Through Turbulent Year, EDF Data Show Permian Oil and Gas Operators Consistently Failed to Keep Flares Lit
Aerial survey findings underscore flaring’s role in the region’s outsized methane problem.
(AUSTIN, TX) Despite turbulent oil and gas markets and a crash in new drilling activity, a year’s worth of aerial survey data released today by EDF’s PermianMAP initiative reveals that operators’ inability to manage flaring has remained a consistent problem.
Flaring is the controversial practice of sending natural gas — which is mostly methane — up a pipe and igniting it, rather than capturing it for productive use. Flaring has come under increased scrutiny for contribution to air pollution and climate change, alongside the fact that it has resulted in the waste of billions of dollars’ worth of natural gas.
EDF scientists conducted four week-long surveys throughout 2020 to assess emissions from flaring in the United States’ largest oilfield. In each survey, roughly 5% of flares were entirely unlit and venting methane directly into the atmosphere, and an additional 5% were malfunctioning and only partially lit, failing to properly combust methane and driving up emissions. The repeated results affirm flaring’s outsized contribution to Permian methane emissions, and underscore producers’ ongoing inability to control the problem.
Photos, video, a map and infographics for media are available here.
EDF’s latest flaring survey reveals that malfunctioning flares are not just a common problem across the basin, but also a persistent one. Researchers observed the same flares repeatedly over a five-day period. Of the malfunctioning flares they discovered, over half had recurring malfunctions, and about a quarter never operated properly during the course of the survey.
The findings indicate voluntary efforts from industry have failed to address problems with flaring. As investors, the public and customers insist on low-emission products, commonsense policy from state leaders will be needed to reduce flaring and address the fact that it is a major source of the Permian’s methane footprint.
“This year of data makes it painfully clear that flaring performance has remained abysmal through the industry’s highs and lows,” said Colin Leyden, EDF director of regulatory and legislative affairs, Texas. “The science is clear that flaring cannot be an afterthought. Left unchecked, the practice is compounding industry’s methane problem at a time when investors and overseas markets are calling for cleaner production.”
EDF observed high rates of flaring malfunctions in both Texas and New Mexico. However, action to address the issue varies widely between the two states. Last fall, the Texas Railroad Commission adopted changes intended to reduce flaring. While a step in the right direction, they will not be sufficient alone to end routine flaring in the state.
Meanwhile, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division is currently advancing a new rule which would eliminate routine flaring and reduce natural gas waste, an important component — along with air pollution rules still under development by New Mexico’s Environment Department — of establishing requirements in line with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s push for nation-leading methane rules.
The best solution for reducing malfunctioning flares is to reduce flaring in the first place. A recent Rystad analysis shows doing so is highly cost-effective, 84% of routine flaring in the Permian could be eliminated at no net cost according to the report.
“Companies’ inability to do something as basic as keep their flares lit threatens our climate, wastes our resources and undermines our wellbeing,” said Jon Goldstein, EDF director of regulatory and legislative affairs, New Mexico. “This research underscores the importance of the strong rule proposed by the Oil Conservation Division to cut methane waste and end routine flaring.”
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