Gaslit: First in a four-part series by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication about the flaring and venting of natural gas by oil and gas companies in more than a dozen states across the country.
AUSTIN, Texas—Wayne Christian wanted to brag, he said, rocking in his burgundy leather chair atop the dais of the powerful Railroad Commission of Texas. Colleagues and staff were doing “a darn good job,” and people who “gripe about the environmental issues” were misinformed.
The self-congratulatory pause was made during an October meeting at the agency that oversees a $450 billion oil and natural gas industry in the country with the highest production. It is also the top-producing country on a planet rapidly warming.
Christian, a former Grammy-nominated gospel singer, complained that negative media reports had obscured “the good job our staff and this industry has done for a cleaner environment, the cleanest industrialized nation on the planet.”
Then the chairman and his two fellow elected commissioners returned to their agenda and, without debate, approved 39 more requests from oil and gas companies seeking permission to burn off or vent natural gas that’s rich in methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
According to the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, over the past decade, Texas oil and gas companies and those in a dozen other states have flared or burned off at least 3.5 trillion cubic yards of natural gas. That’s the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of nearly 42 million cars driving for a year. Venting is a method by which the industry has indirectly released unknown amounts into the atmosphere. Flaring and venting both release a toxic mixture of carbon dioxide, methane, and other pollutants.
Climate scientists warn that the world will not be able to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Already, it is causing unprecedented wildfires and floods around the globe. Flaring emissions are also linked to preterm births according to epidemiologists.
Flaring has surged alongside the fracking boom that’s helped producers unlock previously unreachable fossil fuels and boosted local, state and national economies over the last decade and a half. The United States produces enough oil and natural gases to be energy independent. Its volumes exceed those of Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Companies may occasionally vent to relieve pressure buildups or maintain equipment, but cost is another motivator. Natural gas is far less profitable than oil, and it’s often cheaper for companies to get rid of the gas associated with operations than to transport and process it for sale.
Experts say that methane reduction is one of the fastest ways to reduce global warming.
During the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, the Biden administration unveiled its proposal to slash methane emissions by the U.S. oil and gas industry, the country’s largest industrial source of methane. The rule would ban venting from both new and old oil wells and require companies to capture gas and sell it whenever possible.
The Howard Center found that regulators are not aware of how much gas is being flared and vented. It’s a blind spot that’s developed under limited federal oversight and a patchwork of state regulations, lax enforcement and inconsistent data collection.
For at least 17 years, government auditors have warned that bad data was blinding regulators to the amount of greenhouse gases being pushed into the atmosphere by the oil and gas industry’s flaring and venting. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended improving data collection and oversight in 2004. The GAO recommended standard reporting for flaring or venting data across all US states and the use satellite data to improve accuracy. As recently as 2016, the same office warned that natural gas emissions from oil and gas production on federal land weren’t being tracked consistently.
“You can’t regulate what you don’t measure,” said Gunnar Schade, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University who has used satellite data to study flaring in Texas. “We actually don’t have a good handle on what goes in the atmosphere for various reasons—some of them by design, some of them by negligence.”
The Howard Center’s satellite flaring volumes, which were calculated under the guidance of scientists who pioneered the method, far surpass the total reported by regulatory agencies in the 13 states that have the highest active flaring. They also far exceeded the total published by Energy Information Administration, which is the U.S. Energy Department analytics agency that claims it gets its data directly from the states.
Laws in those top-flaring states vary widely on when companies can flare or vent, whether they need a permit, how much they can emit and if or how they’ll be penalized if they’re caught breaking the rules, the Howard Center found. All of the regulations—even the strictest—have myriad exceptions. The federal government doesn’t regulate flaring and venting except on federal and tribal lands and in federal waters.
Four of the states maintain little or no information on flaring and venting volumes, the Howard Center’s investigation found. In those that do keep volume data, it’s based on self-reported information from oil and gas operators, some using estimations rather than metered measurements. For accuracy and completeness, there are not many regular audits.
