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Page added on August 31, 2019

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Flaring, or Why So Much Gas Is Going Up in Flames

Production

If you take a drive along the well-worn highways of West Texas, orange flames will punctuate your journey. Those are gas flares, and they’re lighting up the skies above West Texas oilfields like never before as drillers produce crude faster than pipes can be laid to haul the attendant natural gas away. Oil drillers say flaring is the most environmentally friendly way to get rid of excess gas they can’t sell. Environmentalists say that in many cases what flaring is friendly to is oil drillers’ profits. They think regulators in states including Texas and North Dakota should be tougher on a practice that harms air quality and contributes to climate change.

1. Why do drillers flare?

When an oil well begins to spew, less-valuable natural gas comes up alongside crude. Pipelines can capture that gas, but when they’re not available, producers often get rid of the gas so they don’t have to stop pumping oil. They do that by either igniting the gas, in the case of flaring, or releasing it directly into air, known as venting. Flaring is preferred because methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, is burned off, though carbon dioxide is released into the air.

2. How much gas is flared?

A lot. The World Bank estimated that globally in 2018, 145 billion cubic meters of gas was flared, about as much as Central and South America use in a year. The amount is rising because of the oil boom in the U.S., which is fueled by the use of hydraulic fracturing — fracking — to unlock fuel from shale rock. Increased flaring in the U.S. is concentrated in the shale oil basins known as the Eagle Ford in Texas, the Permian in Texas and New Mexico, and the Bakken in North Dakota. Permian flaring rose about 85% last year, according to data from Oslo-based consultant Rystad Energy. The volume flared in Texas by the end of 2018 was greater than residential gas demand in the entire state.

3. What are the effects?

Gas flaring globally emits more than 350 million tons of carbon dioxide in a year, according to the World Bank. That’s the equivalent of the carbon emissions from 90 coal-fired power plants. In the U.S., flaring accounts for an estimated 9% of the greenhouse gas emissions of the oil and gas industry. In addition, the practice spews particulate matter, soot and toxins into the air that have been shown to be hazardous to humans.

4. How does the U.S. regulate flaring?

Flaring is allowed when the gas could cause a safety concern due to high pressure in a well and when pipelines aren’t in place to carry the fuel away. In either case, flaring spares drillers from having to suspend production, a costly move that can damage a reservoir’s future output. The Texas Railroad Commission, the main oil and gas regulator in the state, has never denied a request for a flaring permit. In a controversial case, it granted one Aug. 6 to Exco Resources Inc. even though the company’s wells were already connected to pipelines. Exco successfully argued that it would lose money paying to access the network.

5. Isn’t the gas worth something?

The short answer is no, not in oil-dominated basins where what matters is the ability to keep pumping black gold. In the Permian, local gas prices have gone negative multiple times this year, meaning drillers were actually paying customers to haul their gas.

6. Will more pipelines help?

Yes, when prices justify the costs of capturing the gas and transporting it to markets. A new pipeline led by Kinder Morgan Inc. is expected to reduce the pressure to flare. At the same time, pipeline projects in Texas are beginning to attract public opposition, a more common phenomenon in the northeastern U.S. Landowners along the route of another Kinder Morgan line are fighting the project in court, arguing against the company’s use of eminent domain to take private property. It’s not clear whether the legal battle will affect the project, but the challenge portends a tone shift in a historically industry-friendly state.

7. Are there alternatives to flaring?

Apart from transporting gas to markets via pipeline, oil producers can use it on-site as an energy source or reinject it underground. Both options require investments, however. Russia requires oil drillers to make use of 95% of the gas they produce, while Nigeria prohibits flaring, yet the practice is common in both places. That suggests bans may not be sufficient without incentives to curb flaring.

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13 Comments on "Flaring, or Why So Much Gas Is Going Up in Flames"

  1. diemos on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 10:01 am 

    meh.

    whether you capture and burn it as fuel or just release it into the atmosphere it’s just going to wind up as CO2 anyway.

    No long term difference.

  2. Mark in St Louis on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 10:25 am 

    Diemos: The difference in flaring versus releasing methane is that methane acts as a heat trapping gas 24 to 40 times that of CO2. Methane is oxidized by sunlight at a very slow rate so its higher climate changing effects are felt for many years.

  3. DerHundistLos on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 11:56 am 

    Nice job, Mark in Saint Louis, in smashing another denialist myth.

  4. jedrider on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 3:41 pm 

    Wasteful. No other word for it.

