Actual Greenhouse Gas Volumes Exceed Official Reports

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Wayne Christian wanted to brag, he said, rocking in his burgundy leather chair atop the dais of the mighty Railroad Commission of Texas. Colleagues and staff were doing “a damn good job”, and people who were “complaining about environmental issues” were misinformed.

The self-congratulatory break came during an October meeting of the agency that oversees a more than $400 billion oil and gas industry in the top-producing state in the top-producing country on a planet. which heats up quickly.

Christian, a former Grammy-nominated gospel singer, complained that negative media reports had obscured “the good work our people and this industry have done for a cleaner environment, the cleanest industrialized nation in the world. planet”.

Then the President and his two fellow commissioners-elect returned to their agenda and, without debate, approved another 39 applications from oil and gas companies for permission to burn or vent methane-rich natural gas, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Over most of the past decade, oil and gas operators in Texas and a dozen other U.S. states flared or flared at least 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to a data analysis satellites from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. . This amount equates to more than $10.6 billion in revenue based on the market value of natural gas from 2012 to 2020. The industry has also released unknown amounts of gas directly into the atmosphere through a process called ventilation. Between them, flaring and venting release a noxious cocktail of carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants.

Climate scientists have warned that without deep and immediate reductions in carbon dioxide and methane emissions, the world will miss its chance to avoid the deadliest and most destructive effects of climate change, which is already contributing to wildfires, floods and other unprecedented natural disasters across the planet. Epidemiologists have also linked flaring emissions to premature births.

Flaring has increased alongside the fracking boom that has helped producers unlock previously inaccessible fossil fuels and boosted local, state and national economies over the past decade and a half. The United States now produces enough oil and natural gas to be energy independent, with volumes surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Flaring occurs primarily in oil wells, but even companies that primarily produce and sell natural gas flare some of it. Companies say they flare and vent for safety and maintenance reasons and because selling or reusing the gas is not financially feasible. The industry and its regulators even refer to this gas as “waste”. But experts say a valuable resource is wasted due to weak regulations, ineffective tracking of flaring and venting and a lack of economic incentives to capture and sell the gas.

“The atmosphere is a free dumping ground,” said Robert L. Kleinberg, senior fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “It’s like throwing garbage out the window in the Middle Ages.”

Whatever the reasons, every act of flaring and venting releases methane, which traps heat 80 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, making methane reduction one of the most to reduce global warming, experts say.

At the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, the Biden administration unveiled its proposal to cut methane emissions from the US oil and gas industry, the country’s largest industrial source of methane. . As methane royalty bills died in Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new regulations to eliminate venting of new and existing oil wells and require companies to capture and sell gas whenever possible.

Experts say eliminating routine flaring is technically and politically feasible, and some companies are already working towards it.

“Nobody has a reason to put methane in the air for beneficial purposes,” Kleinberg said.

But regulators largely ignore the amount of gas flared and vented, the Howard Center found. It’s a blind spot that has grown under limited federal oversight and a patchwork of state regulations, lax enforcement and inconsistent data collection.

For at least 17 years, government auditors have warned that bad data was blinding regulators to the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by the oil and gas industry’s flaring and venting. In 2004, the US Government Accountability Office recommended improving data collection and monitoring. Specifically, the GAO suggested standardized reporting for flaring and venting data across all states, and the use of satellite data to improve the accuracy of flaring information. As recently as 2016, the same bureau warned that natural gas emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands were not being tracked consistently.

“You can’t regulate what you don’t measure,” said Gunnar Schade, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University who has used satellite data to study flaring in Texas. “We actually don’t have a good idea of ​​what’s going on in the atmosphere for a variety of reasons – some of them by design, some by negligence.”

The satellite flaring volumes calculated by the Howard Center, with advice from scientists who pioneered and used the methodology, far exceed the total reported to regulators in the 13 states designated by the U.S. Department of energy as having significant ongoing or potentially increasing flaring activity. They also far exceeded the total published by the Energy Information Administration, the US Department of Energy’s analysis agency that says it gets its data from states.

Laws in these hottest states vary widely on when businesses can burn or vent, whether they need prior approval, how much they can emit, and whether or how they will be penalized if caught burning. breaking the rules, the Howard Center found. . All regulations, even the strictest ones, have myriad exceptions. The federal government does not regulate flaring and venting except on federal and tribal lands and in federal waters.

Four of the states keep little or no information on flaring and venting volumes, the Howard Center investigation found. In those that keep volume data, it is based on self-reported information by oil and gas operators, with some using estimates rather than measured measurements. There are few regular checks for accuracy or completeness.

“You’re totally at the mercy of what self-reporting is,” said Tim Doty, former senior technical adviser to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is responsible for maintaining environmental quality. air in what satellite data shows is the best in the country. – flamboyant condition. “Some of the companies are trying to do the right thing, but not all companies are trying to do the right thing.”

Satellite technology offers a way to assess the accuracy of self-reported flaring volumes. Although it has limitations, the technology is generally considered the best independent tool available for measuring flaring volumes, although it has not been adopted by state and federal regulators.

The methodology was developed in 2012 by Christopher Elvidge, a scientist then working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It uses satellites equipped with Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instruments to detect flares from oil and gas operations and estimate the volumes of gas they burn, based on the infrared light they emit. When Elvidge later joined the Colorado School of Mines Earth Observation Group, the program went with him.

Howard Center reporters collected and analyzed satellite data from the hottest states from 2012 through 2020. They then compared those totals to company-reported flaring volumes collected by regulators in the same states.

Satellite data showed Texas, North Dakota and New Mexico to be the hottest states, by wide margins. It also revealed vast discrepancies from state-reported volumes.

Some states allow companies to report combined totals for their flaring and venting volumes, making meaningful comparisons with flaring volumes only captured by satellites impossible. But in Texas, for example, satellite data indicated that the volume of gas flared alone was almost double the amount reported for gas flared and vented, raising questions about under-reporting. And in Montana, the combined reports of corporate flaring and venting volumes were nearly 150% higher than the flaring volumes only detected by satellites, highlighting the unknowns surrounding venting.

Disparities have persisted even in states that require oil and gas operators to report flaring and venting volumes separately, which should allow for fair comparison with satellite data. In North Dakota, for example, satellites detected 25% more flaring than was reported by companies. In Wyoming, the gap was about the same, but in the opposite direction.

According to the scientists, some of the discrepancies may stem from the fact that some states do not require companies to report every instance of flaring and that roaming satellites do not catch all flares, especially small or intermittent ones.

But the fact that the volumes reported by the companies differ significantly from empirical verification indicates that government data is inaccurate or incomplete and that decision makers do not know the extent of greenhouse gases resulting from flaring and ventilation, even if they try to create climates modify the legislation.

“There was almost a kind of tacit agreement that we will accept the estimates,” said Barry Rabe, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies public and environmental policy. “Until there is political or public pressure to make these numbers more accurate, it is easier to look the other way.”

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