“You’re totally at the whim of what the self-reporting is,” said Tim Doty, a former senior technical adviser at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is charged with maintaining air quality in what satellite data shows is the nation’s top-flaring state. “Some of the companies are trying to do the right thing, but not all the companies are trying to do the right thing.”
Satellite technology can be used to determine the accuracy of self reported flaring volumes. Although the technology has some limitations, it is generally considered to be the best available independent tool for measuring flaring volume. It is not one that federal and state regulators have adopted.
Christopher Elvidge, then a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pioneered this method in 2012. It uses satellites equipped to emit visible infrared light and detect flares from oil or gas operations to estimate the volumes of gas they are burning. When Elvidge later moved to the Colorado School of Mines’ Earth Observation Group, the program went with him.
The Howard Center’s reporters analyzed satellite data from top-flaring states between 2012 and 2020. They then compared these totals with company-reported flaring quantities collected by regulators in those same states.
There were wide-ranging discrepancies.
Some states allow companies in some states to report combined totals of their flaring and venting volumes. However, it is difficult to draw meaningful comparisons with the flaring only volumes collected by satellites. But in Texas, for example, satellite data indicated the volume of flared gas alone was almost double the amount reported for both flared and vented gas—raising questions about underreporting. And in Montana, the companies’ combined flaring and venting volume reports were nearly 150 percent higher than the flaring-only volumes detected by satellites—highlighting the unknowns surrounding venting.
These disparities persist even in states that require oil companies to report flaring and venting volumes separately. This should allow for fair comparison with satellite data. Satellites detected 25% more flaring in North Dakota than companies reported. In Wyoming, the discrepancy was roughly the same—but in the opposite direction.
Some of the discrepancies, scientists say, may result from the fact that some states don’t require companies to report every instance of flaring, and that the roving satellites don’t catch every flare, especially small or intermittent ones.
But the fact that company-reported volumes differed dramatically from those of an empirical check indicates that government data is inaccurate or incomplete and that policymakers don’t know the extent of the greenhouse gases resulting from flaring and venting, even as they attempt to craft climate change legislation.
“There’s almost been a kind of tacit agreement that we’ll accept the estimates,” said Barry Rabe, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies public and environmental policy. “Until such time that there’s political or public pressure to make those numbers more accurate, it’s easier just to look the other way.”
Texas has been vital to the United States’ emergence as the top producer of oil and gas. The fracking boom that began in the mid-2000s started in north Texas’ Barnett Shale, following advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling methods. Since then, production has been driven by the Permian Basin and the southern Eagle Ford Shale. This region stretches from west Texas to southeastern New Mexico, and is the most prolific oil-and gas region in the country.
According to the U.S Energy Information Administration (US Energy Information Administration), Texas accounted for 43% of all oil and 25% of all natural gas in the United States in 2020.
However, not all of the gas extracted from the ground is used for fuel. According to their data, Texas companies vented over 980 billion cubic yards of gas between 2012-2020. Satellite estimates however indicate that the volume of gas flared could be twice as high.
Texas Railroad Commissioner Jim Wright said he trusts Texas’ oil and gas operators to correctly self-report and dismissed the validity of the satellite data, suggesting it includes heat sources other than flares.
“I am a rancher, and the law still allows me to push my brush, pile it and burn it,” he said in an October interview. “If you go down to where I’m from, every weekend there’s smoke everywhere because we burn brush.”
Elvidge and his scientists, who developed the satellite data method, say that their algorithms filter out heat signatures other than oil and natural gas flares.
Wright is one of the three elected commissioners of Texas’ oil and gas regulatory agency, established 130 years ago when it still oversaw the railroad industry, and one of two who have publicly questioned the reality of climate change.
Wright was asked by a campaigner in 2020 whether flaring causes any harm to the environment. “Nobody’s proven to me exactly in pinpoint what is really hurting our atmosphere,” he said during a podcast called “Oil and Gas Startups,” before calling himself an environmentalist.
Christian, the commission chairman, authored a 2018 opinion piece claiming that “the science of climate change is far from settled.”
