This summer, methane got a nickname that stuck. Climate scientists and policy analysts have been calling the greenhouse gas a “low-hanging fruit” for years, but the term seems to have caught on more broadly among world leaders, journalists and organizers, due in part to a major United Nations report on methane and the most dire Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment issued yet.
Methane is the second greatest contributor to the climate emergency after carbon dioxide, but unlike CO2, it only sticks around the atmosphere for about a decade. So cutting methane emissions drastically and immediately can have a sizable impact on keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and thereby averting the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, such as global food shortage.
In total, the oil and gas industry is responsible for over one-third of methane emissions, some of which occur through flaring and venting: the practice of burning off, or releasing unwanted methane gas in the process of drilling, pumping, transporting and refining fossil fuels.
An August 19 report by Earthworks reveals that among the lowest of low-hanging fruits may be found in the Permian Basin, in West Texas, where up to 84 percent of producers are flaring without permits. Since fracking was commercialized a decade ago, the Permian Basin has exploded as the top oil-producing region in the U.S.
The report outlines how state regulators charged with keeping tabs on flaring, including the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), which issues flaring permits, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which oversees air quality, are doing nothing to stop producers observed to be dumping gas into the atmosphere. In other words, the Permian Basin is even more of a climate bomb — and a potential site of climate intervention — than environmentalists may have originally thought.
Texas is the top flarer of all U.S. states, according to federal data from 2019. But the practice is a problem far beyond the Lone Star State. A July study in Environmental Research Letters found that across the U.S., over half a million people live within three miles of a flare. Living near a flare is associated with 50 percent higher odds of premature birth. In addition to being a climate pollutant, methane, which seeps out of leaky flares, is also the primary precursor to the asthma-causing pollutant ground-level ozone.
Methane emissions have slid under the rug for years — in part because the gas is invisible to the human eye, but also because systems for monitoring emissions are less comprehensive and therefore more uncertain than for CO2. Sometimes, incomplete flaring leads to black smoke that is visible, also known as black carbon. But in recordings at oil and gas production sites without a special camera, you can also see a lot of sky.
The increased use of optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras in recent years has made it possible to watch dark plumes of otherwise unseen pollutants escape from inactive-looking infrastructure, like steel storage tanks and thin metal chimneys.
Sharon Wilson, a senior field advocate for Earthworks and co-author of the report on unpermitted flaring, is a certified optical gas imaging thermographer and has been busy capturing footage of oil and gas production sites around the U.S. since 2014.
It’s only when putting an OGI camera up to one’s face, Wilson told Truthout, that dark plumes of pollutants become visible, turning landscapes into what look like war zones. “If people could see with their naked eye what I see with my lens, there would never have been a fracking boom.”
According to the report, many flares are left unlit, which means they are seeping methane straight into the atmosphere, rather than burning it, which makes the release visible and at least converts the gas into less-potent carbon dioxide.
To assess flaring operations in the Permian, Wilson and co-author Jack McDonald pulled from two data sets. One was generated from Environmental Defense Fund helicopter flyovers using OGI cameras from the sky to capture flares in January, March and June of 2020. After ensuring the data was focused specifically on the area of the Permian Basin in Texas, rather than in New Mexico, the authors cross-referenced that data with permits logged in the RRC’s database.
If there was any overlap between a flare observed during flyovers and one for which a permit could be identified in the database, over any period, the authors gave the producer and regulators the benefit of the doubt, and counted that site as permitted. But ultimately, of the total 227 flares they ended up counting, a mere 35 sites had permits to flare every time they were observed to be doing so. Many companies were found to be flaring without ever obtaining a permit, including Diamondback Energy, Conoco and Shell.
In Texas, flaring permits are governed by a state administrative law known as Rule 32. Under the rule, flaring is only legal for the first 10 days of a new oil and gas operation. After that, the practice is illegal without a permit, except for during 24-hour emergency periods. But the law does not clearly define what conditions oil and gas companies need to justify a permit or emergency exemption.
