Shale Oil Drillers Deliberately Wasted Nearly $1 Billion in Gas, Harming Climate

In Texas and North Dakota, where an oil rush triggered by the development of new fracking methods has taken many towns by storm, drillers have run into a major problem.

While their shale wells extract valuable oil, natural gas also rises from the wells alongside that oil. That gas could be sold for use for electrical power plants or to heat homes, but it is harder to transport from the well to customers than oil. Oil can be shipped via truck, rail or pipe, but the only practical way to ship gas is by pipeline, and new pipelines are expensive, often costing more to construct than the gas itself can be sold for.

So, instead of losing money on pipeline construction, many shale oil drillers have decided to simply burn the gas from their wells off, a process known in the industry as “flaring.”

It's a process so wasteful that it's sparked class action lawsuits from landowners, who say they've lost millions of dollars worth of gas due to flaring. Some of the air emissions from flared wells can also be toxic or carcinogenic. It's also destructive for the climate – natural gas is made primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and when methane burns, it produces more than half as much CO2 as burning coal.

Much of the research into the climate change impact the nation's fracking rush – now over a decade long – has focused on methane leaks from shale gas wells, where drillers are deliberately aiming to produce natural gas. The climate change impacts of shale oil drilling have drawn less attention from researchers and regulators alike.

A new report from Earthworks finds that drillers in North Dakota alone have burned off over $854 million worth of gas at shale oil wells since 2010, generating 1.4 billion pounds of CO2 in 2013 alone. The 1.4 billion pounds of CO2 produced by flaring equal the emissions from 1.1 million cars or light trucks – roughly an extra 10 cars' worth of emissions per year for every man, woman and child living in the state's largest city, Fargo (population 113,000).

Flaring at shale oil wells is now so common that satellite images of the largely rural state at night are dotted with what appear at first to be major metropolises but are instead the flares burning round-the-clock in the Bakken shale drilling patch.

But while the highly visible flaring in North Dakota has drawn the most media attention, the practice is on the rise in Texas, particularly in the state's Eagle Ford shale.

“The Eagle Ford produces considerably more natural gas than the Bakken,” Earthworks noted. “In June 2014, the Eagle Ford Shale produced seven billion cubic feet per day, while the Bakken produced 1.3 billion cubic feet per day.”

In 2013, nearly a third of the gas in North Dakota's Bakken was flared – but the numbers coming from Texas seem a bit more murky, in part because unlike North Dakota, Texas does not tax flared gas and – according to a new four-part investigative report by the region's newspaper – the state has failed to track or control flaring adequately.

The year-long investigation by the San Antionio Express-News recently uncovered striking problems with the regulation of flaring in Texas, including:

  • Texas law forbids drillers to flare past 10 days without a permit – but out of the twenty wells that had flared the most gas in the state, the paper discovered that 7 had never obtained required permits. State law calls for fines of up to $10,000 a day for flaring violations, but regulators have issued a total of less than $132,000 in fines in the Eagle Ford since the boom began, despite over 150 “possible flaring or venting violations” found by state inspectors in the region between 2010 and 2012.
  • Statewide, 33 billion cubic feet of natural gas were flared or vented in 2012 – a 400 percent rise from 2009, when the shale oil rush arrived. The Eagle Ford was responsible for two thirds of the state's wasted gas in 2012, totaling 21 billion feet for the year. Eagle Ford drillers burned off gas at ten times the combined rate of drillers in the state's other oil fields.
  • That much gas produces enormous amounts of airborne pollution. “In the early days of the boom, flaring released 427 tons of air pollution each year. By 2012, pollution levels shot up to 15,453 tons, a 3,500 percent increase that exceeds the total emissions of all six oil refineries in Corpus Christi,” the paper wrote. “Moreover, flaring and other oil industry activity in the Eagle Ford released more ozone-creating pollution in the summer of 2012 than two dozen Texas oil refineries.”
  • Despite concerns over how these emissions can affect human health, the state operates just seven air monitoring stations in the region. It can take regulators up to 10 days to arrive to take samples when citizens complain about potentially hazardous fumes.
  • Texas's environmental agency, the Railroad Commission, is run by a 3-member panel of elected officials. “The three Railroad Commissioners have raised $11 million from campaign donors since 2010,” the paper found. “At least half that money came from employees, lobbyists and lawyers connected to the oil and gas industry, according to campaign finance records.”

Flaring has angered environmentalists, landowners and even many in the oil and gas industry itself.

The Railroad Commission is statutorily required ‘to prevent waste of Texas’s natural resources’,” said Earthworks Texas organizer Sharon Wilson. “I don’t see how the Railroad Commission isn’t breaking the law by allowing drillers to waste natural gas by flaring it off rather than capturing it.”

“Nobody hates flaring more than the oil operator and the royalty owners,” Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry trade group, told Reuters last year. “We all understand that the flaring is an economic waste.”

But the problem is projected to get worse not better. An environmental report from the Alamo Area Council of Governments predicted that by 2018, emissions of volatile organic compounds – which the EPA warns can have “short- and long-term adverse health effects” – could quadruple in the Eagle Ford.

Nonetheless, the EPA has decided to consider air emissions from each shale well, pipeline compressor or other piece of equipment individually when deciding whether there's enough pollution for federal regulators to get involved – meaning that even though the Eagle Ford's wells collectively pollute more than multiple oil refineries, the flaring escapes federal oversight.

New federal regulations, aimed at cutting down on the release of climate-changing carbon dioxide and methane from the wells and scheduled to go into effect in 2015, will require many drillers to use a process called a “green completion,” rather than flaring the gas or venting it to the atmosphere as raw unburned methane. Green completions can help reduce leaks by up to 99 percent, according to a study by the Environmental Defense Fund that has was heavily touted by the drilling industry and its advocates.

But those requirements only apply to wells whose purpose is to produce natural gas, not oil. This means the regulations will have little impact on shale wells in Texas's Eagle Ford, the Express-News pointed out.

More than 1 million Texans live near the Eagle Ford, some of whom say they have suffered a litany of health effects that they suspect are tied to flaring.

We went from nice, easy country living to living in a Petri dish,” Mike Cerny, who lives within a mile of 17 oil wells, told the Center for Public Integrity.  “This crap is killing me and my family.”

There's a simple way to spot a poorly-performing flare. “If you see a smoking flare that's not complete combustion,” Neil Carman, a former state scientist who now works with the Sierra Club, told the Express-News. “If it's not completed, you get a smorgasbord of chemicals.”

At times, the gas is simply released unburned directly to the atmosphere – a practice labeled “venting” by the industry.

Texas state regulators fail to distinguish between flaring and venting in their public production database, the newspaper pointed out, making it impossible to know precisely how bad the impacts of the pollution might be.

Photo Credit: Flaring Natural Gas in North Dakota, via Shutterstock