The Railroad Commission has been criticised for being too close with the industry it regulates. According to OpenSecrets (a national campaign finance watchdog), the three commissioners received donations from members from the oil and gas industries over the course their political careers. These donations ranged from approximately a half-million to $3 million.
Texas Governor. Greg Abbott also received more than $34 million in contributions from members of the oil and gas industry over the span of his political career—far more than any other governor of a top-flaring state. Asked about campaign contributions tied to oil and gas, Greg Abbott’s staff has previously said he represents “all Texans.”
Texas law does not allow political candidates in Texas to accept donations from companies, but it does allow individuals and political actions committees to make unlimited contributions. Wright, in an email, said he based his decisions “on what I believe is best for the state and our citizens. Period.”
“Upholding the public’s trust, not to mention my own personal integrity, is important to me,” said Wright. “I am committed to following all rules and regulations set forth under state law and administered by the Texas Ethics Commission.”
Christi Craddick, a fellow commissioner, said that she also followed Texas Ethics Commission rules. Christian did not respond when asked.
Railroad Commission stated it supports reducing flaring. Flared and vented volumes only represent a fraction of all natural gases produced in the state. The commission started requiring companies that apply for permits to flare or vent to provide additional information in 2020. It started requiring that flaring volume be reported separately from venting volume in September 2021. Environmental advocates considered that a small sign of progress given the state’s industry-friendly regulations.
Under Texas law, operators can’t flare or vent without a permit unless they’re exempt or authorized under Statewide Rule 32. There are many other allowances available, including the ability to flare and vent while operating wells, during maintenance or safety.
“If you read Rule 32, it’s just a list of loopholes,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, a national environmental nonprofit.
For companies that don’t qualify under those exemptions, the Railroad Commission has handed out at least 36,700 permits between 2012 and 2021.
“The Railroad Commission has decided to basically offer anyone who wants a flaring permit, a flaring permit,” said Colin Leyden, Texas political director at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy and scientific research nonprofit. “At the end of the day, if you don’t outlaw routine flaring like other states—Colorado, New Mexico—if you don’t outlaw it as an operational procedure, it will continue.”
Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said the oil and natural gas industry “is and will continue to be the cornerstone of a cleaner, stronger, better future with lower emissions and less carbon intensity.”
Nearly a dozen Democrat-sponsored bills aimed at reducing flaring or venting—or increasing oversight of the practices—died in committee in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature during the session that ended in May 2021.
“I’d like to be naive and say if we just lobby harder and if we just educate public officials more, that there would be action here or at the Railroad Commission,” said Reed. “I think that’s naive, given our politics. I think it’s probably going to take federal action.”
A Gray Zone for Flaring
Virginia Palacios was a ranch owner in South Texas. She was driving down a bumpy road in Encinal, population 601, on a scorchingly hot fall day when she noticed a small intermittent flare behind a chain link fence.
The flare’s flickering indicated that it might not be combusting properly, and released more methane into its atmosphere.
She pulled over, reaching for her phone. “I could call the TCEQ about it right now,” she said, referring to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, “and see if they do anything.”
Palacios was a founder and former president of Commission Shift. This nonprofit works to hold Texas’ oil and gas regulators responsible. The Texas Railroad Commission has primary jurisdiction, and is responsible for preventing the waste of natural resource. However, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulates emissions from the air, including venting and flaring.
“There’s a flare that’s going—it’s on, but it’s kind of flickering out,” Palacios, who has a master’s degree in environmental management, told the agency operator. “I’m just concerned that it’s not burning all the gas that’s going through.”
In calculating emissions from flare stacks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assumes a flare’s combustion efficiency is 98 percent unless otherwise determined by its manufacturer.
But as Doty, the former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality technical adviser, noted, unless an agency inspector checks a flare on-site, it’s impossible to know if it’s combusting efficiently. And with “hundreds of thousands of sites” in Texas, Doty said, there were too few inspectors to do that.
“It would take literally an army of people to go do that, even if the state regulatory agencies had the best intentions in mind and … that’s all they focused on,” said Doty, who left the Texas environmental commission after nearly 30 years, claiming the agency wasn’t interested in keeping experienced employees who were vocal about their concerns.
