(CN) — A coalition of Texas oil industry trade groups and companies announced a new voluntary effort Tuesday to reduce climate change-causing methane emissions and oilfield flaring as the industry faces mounting pressure from critics and even some of its own biggest players to limit its environmental footprint.
Dubbed the Texas Methane and Flaring Coalition, the effort will focus in part on more accurately measuring methane leaks and flaring, the practice of burning off excess natural gas into the air.
“The coalition will evaluate existing data and evidence on flaring and methane emissions from the industry in Texas and develop opportunities and recommendations to continue to minimize these practices,” the groups said in a statement.
The move follows similar industry-led programs that have been launched at the national and global level in recent years amid rising levels of methane emissions around the world and record-high rates of flaring in the sprawling Permian Basin of West Texas and Southeastern New Mexico, the nation’s largest oilfield.
While industry boosters have pointed to a drop in “methane intensity” in the U.S. as proof that companies can effectively tackle their own methane and flaring problems, critics say these kind of voluntary programs shouldn’t be a substitute for stringent federal regulations.
Last year, the Trump administration moved to roll back Obama-era rules on oilfield methane, a proposal that even some major oil and gas companies have come out against.
Just a few weeks ago, oil giant ExxonMobil released what it called a blueprint for enhanced rules on methane that could be enacted across the industry. Under the company’s proposal, federal regulations would focus in part on detecting and fixing methane leaks and reducing the practice of venting, in which methane is released straight into the air.
On March 3, the company said it would “continue to work constructively with state and federal regulators, industry and nongovernmental organizations to develop and implement cost-effective and reasonable methane-emission regulations.”
While high flaring levels in Texas have prompted unusual scrutiny from a regulator in the oil-friendly state and even a lawsuit from a major pipeline company, the recent collapse in global oil markets could take some of the heat off the industry on the flaring issue.
Flaring comes as a byproduct of oil production, which until this month’s price crash continued to grow to record highs in the U.S. But with oil production now expected to plummet this year, flaring rates are likely to fall too.
“Permian flaring will decline sharply now,” said Artem Abramov, an analyst at the Norway-based firm Rystad Energy.
The biggest driver of flaring is the completion of new oil wells, Abramov said, and that kind of activity is now grinding to a halt.
“We are seeing a rapid collapse in the activity in the next few months – weeks to be precise,” he said. “Secondary driver of flaring is takeaway capacity, but this is no longer a problem too – we have enough takeaway capacity to support gradually declining gas production in the next few months.”
While a drop in flaring could ease the sense of urgency that’s grown around the problem, it likely won’t end the longer-term debate over whether regulations are the best solution.
In an interview, the head of one trade group involved in the new coalition said this particular effort is “not really focused” on the regulations debate, but he suggested the results could bolster the argument that the industry can police itself.
“Collectively, the industry has spent more than other sectors in the government combined to come up with ways to reduce flaring and methane,” said Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association. “I think what it’s saying is that just as we do in many instances, industry can move quicker and more swiftly than other institutions can.”
Colin Leyden, an advocate with the Environmental Defense Fund, said voluntary programs like the one announced Tuesday “have their place” in the conversation and his group supports better data gathering. But the EDF still wants to see stricter federal rules.
“Right now, many of the same companies that are part of this effort are also members of [the American Petroleum Institute] as that trade group works to completely rollback federal methane protections,” Leyden said.
The coalition formed Tuesday suggested it would not necessarily seek to limit flaring at all costs.
One of the program’s objectives, the groups said, would be to “define why and when flaring is necessary and communicate the environmental and safety reasons that may necessitate flaring.”