EDF Permian Flaring Report Obscures Latest Emissions Data

Monday, November 20, 2017

A recent report from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) claims that venting and flaring in West Texas’ Permian Basin is taking place at much higher rates than reported, but recent data show that oil and natural gas operators are already effectively limiting methane emissions in the region – even as production has increased.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane emissions in the Permian dropped by 300,000 tons of CO2 equivalent between 2011 and 2016. Over that same period, oil production in the Permian increased by more than 1.1 million barrels per day.


Production up, methane down. That sounds like progress to us.

To obscure this success on methane emissions, however, EDF focused on venting and flaring rates from the top producers in the basin. While the data suggest that a handful of producers had a higher than average venting and flaring rate for the limited time period EDF chose, one-third of the operators reduced their flaring rates between 2014 and 2015. More impressive still, 80 percent of the producers mentioned by EDF either reduced venting and flaring or remained at the same level from 2014 to 2015, with a third of them reaching rates of just one percent of total production.

Notably, EDF acknowledged the producers’ efforts to minimize these rates, stating in its press release:

“It should be noted that some Permian operators are doing a good job of avoiding wasteful flaring.  In fact, more than a third of the operators studied in the report generated consistent, minimal flaring rates, indicating companies and policy makers can do more to reduce gas waste and pollution through better flaring practices and policies.”

Air Quality Benefits of Nat Gas

EDF also claims that flaring “spawns a host of other pollutants like particulate matter and sulfur dioxide,” adding that these emissions could be associated with maladies ranging from “irritation of the eyes” to cancer. But EDF’s report ignored the air quality benefits provided by natural gas – including a reduction in the very emissions they identified.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas use for electric generation increased by over 46 percent between 2007 and 2016, while energy-related CO2 emissions declined by 830 million metric tons over that same period. In fact, EIA found that switching to natural gas generation helped mitigate prevent over two billion tons of CO2 emissions between 2005 and 2016. That’s almost twice the decline attributed to renewables.

Further, because natural gas generation emits much lower concentrations of greenhouse gases than other fuels, levels of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NOx) have dropped across the board as natural gas consumption has increased. According to the U.S. EPA, between 1990 and 2016, U.S. nitrogen dioxide levels dropped 56 percent, while concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and SO2 declined by 44 percent and 85 percent, respectively. At this same time, U.S. natural gas production grew by over 51 percent.

As Dr. Richard Muller from Cal-Berkeley has observed:

“[S]hale gas results in a 400-fold reduction of PM2.5, a 4,000-fold reduction in sulphur dioxide, a 70-fold reduction in nitrous oxides (NOx), and more than a 30-fold reduction in mercury.”

 Costly and Unnecessary Regulation

Finally, EDF calls for a number of regulatory changes. The group suggests, for example, that operators be required to use the “best flaring technologies to minimize waste and protect air quality.” Oil producers in the Permian are equally concerned with maintaining air quality and using the best technologies available during production, which is why methane overall emissions from oil and natural systems in Texas production have fallen so dramatically in the Permian Basin in recent years.

EDF also calls regulatory changes regarding flaring permitting, asking that certain exemptions be given only when operators can prove associated gas “will impede their ultimate recovery of oil, or result in a production delay longer than six months.” But the current exemptions are already only allowed in a small number of circumstances, such as clearing out gas (called a “blowdown”) from equipment for construction maintenance and repair.

With massive reserves and a low cost of production, the Permian Basin has experienced massive growth over the past several years, buoying U.S. oil production at a time when low prices are causing other countries to flounder. But even with this meteoric growth, operators have successfully worked to mitigate emissions in the region. EDF’s snapshot-in-time report may have succeeded in generating headlines and creating alarm about uncontrolled emissions in the Permian, but it cannot – or at least should not – obscure the facts.