Without more monitoring and enforcement, experts say that flares can exist in a gray area between flaring and venting—with some gas being flared, some being vented and no easy way to tell how much of either.
Environmental Defense Fund discovered that more than 10 percent of flares in the Permian Basin were either partially combusting, or completely unlit. This resulted in methane entering the atmosphere.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, as well as environmentalists, have used infrared, or optical gas imaging, cameras to detect leaks as well as venting and inefficient flaring, but it’s not easy to deploy them on a large scale. According to Doty, who served as the agency’s optical gas imaging program director, the cameras cost around $100,000 each.
The commission did not respond to questions. However, it stated that it had 159 full time employees who conduct air quality investigations and are available for air quality complaints. The agency said it had “enough” inspectors to conduct required state and federal air investigations. The commission also said it had 20 infrared cameras for use around the state “to address environmental issues that could affect air quality including those around oil and natural gas related sites.”
Doty stated that the cameras can detect flaring and venting, but there are no regulations that require the state agency to use them in this way.
Palacios stated that she received a phone call from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality just one day after Encinal filed her complaint. The agency told her its infrared cameras were under maintenance, she said, and that an inspector couldn’t investigate the flare for a couple of weeks.
“The system is not designed to detect rule violations or protect public health and the environment,” Palacios said in a follow-up email. “It’s designed to document that the companies are in compliance.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality launched a public effort to address the increase in oil and gas facility emissions in the Permian basin. In January 2021, it launched the “Find it and Fix it” program to allow oil and gas companies in violation of commission regulations to submit compliance plans. In return, the companies could receive “enforcement discretion” that would consider a company’s efforts in determining any punishment or penalties.
The program is voluntary. According to the Howard Center, only 21 companies have enrolled in the initiative, and only 16 have submitted compliance plans. According to an oil and gas directory maintained by the Texas Railroad Commission, there were more than 1,100 companies registered in Midland and Odessa, two of the Permian Basin’s biggest cities, as of October 2021.
Critics claim such programs reduce accountability and allow large unknown volumes of toxic gasses into the atmosphere.
“We’re absolutely underestimating,” said Doty. “I can’t even fathom how much we’re underestimating emissions.”
Sandra Barrera recalls the strong smell of Odessa (a fracking epicenter in West Texas) when she first drove into the town in 2014. She is concerned about the black smoke and emissions from nearby flares.
“Even though oil and gas is great for the economy, it’s also affecting the health of people,” said Barrera, who grew up in Houston. “We’re drinking the water, we’re breathing in the air.”
A February 2021 study of the three major flaring sites in the United States—the Permian, Eagle Ford and Bakken basins in Texas, New Mexico, Montana and North Dakota—sought to understand how many Americans might be exposed to toxic air pollutants, light pollution and noise.
Researchers, led by environmental epidemiologist Lara Cushing, estimated that over a half-million people were living within about three miles of flares, the highest concentration of those in Odessa and nearby Midland, towns in Texas’ Permian Basin.
“We also found that Black, Indigenous and people of color were disproportionately exposed to flaring relative to the white population,” Cushing, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Howard Center.
In 2020, Cushing and four other researchers published a study on the impact of nightly flaring events on pregnant women living nearby, analyzing 23,487 birth records from 2012 to 2015 in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale.
They found that the odds of a preterm birth—a baby being born too early, prior to 37 completed weeks—was higher, Cushing said. “About 50 percent higher among pregnant individuals that lived, had a high—what we considered a high amount—of flaring close to their home,” she added.
According to Cushing this trend was most common among Latinos who were exposed to more flares per year than the white population.
Similar demographics were revealed by the Howard Center’s analysis of satellite data and U.S. Census data. More than half of the people in 12 of the 15 Texas counties that had the highest satellite-recorded flaring volumes identified themselves as Latino, multiracial, or nonwhite.
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Public health researchers, just like many environmentalists, have also turned towards satellite data after finding inadequate state-level information regarding flaring.
“We relied on secondary data source satellite observations, which are great because they’re objective,” said Cushing. “They don’t rely on self-reported information from the industry, but they also have their limitations.”
