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Permian, San Juan E&Ps Wasting NatGas through Flaring, Says EDF

Oil and natural gas industry representatives in Texas and New Mexico are pushing back against separate reports by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) that the energy industry is wasting gas through venting and flaring unnecessarily, harming the environment and consumers.

In the case of New Mexico, EDF said the wasted gas volumes in recent years could heat all the homes in the state. In West Texas, EDF reviewed venting/flaring practices in the Permian Basin from 2014 to 2015, which found several large producers exceeding average flaring levels, by 3% in 2014 and 4% in 2015 -- at about 10%.

In the Texas Permian, EDF said operators in 2015 collectively flared 45.5 Bcf, enough gas to serve all the household needs in the counties that make up the play in the state. The New Mexico report concluded that overall output from intentional emissions, equipment leaks, fugitive emissions and gas flaring combustion combined total 570,000 tons/year. In terms of natural gas value, New Mexico is losing $182-244 million of fuel value, and the state loses up to $27.6 million annually in lost taxes and royalties, according to EDF.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists in 2014 discovered a "2,500-square-mile cloud of methane hovering over the Four Corners area of the state,” the assessment said. Researchers concluded that the San Juan Basin has other methane sources from coal and geologic seepage, but oil and gas development is the largest methane source.

“Recent scientific studies have enhanced our understanding of methane emissions," said EDF co-authors Renee McVay, Hillary Hull, and David Lyon. EDF said readily available technology could help reduce methane emissions. In New Mexico, "just plugging leaks" could cut the state's methane leaks by half.

Previous methane emissions reports by EDF have shown that "super-emitters" can account for more than half of the methane emissions. In the case of New Mexico, the EDF report cited a 2015 NASA study using its airborne technology that found in the San Juan Basin high-emitting sources make up nearly half of the region's total point source emissions.

The state’s energy industry is disputing EDF’s conclusions, noting that EDF's proposed regulations to address the alleged leaks are a "solution in search of a problem,” according to the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA).

"Across the nation and in New Mexico methane emissions from oil and gas production are plummeting, according to data publicly available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," said NMOGA spokesman Robert McEntyre. Federal officials have said oil and gas methane emissions have fallen 19%, with San Juan Basin emissions down 47%, McEntyre said.

NMOGA Executive Director Ryan Flynn said EDF’s call for new regulations would cost $750 million. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and leaks are already regulated, he said, noting that the state's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department has reported that methane venting and flaring from oil and gas production has dropped more than 50% this year.   He also said New Mexico’s GHG emissions by the end of this year will have declined by 33% over the past six years.

"Air quality is actually improving with the help of natural gas," Flynn said. Flynn outlined how oil and gas producers have been "leading the way in developing new and innovative technologies to reduce the footprint of operations and increase gas capture" with market-based solutions.

Like NMOGA, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association (PBPA) in Texas dismissed most of EDF's allegations with Executive Vice President Stephen Robertson citing EIA data from earlier this year showing 63% of the 89 million metric tons of energy-related carbon emissions reductions in 2016 was the result of fuel switching to natural gas in the power generation sector. "Operators work every day to improve efficiencies and infrastructure, but delays in pipeline and gathering system permitting are huge roadblocks," Robertson said.

In Texas, with Permian oil production exceeding 2.5 million b/d, the report by senior staff members Virginia Palacios and Colin Leyden said "some operators are more concerned about extracting the oil as fast as possible instead of adhering to best practices to reduce waste and protect the environment."

Because of the methane flaring, environmental and health impacts are being felt in the counties covering the bulk of the Texas Permian, EDF noted. The authors cited a Clean Air Task Force study that ranked seven of the Texas Permian counties in the country’s top 10 worst counties for asthma attacks.

The report is critical of the efforts by Texas regulators to rein in waste and pollution that comes with the amounts of flaring that it alleges are ongoing in the Permian, saying that as production increases in what has become the hottest U.S. oil and gas play, increased regulatory action is needed from the Texas Railroad Commission.

The authors said they reviewed flaring data from the Railroad Commission of Texas and found some "important success stories," suggesting that there are Permian operators "willing to invest resources and implement processes that greatly limit the amount they flare."

EDF cited Apache Corp. regarding its Alpine High development in southern Reeves County. It said the producer has pledged to install pipeline infrastructure before fully developing the field as a way to reduce flaring.

PBPA's Robertson said many of EDF's claims about New Mexico are countered in an opposing report completed recently by Energy-in-Depth

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