(CN) – A Texas oil and gas regulator released the first in what he says will be a series of reports on the increasing amount of natural gas that is being burned off into the air across the state’s booming oil fields.
Tuesday’s report, authored by Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton, found that flaring of natural gas reached a high of about 650,000 cubic feet per day in 2018, a level not seen since the 1950s, when companies burned off a record 815,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day. Sitton’s commission regulates the state’s oil industry and has nothing to do with railroads.
Flaring happens for a number of reasons, but it’s largely driven by huge amounts of natural gas coming up from underground wells as a byproduct of oil production.
When pipelines are too full to carry that glut of gas to markets, producers routinely burn it off into the air instead.
The practice has been criticized by environmental advocates, while even some within the industry recognize its pitfalls. Oil giants BP, Shell and Total have signed onto a pledge to eliminate routine flaring worldwide by 2030.
While the report from Sitton identified companies with the highest rates of flaring in Texas and acknowledged concerns over the “waste and potential environmental impacts” of the practice, it also downplayed calls for regulators to address the problem and pointed to much higher flaring rates outside Texas.
“It is hard to ignore the fact that as other nations are flaring at levels four times higher than Texas that they, therefore, present much more efficient paths to global flaring reductions,” Sitton said in the report’s summary.
Comparing the amount of gas flared to overall oil production levels, the report calculated a “flaring intensity” for Texas of .09 cubic feet of natural gas per barrel of oil produced.
North Dakota scored a .32, while the flaring intensities of Iran and Iraq were each calculated at .37.
“It is interesting to note that while Texas’ flaring intensity has trended up since the 1980s, the state as a whole is still well below historical levels and most of the rest of the world,” Sitton wrote.
“I think the big question remains whether or not Sitton and the other commissioners are committed to developing some real policy solutions and not just pointing the finger at Iran and Iraq and making excuses,” Colin Leyden, an advocate with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview.
The Texas Railroad Commission has the power to simply order that oil production be halted until flaring drops, but its three leaders have shown a reluctance to do that for fear of harming the state’s economy and disrupting global oil markets.
Sitton and industry representatives have suggested that the flaring problem could at least partially fix itself as new pipelines are built and more gas can be moved to markets.
The trade group Texas Oil and Gas Association pointed to that prospect in a statement on Tuesday’s report.
“Opposition to safe, clean and secure energy infrastructure like pipelines only serves to weaken Texas and, as the report points out, could hamper efforts to reduce flaring,” the association’s president Todd Staples said.
Tuesday’s report analyzed four specific possibilities for curbing flaring rates, ranging from shutting in oil wells with the highest flaring intensity to convincing China and India to require stricter flaring standards from the countries they buy oil from.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Sitton said forcing Texas companies to reduce flaring could lead to a significant spike in global oil prices and as much as a $1 per gallon jump in U.S. gasoline prices. Still, he appeared willing to consider the idea of regulators setting a flaring intensity benchmark that companies would have to abide by as they develop new projects.
Leyden, the environmental advocate, called that idea intriguing.
“I think it’s along similar lines to what EDF has proposed, setting some gas capture targets or minimum performance standards,” he said.
The report comes as Sitton, a Republican, campaigns for reelection to the commission. Multiple Democratic challengers are vying for their party’s nomination in the state’s March 3 primary elections and for the chance to face Sitton in the general election.
“He can’t reverse years of bad decision making by issuing one good report,” Mark Watson, a Dallas attorney and one of the Democrats in the race, said by email. “Glad he did it, but he’s a day late and a dollar short.”
Chrysta Castañeda, also a Dallas-based attorney running in the Democratic primary, echoed that criticism, describing the report as a political ploy.
“I think it’s an attempt to divert the attention from his past poor record on flaring decisions,” she said in an interview. “We are failing to do that which can be done, such as turning the flared gas into electricity.”
Jim Wright, the lone Republican challenger in the Super Tuesday primary, said he had “no reason not to believe the data” in the flaring report.
“I think overall we should promote infrastructure to capture and market that gas,” Wright said.
Sitton plans to hold a public forum on the report and the issue in general that would include input from the industry and environmental advocates. He said he will update the report each quarter to keep regulators and the public informed on the “nature of future flaring activities, and which companies are most aggressively reducing flaring.”