The Impact of the Oil Price War On Methane Flaring Is Uncertain

With oil prices plummeting to 18-year lows, oil and gas companies are scaling back by cutting workers, halting infrastructure investments, and drastically reducing oil and gas production. But will the natural gas industry finally get their outrageous methane leaks under control? Even before the latest crisis, there was an excess of natural gas production leading the industry to “flare” into the atmosphere the methane they could not sell — resulting in the waste of billions of tons of perfectly good fuel and unnecessarily speeding the warming of the Earth’s climate.

Why This Matters:  Methane is the most potent greenhouse gas in terms of its short term impact.  The Trump Administration made flaring methane even easier — rolling back Obama administration rules that reigned in methane leaks coming from operations on both public and private lands.  The idea that flaring could be worse in the future is sickening — because it is already a terrible problem.  Last year, according to Grist, oil and gas companies in the country’s two largest shale fields either burned off or directly released almost 500 billion cubic feet of natural gas into the air — enough to heat about 6 million homes for a year, if it hadn’t been wasted.  And now NASA has developed a model to visualize from space what is causing the most methane emissions — so the extent of this problem will hopefully be exposed.

More or Less Flaring?

Industry analysts and experts are uncertain of what to expect from the oil market crash when it comes to the flaring problem.  Lower prices and excessive supply will definitely lead to lower production of gas and that could lead to less flaring because there is less gas to get backed up in the pipes leading to terminals on the coast where it is exported.  But flaring could also get worse because the crash will lead to more companies going out of business or cutting costs so drastically that they won’t have funds to monitor flares and control intentional flares, much less to fix faulty equipment that may be accidentally leaking natural gas into the atmosphere.

The Industry In Texas Is Working Together To Cut Back on Methane

It must be a real problem because now the industry has vowed to try to fix it.  In Texas, several oil and gas companies and trade associations in Texas this week announced the formation of the Texas Methane and Flaring Coalition to “strive to find innovative ways to minimize flaring and methane emissions.”  Sure.

NASA Now Has An Eye On Methane

NASA announced last week that it has a “new 3-dimensional portrait of methane concentrations shows the world’s second-largest contributor to greenhouse warming, the diversity of sources on the ground, and the behavior of the gas as it moves through the atmosphere. Combining multiple data sets from emissions inventories, including fossil fuel, agricultural, biomass burning and biofuels, and simulations of wetland sources into a high-resolution computer model, researchers now have an additional tool for understanding this complex gas and its role in Earth’s carbon cycle, atmospheric composition, and climate system.”

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