An oil rig bobs diligently up and down, up and down, on a patch of dirt in West Texas. As far as the eye can see, other rigs dip in the same fluid motion. It’s a familiar sight for most Texans. What we can’t see, however, are the gases swirling invisibly around the rigs, pipes, and storage tanks, adding potent greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
For years, natural gas has been seen as a cleaner fossil fuel alternative to coal and a way to transition the country’s economy to more renewable energy. But a lot of this gas is wasted – burned or simply vented off into the atmosphere, or accidentally leaked – and we are just beginning to realize how much is disappearing into the atmosphere. Recent estimates suggest the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and the primary component of natural gas, being released into the atmosphere is far greater than what is reported to regulators.
Nowhere is this discrepancy more obvious than in Texas. Thanks to an oil and gas boom in the Permian Basin, the burning and venting of natural gas reached an all-time high last year, according to Rystad Energy, an independent energy research and intelligence company. At the same time, the Trump administration has proposed rolling back Obama-era rules on methane emissions. All this is leading some environmental groups to question whether natural gas can truly be part of a climate solution.
“We thought natural gas was the bridge to renewable energies, that was like 10 to 15 years ago, and alas we are still on the bridge somehow,” says Emma Pabst, global warming solutions advocate for the Environment Texas organization.
Over its short, 20-year lifetime, methane is 84 to 87 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, the best-known greenhouse pollutant, at warming the atmosphere. While the oil and gas industry is a big source of methane emissions, it is by no means the only source in the United States. Methane emissions occur naturally in some landscapes, like wetlands. Landfills, fertilizer production, cattle, and buildings that use natural gas for heating and cooking are all other sources of methane.
Globally, methane emissions from the oil and gas sector make up about 6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions for the global energy sector, sending 2.4 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent into the atmosphere in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency. These emissions have been rising, despite global pledges to reduce methane emissions.
This isn’t a new problem, says Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. But this issue has started to get more attention in the last couple of years as people have realized the significant impact methane has on global climate change and as new oil and gas finds in Texas and across the country have drastically increased the amount of methane being emitted, he says.
Booming production in the Permian Basin in recent years has made West Texas a hotspot of methane emissions. In the first quarter of 2019, venting and flaring of methane in the basin reached an all-time high, only to be topped by another record just a few months later. In the third quarter, an average of 750 million cubic feet per day was flared by oil and gas production in the Permian basin and neighboring areas of New Mexico, according to an analysis by Rystad Energy.
Artem Abramov, head of shale research at Rystad, expects this trend will hold into 2020. Part of the flaring last year was driven by “infrastructure bottlenecks and some unplanned gas plant outages,” as well as an overall increase in “well completion activity,” Abramov wrote in an email to Texas Climate News. It is standard practice to flare natural gas for the first 10 to 14 days after completing a well, before connecting it to a pipeline. “This is frequently called safety or routine flaring,” writes Abramov. As more and more wells are drilled and completed in 2020, more and more natural gas will continue to be flared.
A study published last year by researchers at Texas A&M University compared the emissions data reported to the Texas Railroad Commission by oil and gas companies in the Permian Basin to infrared satellite data gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The study found that while both datasets indicated the amount of gas being vented or flared was increasing, the Texas Railroad Commission reports covered only about half of the actual volume of gas flared, as estimated by NOAA.
“The big picture is that we know very little about how much natural gas is actually being flared by the oil and gas industry,” Katherine Willyard, lead author on the Texas A&M study, told Houston Public Media.
A similar trend continues at the national level. Methane is invisible and odorless, making it difficult to detect and plug leaks. In 2018, the environmental advocacy group the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) published a study finding that actual methane leaks were about 60 percent higher than the amount estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
About 13 million metric tons of methane leaks into the atmosphere every year, according to EDF, wasting enough gas to fuel 10 million homes for a year. A big part of the problem, particularly in the Permian Basin, is that there isn’t enough on-site data collection to make accurate emissions estimates, says Colin Leyden, senior manager for regulatory and legislative affairs at EDF.
In Texas, anti-pollution advocates have long described the regulatory environment as industry-friendly and lax on enforcement. Over the last seven years, the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas operations in the state, has approved more than 27,000 permit requests to flare natural gas in the state, according to Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. Historically, the agency has also been chronically understaffed, without enough monitors to cover the vast oilfields of West Texas, says the Sierra Club’s Reed.
(Flaring, which emits methane and other pollutants, involves burning of gas in oil and gas production that is considered unprofitable to market. Venting is the direct, intentional release of unburned gas.)
Ramona Nye, a spokesperson for the Railroad Commission, said in an email to Texas Climate News, “Protection of public safety and our environment is the RRC’s highest priority. Our rules – including Rule 3.32 which governs flaring – are in place and enforced to ensure safe, responsible production of our state’s natural resources.”
Last year, members of the Railroad Commission were split for the first time on a permit application to allow a company to flare gas even though a pipeline for that gas was available. Commission Chairman Wayne Christian said he was worried about the “frequency and ease” with which companies deployed flaring to get rid of natural gas, according to reporting by Bloomberg.
Pabst thinks this could be a hopeful sign of changing opinions at the agency, but Reed is much less optimistic there will be true change on the commission without member turnover. The three members are chosen in statewide elections for overlapping six-year terms. One of the positions will be filled in this year’s election.
Texas doesn’t have a state standard for controlling and regulating methane, which makes federal laws all the more important for managing methane emissions in the state, says Reed. This makes Texas different from other oil-producing states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico, which have all adopted or are working on state-specific methane rules.
The Trump administration is currently trying to roll back an Obama-era rule that enlisted the Clean Air Act to regulate methane emissions on new oil and gas developments. Many large oil and gas companies actually oppose the rollback and are planning to comply with the 2016 version of the rules. Trump’s proposal could cause uncertainty in the industry, they argue. In general, larger companies probably have less trouble complying with these standards than do smaller operators, Reed says.
Getting methane emissions under control is something we could do right now to take meaningful action on climate change, Leyden says. It’s also relatively cost-effective to prevent leaks and reduce venting and flaring, he says. It may even be economically beneficial to prevent these leaks, as methane that isn’t emitted could instead be exported,according to a new analysis by the Baker Institute at Rice University.
Ten years ago natural gas was commonly described as a “bridge” fuel that could wean the country off of coal in the production of electricity. Of the climate-changing fossil fuels, coal has the greatest atmosphere-warming effect. A natural gas plant is certainly much cleaner burning than a coal plant, Reed says. But he adds that if you factor in the gas wasted during hydraulic fracturing and methane leaks the climate footprint of natural gas and coal no longer seem that different.
Even if we do take the strides necessary to move our electric grid to entirely renewable energy in the next 10 years – a major feat – natural gas will still be a huge part of our residential infrastructure, used for heating, cooking, and other activities, Leyden points out. This makes it all the more important that we address methane emissions and leaks upfront.
“There’s a real need to improve the emissions profile of natural gas immediately,” he says. “It’s not going away tomorrow.”
Jillian Mock is a contributing editor of Texas Climate News. Her reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Audubon Magazine, Popular Science and other publications. Born and raised in Dallas, she currently lives in New York City.