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Natural Gas Flares on The Rise in West Texas

Law Office of C. William Smalling, P.C. Dec. 23, 2017

According to a recent report released by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the oil boom in the Permian Basin has contributed to increased natural gas flaring in West Texas. The EDF report was based on data collected by the Texas Railroad Commission in 2014 and 2015 which found that oil producers in the basin were burning off an average of 3 to 4 percent of their natural gas. 

Although gas flaring is a byproduct of oil exploration and a common practice in developing fields, the flares emit sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds such as benzene. As such, establishing regulatory standards for gas flaring requires the advice and counsel of experienced energy and environmental attorneys.

Gas Flaring and Venting in Texas

According to the Railroad Commission, less than 1 percent of gas produced throughout the state of Texas is flared or vented. The commission’s data does not distinguish between flares that burn gas and venting which releases gas to the atmosphere, however, and the figure includes both oil and natural gas wells.

The report found that energy companies operating in the West Texas portion of the Permian Basin, which also extends into New Mexico, burned off around 80 billion cubic feet of natural gas during the two-year period. Flaring rates for the largest producers ranged from around 1 percent to around 9 percent of the natural gas produced.

Additionally, the amount of natural gas flaring in the Permian Basin has been on the rise since 2009 as more and more wells came into production. When oilfield activity fell off in 2016 - the low point of the recent oil bust, the amount of flaring also declined. Although data for 2017 is not available, there has been increased oil production in the Permian Basin this year.

The report contends that the surge in flaring has been caused by lack of access to gas pipelines and current regulations permit gas flaring. At the same time, natural gas prices have been low for several years which makes it more profitable to drill for oil.

The Takeaway

Ultimately, the EDF report is aimed at drawing attention to the issue of gas flaring and encourage producers to capture and sell their natural gas. The EDF is also calling for new regulations that limit wasted gas, more stringent flaring rules, and rules requiring companies to report flared and vented gas separately. Of course, the bottom line is profits, and the question remains as to who will foot the bill for these initiatives.