Helicopter Surveys Indicate Malfunctioning Flares in the Permian Basin are Releasing at Least 300,000 Metric Tons of Unburned Methane a Year

Video shows substantial share of oil & gas flares are unlit or faulty, stoking wasteful emissions; a previously overlooked methane source could turn out to be one of the region’s biggest.

April 30, 2020
Stacy MacDiarmid, (512) 691-3439, smacdiarmid@edf.org
Matt McGee, (512) 691-3478, mmcgee@edf.org

(AUSTIN, TX) Long known for waste and pollution, the flares burning at oil and gas sites across the Permian Basin could also be among the region’s largest methane emitters. A new helicopter survey by researchers with the Environmental Defense Fund found that more than one in every 10 flares they looked at was either unlit venting uncombusted methane straight to the atmosphere – or only partially burning the gas they were releasing.

Based on infrared images gathered from hundreds of facilities, the scientists calculate that Permian flaring accounts for more than 300,000 metric tons of methane pollution a year – 3.5 times more methane than current EPA estimates. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, human sources of which are responsible for more than a quarter of the warming we’re experiencing today. It’s also the main ingredient in natural gas.

Photos, video, a map and other images for media are available here.

One of the largest oilfields on Earth, the Permian straddles Texas and New Mexico, neither of which regulates flaring effectively. The new data shows that far more methane than previously known is entering the atmosphere unburned, multiplying the already serious climate impact.

“Flaring and methane are two halves of the same problem. The data shows you can’t fix one without the other,” said Colin Leyden, EDF director of regulatory and legislative affairs. “Reducing waste and pollution from routine flaring should be part of both short and long-term solutions as operators and the Railroad Commission consider different paths back from the current crisis.”

Drive for solutions

According to satellite data, Permian operators sent 280 billion cubic feet of gas worth about $420 million up their flare stacks in 2019 – more than enough to supply every home in Texas. To date, Texas and New Mexico have not made flaring or methane a regulatory priority. But policymakers in both states now have important opportunities to step up critical safeguards.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas operations, has been increasingly concerned with flaring waste. Next week, commissioners will have a chance to include flaring as a metric in a policy called “proration,” which allocates production limits among state producers based on a variety of factors. (Often described as way to raise prices, proration authority actually rests on a statutory obligation to prevent waste of natural resources and protect property rights.)

“For seven years, the commission has stamped ‘yes’ on 27,000 flaring permit applications,” said Leyden. “Proration offers an ideal chance to stand up for all Texans and address the most obvious waste occurring in the oil patch.”

New Mexico currently lacks any requirements to reduce oil and gas methane emissions. As a result, methane waste costs New Mexico taxpayers an estimated $43 million a year in missed revenue. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made addressing methane a priority for her administration and has pledged to enact a nation-leading suite of methane waste and pollution controls.

“Flaring wastes hundreds of millions of dollars a year worth of valuable resources that belong to the people of New Mexico,” said Jon Goldstein, EDF director of regulatory and legislative affairs. “Without proper safeguards, it also poses a serious threat to public health and the climate. Both waste and pollution from flares must be a part of a comprehensive suite of controls as the state moves to enact methane regulations this year.”

Wave of new data

Although flaring waste and localized emissions are a familiar problem by now, this is the first effort ever to assess the methane associated with flaring in the region. It is the latest product of EDF’s year-long PermianMAP initiative to measure methane emissions using aircraft, stationary towers and ground-based mobile sensors.

The helicopter survey shows that malfunctioning flares are not just an intermittent issue. Fully 25% of problem flares initially identified had recurring emission problems at a later visit. The survey comes on the heels of satellite data released last week showing total oil and gas methane emissions in the Permian are 3.5 times higher than federal inventories indicate, which in turn parallels previous results from EDF’s PermianMAP work.

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