Thursday, October 17, 2019

Flaring (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
When leaders from Exxon Mobil and BP gathered last month with other fossil-fuel executives to declare they were serious about climate change, they cited progress in curbing an energy-wasting practice called flaring — the intentional burning of natural gas as companies drill faster than pipelines can move the energy away.

But in recent years, some of these same companies have significantly increased their flaring, as well as the venting of natural gas and other potent greenhouse gases directly into the atmosphere, according to data from the three largest shale-oil fields in the United States.

The practice has consequence for climate change because natural gas is a potent contributor to global warming.  It also wastes vast amounts of energy:  Last year in Texas, venting and flaring in the Permian Basin oil field alone consumed more natural gas than states like Arizona and South Carolina use in a year.

Exxon’s venting and flaring has surged since 2017 to record highs, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of gas produced, the numbers show. Exxon flared or vented 70 percent more gas in 2018 than it did the previous year, according to the data, bringing an end to several years of improvements.

What on Earth Is Going On?
Flaring and venting are legal under state laws, and oil companies acknowledge the practices are wasteful.  Typically, venting or flaring occur because there aren’t pipelines close enough to a well to capture and transport the gas, or because gas prices are so low that it’s cheaper to discard the gas than to try to sell it.  Venting can also occur during equipment breakdowns.

Since 2011, the period for which reliable numbers are available, Exxon has flared or vented more gas overall than any other operator in the three oil fields, which include the Eagle Ford and Permian basins in the Southwest, and the Bakken straddling the Canadian border.  Companies often treat natural gas as a byproduct when drilling for oil, which is far more lucrative.

The data also shows that BP this year acquired some of the most polluting sites in the Permian and then allowed flaring and venting to increase.  BP burned off 17 percent of the gas it produced in the Permian between April and June of this year (the first full quarter after the acquisition) making it the worst performer in percentage terms among the top 50 producers.  In the year-earlier quarter, BP had burned only 10 percent.

When asked about its practices, Exxon Mobil said it was committed to a 25 percent reduction in flaring globally by 2020, compared to 2016 levels, to address environmental concerns.

BP said it was investing in upgrades at its Permian wells that would eliminate much of its flaring.  The company also said it was not putting new wells in the area unless they had access to a gas pipeline, reducing the need to burn off or vent excess natural gas.

The analysis provides one of the clearest pictures to date of the companies behind the vast emissions of natural gas that have resulted from America’s shale oil boom, fueled by the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to unlock fossil fuels from shale rock.

Last year, operators across the three basins together flared or vented a record 320 million cubic feet of gas, more than 40 percent above levels seen just five years ago.  The pace for the first two quarters of 2019 has been even higher.

Rystad Energy, an energy analytics company that compiles industry data from state-level corporate disclosures, provided the venting and flaring data to The New York Times, which performed an independent analysis.  Separately, an organization affiliated with Greenpeace, Unearthed, also did its own initial analysis of a similar set of data.

Read more at Flaring (Credit: Click to Enlarge.

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