Gas flaring is a symptom of political wrong-headedness

A gas flare burns bright on a production site northeast of Andrews, Texas. Photo by Jerod Foster for The Texas Tribune

Only ten years ago, most Americans would probably have scoffed at the notion that wasting natural resources is “necessary.” Most of us were probably unaware that the fossil fuel industry has always wasted gas in flares. But the fracking boom changed that: As the boom has catapulted the U.S. into the top five flaring nations, just behind Iran and Iraq, flaring has become the symbol of opportunistic wastefulness in an industry at the center of the climate crisis. 

Essentially everyone agrees: Flaring should not happen. 

Yet, the volume numbers increase, and the excuses remain the same. While there are numerous reliable technologies to avoid flaring — such as by using the gas on site, or building out pipeline before production — the industry keeps announcing that the problem will be solved “soon.”

At the same time, flaring is abetted by the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), which refuses to deny any flaring permit applications, and tolerated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which appears to be unaware that pollutants from a well site can easily exceed its permitted emissions due to venting and flaring. 

With the help of undergraduate students, we have closely investigated well-site flaring in Texas between 2012 and 2015, comparing NOAA satellite data to the RRC data base. We found numerous flares in the satellite data that have no equivalents in RRC’s data base, and many sites that reported much less flared gas than what the satellite data suggest was actually burned. This defies the commissioners’ belief that its numbers of vented and flared gas in Texas are “accurate.” Reported numbers are not audited and obviously do not reflect reality; because RRC rules allow numerous exceptions to what has to be reported, under-estimation occurs by default. Aside from low-balling gas flaring as a result, what remains unknown, because agency rules don’t require it to be reported, is how much gas is not burned but vented, worsening the greenhouse warming effects of this monstrous wastefulness.

Contrary to the RRC leadership’s claim, when gas is wasted this way at production sites, its environmental impact is doubled, as the heat or electricity it could have produced in homes or power plants was likely provided by another fossil fuel source burned instead. Furthermore, pollutant emissions at well sites can be higher, as flares burn hydrocarbons inefficiently and no exhaust cleaning is required. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from flaring in Texas amount to approximately 3,000 tons per year — the rough equivalent of emissions from two mid-size coal-fired power plants. And when the flares are not burning, which occurs more frequently than the industry will admit, vented hydrocarbons contribute to regional ozone formation.

It is appalling to read the RRC’s habitual response to flaring questions, namely that its rules are meant to “ensure safe, responsible production of natural resources.” Not only does that phrase repeat an industry talking point, it speaks of the ignorance of decision-makers toward the people affected by venting and flaring nearly every day.

And that ultimately includes us all, due to the looming climate crisis.

As we vent, flare and use natural gas, we perpetuate our dependence on fossil fuels as if there were no alternatives. With federal encouragement, the fossil-fuel industry is expanding drilling with the goal of exporting gas overseas, creating more leaks for methane, the main component of natural gas, to escape into and further warm our atmosphere, while undermining cleaner, safer energy deployment.

Increasing atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide concentrations from burning such fossil fuels is the reason the planet is rapidly getting hotter. We already experience increasing numbers of severe weather events, such as heavy downpours leading to flash flooding, or widespread, more frequent and longer lasting heatwaves across the U.S.

Although flash flooding, heat waves or droughts may not cost many human lives directly, they cost us dearly as they diminish our capacity to cultivate cropsmaintain our infrastructure and protect the weakest among us. We cannot sustain ourselves socially and financially if the temperatures keep rising. Continued planetary warming threatens the very foundation of our modern society. And because carbon dioxide from fossil fuels remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years, warming that is enabled by the current generation of decision-makers will diminish the lives of future generations.

While a growing majority of Americans is realizing this threat, most Texas decision-makers are seemingly oblivious to the consequences of their actions. They would rather witness the wastefulness of flaring, dismissing its “negligible impact,” while simultaneously endorsing the major impact of fossil fuel combustion. It’s like a doctor telling a smoker that the 20th cigarette that day is fine; after all, the first 19 did not kill him. Really?

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Gunnar W. Schade

Associate professor of atmospheric science, Texas A&M University