With Initial Data Showing Permian Flaring on the Rise Again, New Survey Finds 1 in 10 Flares Malfunctioning or Unlit, Venting Unburned Methane into the Air

Persistent emissions problem requires urgent action by industry, regulators

July 22, 2020
Stacy MacDiarmid, (512) 691-3439, smacdiarmid@edf.org
Matt McGee, (512) 691-3478, mmcgee@edf.org

(AUSTIN, TX) A new aerial survey reveals that the percentage of malfunctioning flares at oil and gas facilities across the Permian region remains stubbornly high, at the same time that preliminary analysis of federal satellite data shows flaring activity in the basin is on the rise. Together the results suggest that one of the industry’s biggest challenges in the basin is poised for resurgence.

Researchers with Environmental Defense Fund’s PermianMAP initiative found that more than one in every 10 flares surveyed in June were either unlit — venting uncombusted methane straight to the atmosphere — or only partially burning the gas they were releasing. This is consistent with two surveys done before the price crash. Meanwhile EDF scientists evaluating data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s VIIRS satellite instrument say that Permian flaring is on the rebound, with June volume up 50% after a steep slide from February through May.

One of the largest oilfields on Earth, the Permian straddles Texas and New Mexico, neither of which has historically regulated flaring effectively.

“Malfunctioning and unlit flares are a longstanding problem for the industry and one of the largest sources of methane emissions in the Permian,” said EDF scientist David Lyon. “The fact that we have not seen any improvement in flare performance over three separate surveys tells us that industry and regulators need to get much more serious about the problem. The best solution is to eliminate routine flaring altogether.”

According to other 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. Historically, Texas and New Mexico have not made flaring or methane a regulatory priority. But policymakers in both states now have important opportunities to institute critical safeguards.

“It’s troubling to see methane pollution from flares persist at the same time it appears flaring activity is on the rise again,” said Jon Goldstein, EDF director of regulatory and legislative affairs. “This data underscores the need for New Mexico’s oil and gas regulators to implement rules that comprehensively address methane waste and pollution. The drafts released this week are a good start, but must be strengthened to close critical loopholes.”

Drafts of the two New Mexico rules can be found here and here. Photos, video, a map and other images for media are available here.

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. When methane escapes into the atmosphere, it has over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years.

Although flaring waste and localized emissions are a familiar problem by now, EDF’s helicopter surveys are the first effort ever to assess the methane emissions 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 survey results come on the heels of satellite data released earlier this year showing total oil and gas methane emissions in the Permian are more than two times higher than federal inventories indicate.

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