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One In 10 Permian Basin Flares Are Spewing Methane Into The Air, Environmental Defense Fund Says

Gas is burned off from an oil well in West Texas.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Gas is burned off from an oil well in West Texas.

The amount of methane that fossil fuel companies burn off in Texas as a waste product could, according to some estimates. The industry practice known as “flaring” has been decried as wasteful and polluting by public health groups, environmentalists and even some in the industry.

Now, a  surveyof flares in West Texas suggests the problem could be even worse than previously thought.

Companies flare when they can’t capture methane that spews into the air from oil and gas operations. The idea is that burning the gas is not as bad for health and climate as letting it go into the atmosphere.

But it is still bad. Flaring contributes to global warming and releases toxins into the air. A  recent study found that pregnant women who live near gas flares have a 50% higher chance of giving birth prematurely.

This year, the Environmental Defense Fund started flying a helicopter around the oilfields of the Permian Basin to take a closer look at gas leaks and flaring. The helicopter was equipped with an infrared camera that detects methane, a tool that’s been used for years  to expose oilfield emissions.

In three surveys over the basin conducted in February, May and June, the camera consistently revealed that 11% of flares were not functioning properly and that 5% of flares were completely unlit.

A video from the Environmental Defense Fund shows the difference between emissions from unlit and lit flares:

“What we found is pretty shocking data,” said Colin Leyden, EDF’s director of regulatory and legislative affairs. “We're either not burning all of the gas that's coming out of the flare, or they're completely unlit and venting directly into the atmosphere.”

Leyden said the EDF notified both the Railroad Commission of Texas, which permits flares, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is supposed to inspect them for environmental compliance.

The data comes as the Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates oil and gas in the state, plans to have a meeting on flaring in early August.

State regulators have said they want to see flaring reduced in Texas oilfields. But, they prefer that the industry make the reductions voluntarily.

In May, Railroad Commission Chair Wayne Christian convened a task force of industry insiders to provide recommendations for combating flaring.

“I want to be clear,"  he said at the time, "this is an ‘ask,' not a 'demand.'”

But, Leyden says the data his group is collecting shows that the problems of flaring and methane pollution will not be solved through industry regulating itself.

“That really gets to what we'd like to see the state of Texas do,” he said, “which is adopt a formal policy of ending routine flaring in Texas in general by 2025.”

Got a tip? Email Mose Buchele at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter  @mosebuchele

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Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.