A flaring well in Garden City, Texas.     Photo: Gabriel C. Pérez, KUT Austin NPR

In a first of its kind challenge, the Williams Pipeline Company is fighting to prevent natural gas venting and flaring by Exco Resources Inc., which is seeking to release nearly all of the gas produced by a group of its South Texas wells as a byproduct of its drilling for shale oil — Williams argues that this practice is a massive waste of natural gas and the flaring is banned by law.  Indeed, according to The Wall Street Journal, “the Texas Railroad Commission has received more than 27,000 requests for flaring permits in the past seven years and has not denied any of them.”   And the Environmental Defense Fund reported last January, and a new study from researchers at Texas A&M confirms that natural gas waste and pollution in the Texas Permian Basin is two times higher than what industry reports to the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC).

Why This Matters:  What a colossal waste and a huge breach of the public’s trust by the State of Texas that has completely frustrated the intent of the law against natural gas flares by agreeing to every single exception it has entertained — and allowing the major underreporting of what is vanishing into the air.  All that methane gas being vented and flared is also contributing to the climate crisis trashing the atmosphere with approximately 740 million cubic feet of gas a day.  The wasted gas would be worth about “$1.8 million a day at current prices, and it produces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of nearly five million cars driving for a day,” according to estimates from the World Bank and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Wall Street Journal reported.  If they don’t say no this time, the Railroad Commission might as well just throw out the rule book because the law means nothing.

The Stakes Are High

The Railroad Commission staff recommended that Commission approve Exco’s flaring request, but last month the agency’s elected Commissioners put off a vote on the matter until August or later.

  • The real issue is money, of course.  The Journal explains that Williams wants to build more pipelines to capture that gas and sell it, but that would restrict the flaring and require the producers to capture it, which could cause drillers to curtail oil production.
  • The current system allows the drillers to flare and vent the gas for free rather than paying to transport the gas.
  • Exco argues that if the Commission rejects its permit, that could force a shutdown of the oil wells — it seems the company is not on strong financial footing — it only recently emerged from bankruptcy.
  • There are some who want to keep the free flaring and venting going as well because they fear more natural gas entering the market will create a glut — Texas’ gas output is expected to increase 30% over the next five years.

Graphic: Environmental Defense Fund

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