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As Flares Burn Across West Texas, A New Study Shows The Lone Star State Isn't Releasing As Much Natural Gas As Other Oil-Producing Countries

By Mitch Borden

In the last decade, as the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin and other shale plays have boomed, so have the number of flares across Texas.

The increase in flaring—when a company burns off the excess natural gas from oil wells—is concerning for environmentalists who worry about the release of greenhouse gases, while others view the burning as a waste of a resource. But a new 13-page study from one of the state's regulators finds companies in Texas are flaring at a lower rate than other major oil-producing countries.

The report was released Tuesday by Ryan Sitton, one of three commissioners on the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state's oil and gas industry. In the report, Sitton says he reviewed data from the last decade and compared the amount of oil companies produced to the volume of natural gas they flared or vented in that time.

“Flaring levels in Texas are below levels around the rest of the world...when you look at oil production," Sitton said during a web conference with reporters.

Sitton doesn’t think current flaring levels are acceptable, but said oil operators in the state are burning less gas than oil-producing countries like Russia, Iran, and Iraq.

Colin Leyden, with the Environmental Defense Fund Texas, doesn't think this is something to celebrate.

“As far as performance, as opposed to Iran and Iraq and Russia and other countries, frankly I don’t necessarily think we should be all that proud of comparing ourselves to (them).”

Leyden said no matter the report’s findings, oil and gas producers in the Lone Star State have a problem. A 2019 analysis from Rystad Energy found the Permian Basin alone—which spans West Texas and New Mexico—is, on average, flaring and venting more than 750 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. Those high numbers are being driven by flares scattered across West Texas. What makes the Rystad analysis even more surprising when compared to Sitton's report is the Permian Basin is now flaring and venting more gas than the entire state of Texas burnt off and released in 2018.

Even though Texas is producing more oil now than before, Sitton said the state's oil patch is actually releasing less gas than it did during its peak in 1953, when oil producers released over 800 million cubic feet of gas a day. Even though producers can be proud they are flaring less gas than when the greatest generation was drilling for oil in the Permian, the Sitton's report shows flaring in the last few years has released the most gas Texas has seen in decades.

No matter the rate, environmentalists are concerned about the release of methane into the atmosphere that happens when a company flares or vents natural gas. Groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, along with groups like Earthworks, have launched efforts to track emissions in the Permian Basin, where data is sparse.

Emissions and flaring are becoming central issues in the Texas Rail Road Commission election. Sitton, who was first elected in 2014, is up for reelection and faces challenges from both Republicans and Democrats.

One of Sitton's Democratic challengers, Chrysta Castañeda, sees flaring as a central topic in her campaign.

"The report unsuccessfully attempts to reframe the issue to take scrutiny away from Sitton's past poor decisions on flaring," Castañeda wrote in a statement shortly after the report's release.

Castaneda also criticized the report for not presenting more options on how operators can reduce flaring.

However, Sitton's report did explore some possible steps that could be taken to reduce the release of gas — but did not endorse any of the strategies presented. He said the purpose of the report was to inspire a conversation on the issue, which he believes will lead to solutions to Texas's flaring problem.

As for his election, Sitton doesn't believe flaring will play a large role.

It's not a "red meat issue for a lot of voters," he said.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.