For example, satellite data can’t explain why women living near flares are experiencing more preterm births, Cushing said. “Is it because of air pollutants that are being released or stress associated with seeing this type of activity in your community, or something else?”
Flaring is a subject that has limited medical research due to the lack of data at the state level, limitations of satellite data, and rural nature of the areas most affected. According to a Howard Center review, more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies that were published between 2012-2021 have clearly shown the health risks associated living near oil and gas development sites. These include high blood pressure, cancer, heart failure, asthma, and heart failure.
“How much evidence do you need to take action?” asked Jill Johnston, a research colleague of Cushing’s and an assistant professor in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “There seems to be this pattern that we’ve seen across multiple states, multiple study designs.”
Cushing said conducting more air monitoring near flares would aid researchers’ understanding of the types of pollutants being released and their impact on rural communities that typically face higher poverty rates and health burdens.
‘The Clock’s Ticking’
Jose Gonzalez knows when the oil-and-gas industry is booming, because the seats at his restaurant in rural La Salle County are always full.
“The truth is that I am very happy, because if they do well, we do well too,” said Gonzalez, co-owner of the Country Store restaurant in Cotulla, in Spanish.
Like many local businesses in this small town of about 4,000 in south Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, Gonzalez said most of his customers work in the oil and gas industry. His restaurant, located just off Interstate 35 attracts truck drivers transporting petroleum and natural gases.
After horizontal drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale began in 2008, La Salle County was transformed. New homes, hotels, and industry-adjacent business sprung up against the backdrop dominated by flare stacks and pump jacks.
The Eagle Ford’s oil production peaked in 2015, when it pushed out nearly 432 million barrels. It also flared more than 92 million cubic feet of natural gas that year, according to a Texas A&M analysis of satellite data.
Gonzalez, an immigrant originally from northeast Mexico, saw opportunities for his family during this boom. His father started a trucking firm to transport sand for fracking.
Even Palacios admits that a thriving oil-and-gas industry can bring new life to rural economies. The boom has made Encinal, her small town south of Cotulla, more comfortable through the construction of new buildings such as a public library, city hall, and other amenities.
But in 2011, Palacios’ family had to sell the livestock on their fourth-generation cattle ranch amid a major drought.
“Oil and gas has kind of taken over as the major industry compared to cattle,” said Palacios. “But in doing that, the emissions from oil and gas development have really affected our ability to earn a sustainable living.”
Scientists say it’s hard to quantify just how much flaring and venting are contributing to global warming, largely because the volume of gas that companies are venting remains a big unknown.
“Right now, there’s a lot of opinions, but not a lot of good measurements,” said Schade, the Texas A&M scientist. He pointed out that scientists will be able to quantify the amount of methane released by oil and natural gas operators through venting with new satellites, which are set for launch in 2022/23.
Scientists and environmental advocates agree that reducing routine flaring is one of the best ways to combat climate change.
“If we’re looking at the very big and difficult problem of climate emissions,” said Leyden, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas political director, “methane from the oil and gas industry as a whole is really a low-hanging fruit. Flaring even more so, because it’s really, simply being driven by profit.”
New Mexico and Colorado have already banned routine flaring. Over a dozen oil companies have also pledged not to continue with their efforts by 2025 or 2030.
However, due to the lack of data, scientists and environmental activists believe federal intervention is the only solution to all flaring, venting and other problems. Many want uniform, robust rules that are consistent across states from the Biden administration.
“It’s been at least 10 years that we’ve been dealing with this venting and flaring issue in Texas, and Texas regulators have not responded,” Palacios said. “Now, it is time for federal regulators to step in and do something.”
Meanwhile, said Doty, “the clock’s ticking.”
This story was written by Jimmy Cloutier, Maya Leachman, and Isaac Stone Simonelli. Researchers Grace Oldham (and Rachel Gold) also contributed to it. It was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. See here for more information https://azpbs.org/gaslit. Send us an email at email@example.com, or follow us on Twitter @HowardCenterASU
Source: Inside Climate News