As such, the operations that have received permits have essentially been rubber-stamped, the report suggests. Operators have applied for and received permits to flare for a host of nebulous reasons such as “inconsistent curtailments” or “economic conditions.” Still, the vast majority are unpermitted, the report suggests.
Earthworks visited one site known as the “Seattle Slew” 14 times with an optical gas camera, as is described in the report, and detected pollution every time — nine of which involved flaring specifically. The owner of the site, MDC, has never been issued a permit from the RRC, according to the analysis. Earthworks reported as much to the TCEQ.
According to correspondence Earthworks obtained via a public records request, the state agency did reach out to the company about the findings. “There is no way to estimate how much gas was vented, as we don’t measure our tank gas … since it isn’t sold to gas sales but instead sent to the combustor for incineration,” MDC replied. “Also, we don’t know for how long this gas was vented to the atmosphere.”
In spite of this response, the state agency did not issue any violations, Earthworks found. A TCEQ representative told Truthout that “compliance determinations were made based on a review of the completed questionnaires and other relevant data such as reported emission events and applicable permits or authorizations,” noting that the facility did have a permit covering other emissions, including volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxide and carbon.
Wilson says she’s documented numerous similar instances in which she’s reported emissions violations on the ground, such as at Diamondback’s Waler State Battery site, which regulators have all but shrugged off.
In response to the report, RRC Spokesperson Andrew Keese told Reuters, “A short-term observation of a flare from a flyover and absence of an explicit exception does not necessarily mean the observed flaring is illegal.”
In July, the RRC published data suggesting that the practice of flaring was declining across the state, dropping from 2.29 percent of all natural gas produced in June 2019, to 0.65 percent in May 2021. “Texas is seeing significantly reduced flaring rates as a result of improved technologies, infrastructure and regulatory processes,” RRC Chair Christi Craddick said in a statement.
McDonald, however, said that dealings with the two state agencies do not offer much assurance. “From what we can tell, this seems to be an issue broadly across Texas, with just this kind of systemic lack of will to go and get these permits.”
Without closely monitoring releases, or following up on violations, the agency’s data is a moot point. “Even if they are right that exempt flaring is exclusively the cause of the flaring, the RRC does not know how much flaring is happening,” McDonald said. “That means they are dramatically underestimating the amount of flaring that’s actually happening in the state because they aren’t able to account for all those exempt flares.”
As Clean Energy Wire has reported, oil and gas production in places like the Permian has expanded faster than infrastructure to transport it. Oil is still profitable, but gas prices are so low that it’s cheaper to burn it on the spot, or release it directly, than to pay to send it to markets.
The report concludes with a handful of actions state lawmakers and regulators could take to bring protocols in line with the regulatory agencies’ purported missions, including making all permitting data and enforcement actions publicly available online; updating Rule 32 such that it clearly identifies what justifications warrant a flaring permit or an emergency exemption; and creating an impartial panel free of oil and gas interests within the RRC to review all flaring permits.
But Wilson says real reform will also require action beyond state lines. “After over a decade, it’s pretty clear that Texas has no intention of enforcing any rules,” Wilson said, noting lawmakers’ and regulators’ conflicts of interest. The RRC’s Craddick, for instance, owns land with her father — a state congressman — that generated over $100,000 from natural gas production in 2019, according to The Texas Tribune.
The Biden administration is likely to unveil a new methane rule in September. In anticipation, the RRC and TCEQ penned a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July requesting minimal changes. “The TCEQ has a robust air permitting program. Air permits typically include fugitive monitoring programs and control of volatile organic compound emissions, which could include methane emissions since methane is not separated from [volatile organic compounds] prior to atmospheric release,” agency directors wrote. “Additional requirements to control and monitor methane specifically are burdensome to the regulated community, duplicative and are therefore unnecessary.”
Given that the EPA delegates how states must implement Clean Air Act regulations, Wilson says the moment warrants the strongest possible rule, such as one that would lead to slashing oil and gas methane emissions 65 percent by 2025. “If Biden is serious about taking action on the climate, the federal government will need to step in,” she said. “What they give, they can take away.”