  5. Sissyfuss on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 4:32 pm 

    It’s the sudden release of gigatons of methane that will trigger runaway or exponential warming. We are all working hard to effect that nightmare.

  6. Anonymous on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 6:27 pm 

    1. It would be wasteful to not produce the oil because of waiting for gas pipelines. You are delaying dollars to wait for pennies. If a well is shutin for 3 years, it loses 30% PV, assuming a 10% discount rate.

    2. TX flaring is ~ 5% of total. (See RRC gas disposition bulletins.) Just something to keep in mind with stories like this that don’t quantify things properly.

  7. diemos on Sat, 31st Aug 2019 7:09 pm 

    Atmospheric half life of methane is seven years. https://phys.org/tags/methane/

    I say again, meh.

  8. kanon on Sun, 1st Sep 2019 7:47 am 

    The fossil fuel industry reaches new lows in terms of hatred for the environment and disregard of other human concerns. This is enabled by the enormous subsidies and government welfare provided to the fossil fuel industry. One may not be aware of the huge debt overhang from Wall Street (pension) borrowings that will never be repaid. Besides outright payments, tax breaks, and imperial conquests for oil, the most direct government subsidy is a transportation system designed to run exclusively on fossil fuels using single occupant vehicles. Destruction of nature and abuse of society are the two greatest satisfactions of the fossil fuel industry.

  9. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 3rd Sep 2019 9:07 am 

    it looks like they would do better to release it unburnt, because it breaks down much faster as CH4, rather than as CO2. But that would offend the liberals, especially since they are offended anytime somebody draws different conclusions than theirs.

  10. Speeder II on Tue, 3rd Sep 2019 12:48 pm 

    You’re so right, as always, Speeder.

    We should have the right to do any fucking thing we want.

    I think you were really on to something when you said, “I hope Trump turns himself into a dictator so that he can send all the democrats to Auschwitz in railroad cars.”

    Thing is, I know you really meant it. After all, Republican haters are gonna hate.That’s who they are and that’s what they do.

  11. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 4th Sep 2019 3:31 am 

    I’m so happy that my words are ringing
    inside of your skull for the rest of
    eternity. Like a great big brass bell
    and i hit it with a sledgehammer
    kabooooong and now you wake up and you go
    to sleep with those words stuck inside
    of your brain.
    and you eat lunch and dinner and all you
    can think of is all those liberals being
    boxed up into railroad cars while Der
    Fuhrer Donald Trump salutes his generals
    while the railroad cars with all the liberals
    goes to Auschwitz for the final solution.
    And now U grit your teeth together and
    its all U can think of for the rest of
    time.

    Perfect. Maybe U should vote Republican
    as a psychological exercise in not
    hyper-fixating onto one single subject.

    Little do U know, it doesn’t even matter
    how U vote. Unless U are in a swing state.
    Most states the outcome is already decided
    because they aren’t swing states.

    But U sit there gritting your teeth from
    dawn to dusk. Suit yourself. I enjoyed it.
    Making liberals freak out is what Trump
    does, and while I am no expert on that,
    if that is what I did, then hooray!
    Go an be miserable for the rest of your life,
    works 4 me. You’re gonna be real damn
    miserable because Trump is gonna win
    in 2020. I know some liberals think Biden
    or Warren is going to win. LOL they smoked
    too much legalized pot. So U got lotz of
    misery to look forward to. 🙂

    P.S. its called “Trump Derangement Syndrome”.

  12. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 4th Sep 2019 3:35 am 

    OK OK this is important.
    I figured out how to save
    the environment.

    We’re gonna build nuclear
    reactors without any containment
    building AND it will have open spaces
    between the rods, sort of like how
    Chernobyl was built.
    BUT we’re gonna stuff those spaces with
    shredded old sofa’s.

    The fuel rods will be able to withstand
    red heat so it will be a red hot
    nuclear powered sofa fire. This will
    mix the most fuel efficient benefits of
    the nuclear power source PLUS get rid of
    old garbage such as old sofas and old
    tire cushions.

    The overall operation will be very similar
    to Chernobyl (after it blew up) just that
    this will be normal operation and the fuel
    rods won’t lose their integrity. So the
    only radioactivity should be the radioactive
    smoke from the sofa cushions burning up
    between the fuel rods.

    This will be the 4th Generation design
    for Sofas 2 Energy.

  13. Stupid juanpaultard socks on Wed, 4th Sep 2019 5:26 am 

    Speeder II on Tue, 3rd Sep 2019 12:48 pm

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