence that oil and gas companies are significantly under-reporting how much natural gas they burn off into the air in Texas.

“Flaring” has hit  record highs in Texas as companies produce more natural gas than they have the capacity to handle.

Booming oil production has led to huge amounts of “associated” gas coming up from wells as a byproduct that’s sometimes worthless to companies. The situation has even led to  “negative pricing” for natural gas, where producers pay to have the gas taken off their hands.

In a  study published in the journal  Science of the Total Environment, researchers at Texas A&M University found that flaring volumes captured by federal government satellites were about double what companies reported to Texas regulators between 2012 and 2015. The satellite data came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The state data used in the study also included rates of “venting,” where companies release gas straight into the air instead of burning it off, so it’s possible the difference between reported and actual flaring rates is even larger.

The finding isn’t exactly a surprise. An  analysis earlier this year from the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund and a 2018  report from S&P Global Market Intelligence both found similar discrepancies.

“The big picture is that we know very little about how much natural gas is actually being flared by the oil and gas industry,” said Katherine Willyard, the lead author on the Texas A&M study.

Willyard said state rules overlook some parts of the oil and gas process where flaring occurs, which could explain some of the discrepancies.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, said in a statement that its rules are meant to “ensure safe, responsible production of our state’s natural resources.”

“In compliance with RRC rules, when operators flare they are required to report actual volumes of gas flared – not estimates – on their monthly Production Report form (Form PR),” commission spokesperson Ramona Nye said. “On the forms, operators must include actual, metered volumes at the RRC lease level.”

Still,  the rules include some exceptions. For example, companies aren’t required to track flaring that happens during the drilling process, before a well is ready to start producing.

“A lot of natural gas is being flared before the completion of the drilling, and so that isn’t actually being reported,” Willyard said.

Texas regulators have  previously dismissed suggestions that their data is inaccurate.

According to Willyard, the findings don’t necessarily point to oil and gas companies being bad actors.

“It’s more a structural issue and not corporate negligence or any wrongdoing by the companies,” she said. “It’s more related to how the rules and regulations require companies to report venting and flaring.”

Flaring is linked to air pollution and climate change, but it also represents lost profit for producers. Some of the world’s largest oil companies have made big promises to reduce flaring rates.

Oil giants BP, Shell and Total are among those that have signed onto a  “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030” initiative organized by the World Bank. The effort calls for companies to implement “economically viable solutions” to curb oilfield flaring worldwide.

Industry boosters have said flaring rates will drop once new pipelines come online in Texas and ease the “bottleneck” that’s preventing natural gas from getting to markets. But critics doubt that will fix the problem entirely.

“I don’t disagree that added takeaway capacity is a part of a solution,” said Colin Leyden, a policy advocate with the Environmental Defense Fund. “But I’m skeptical that all the sudden we’re going to see a miracle within the next six months to a year.”

Leyden’s group has said state regulators could use NOAA’s data to better monitor flaring, or simply force companies to flare less.

“How long is long enough for the industry to solve the problem, I think is a salient question,” Leyden said.