What Is Gas ‘Flaring’ and When Is It Harmful to Texans?
Gas flaring is a pretty common and at times necessary procedure in the oil and gas industry. Gas may be flared to relieve unplanned over-pressurization and as part of routine maintenance, safety testing, etc.
When industrial plant equipment items are over-pressured, the pressure relief valve is an essential safety device that automatically release gases and sometimes liquids. Those pressure relief valves are required by industrial design codes and standards as well as by law.
The released gases and liquids are routed through large piping systems called flare headers to a vertical elevated flare. The released gases are burned as they exit the flare stacks. The size and brightness of the resulting flame depends upon the flammable material's flow rate in joules per hour (or btu per hour)
Of course, it puts off plumes of smoke into the air, but otherwise, it sounds like a pretty okay practice, right? Maybe not always.
Some companies use flaring to purposefully waste natural gas that they're unable to or simply don't choose to sell. Putting aside the pollution and waste, this practice also rips off Texas land and mineral rights owners, according to this Texas Tribute article:
Land and mineral-rights owners are rightly upset by the lost royalties that can’t be claimed for wasted gas. Since 2013, the oil and gas industry has flared more than a trillion cubic feet of gas. Permian operators sent 280 billion cubic feet of gas worth about $420 million up their flare stacks in 2019 — more than enough to supply every home in Texas.
Producers in the Permian Basin were also found to be vastly underreporting the amount of gas they flared. Satellite data showed they actually flared off double the amount they reported to the state. The gas is worth millions and could power so many homes. Why is it being burned off instead?
While drilling for oil and also striking natural gas might seem like a bonanza for companies — two commodities for the price of one — there often isn’t enough room in pipelines to move it all to market, and new pipelines haven’t come online in the region fast enough. Increasingly, the gas, which sells for far less than oil, has instead been burned off.
Seems like penny-rich dollar-poor tactics, not to mention what it's doing to the air we all have to breathe. So what can be done to minimize this practice when it's not necessary for safety reasons?
There are actually many alternatives to flaring off excess natural gas, including using it to generate electricity, reinjection and more, which are explained nicely and succinctly by Generon.com. Companies can choose to invest in these practices, which would likely pay for themselves long term. However, companies can't always be trusted to do the right thing, which is why some regulations would prove helpful in this matter.
Oil and gas production is overseen by the Texas Railroad Commission. Here's hoping they take action to curtail this wastefulness.