A new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration on venting and flaring in two of America’s top producing oil and natural gas basins demonstrates the clear need for new and improved energy infrastructure.
The EIA report says that venting and flaring in the United States hit a record high average in 2019, primarily driven by activities in North Dakota’s Bakken Formation and the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico. As EIA notes, flaring is the controlled burning of excess natural gas and venting is the direct release into the air.
So, why have venting and flaring levels increased? EIA provides the answer:
“As crude oil production has outpaced the construction of necessary infrastructure to transport the natural gas extracted during oil production, or associated natural gas, it has been increasingly vented and flared.”
U.S. producers would much prefer to move this associated natural gas to market to boost their sales, but if there is no pipeline and infrastructure capacity, they are forced to flare or vent because the excess natural gas could pose a safety risk – a risk that could even force them to stop production all together.
Unfortunately, building new pipeline and energy infrastructure is becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish in the United States, thanks to opposition and protests from environmental activist groups and even some government officials.
An Energy In Depth noted in July, activists cheered what they deemed a “huge victory” after a number of pipeline projects were halted over the summer. Specifically, they celebrated the shut down of the Dakota Access Pipeline that runs from North Dakota to Illinois. Likewise, there has been stiff opposition from environmental groups against the Permian Highway Pipeline that would carry natural gas from West Texas to the Gulf Coast. One activist even said it was “good news” that Bloomberg News reported it’s become “almost impossible to build” pipelines.
North Dakota and Texas aren’t the only states experiencing opposition to pipeline construction. New York state regulators rejected a new pipeline that would have carried in natural gas from Pennsylvania and ensured a reliable supply in the region. That fuel demand is now likely to be met by imports from foreign countries.
All of this obstruction to pipelines and energy infrastructure only serves to encourage venting and flaring because of lack of capacity to move natural gas to market. The irony shouldn’t be lost that the same activist groups that are opposing pipeline construction are also crying foul over venting and flaring – even though it is often the result of their own anti-pipeline actions.
Despite this obstruction to new pipelines and infrastructure, American energy companies have made progress against venting and flaring in recent years thanks to technological innovation.
The Oil And Gas Climate Initiative – a coalition of some of the biggest energy companies in the world that are focused on reducing emissions – released its annual report this month that shows they continue to make tremendous progress on cutting methane intensity around their operations:
“OGCI member companies have cut their aggregate absolute methane emissions by 22 percent over the past two years. We are on track to meet our near zero intensity ambition.” (emphasis added)
Another industry coalition comprised of producers and pipeline companies, ONE Future, also far exceeded its own methane intensity reductions goals:
“ONE Future surpasses goal by 67 percent; 2019 methane intensity of member companies record at 0.334 percent, versus 2025 goal of 1 percent.”
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is partnering with Pioneer Natural Resources, the Gas Technology Institute, the University of Texas, and the Environmental Defense Fund to “develop comprehensive, continuous monitoring of methane emissions” in the Permian Basin.
The company, along with Chevron and Shell, is also deploying new technology from the Rocky Mountain Institute to “track how much methane they’re emitting, and what methods are best reducing methane leaks.” Occidental and Shell have also joined other major companies in endorsing the World Bank’s Zero Flaring by 2030 initiative.
The solutions to venting and flaring are clear. The United States needs more pipeline capacity and improved energy infrastructure to help get oil and natural gas to market more efficiently and prevent the need for burning off excess supply. Thankfully, American producers continue to make massive improvements in identifying and preventing methane leaks and reducing their venting and flaring practice though technological innovation.
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