A mounting body of research is making it painfully clear that the state of Texas is both unwilling and unable to manage the massive quantity of emissions being released from flares, storage tanks, and other equipment at oil and gas wells and production sites across the state. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must step in and do what Texas’ regulators cannot or will not do.

I worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for 28-and-a-half years, including 17 years managing its air mobile monitoring assets, and another 3 years as its Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) Program Manager/Instructor and as an Office of Compliance and Enforcement technical advisor. I did this because I believed in the agency’s mission to protect Texans’ public health and natural resources. But I retired after it became increasingly clear that the agency’s leadership had little to no interest in proactively monitoring, documenting and minimizing air emissions in Texas.

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Texas citizens deserve better than the reactive strategy that has been a proven failure for the last decade.

Flaring is a catch-all term for burning excess hydrocarbon gas, composed primarily of methane, at oil and gas sites. Sometimes flaring is necessary for safety reasons -– like when there is an equipment failure, but most often, companies use it to dispose of gas they consider waste. Excess flaring wastes our natural resources, shorts landowners and taxpayers the royalties they would be paid if the gas were sold on either public or private lands, and creates toxic and climate-changing air pollution that threatens local communities and our planet.

A flare burns natural gas at an oil well Aug. 26 in Watford City, N.D. Excess flaring can create air pollution and other harmful effects, writes Tim Doty. [AP PHOTO/MATTHEW BROWN]

Flaring in Texas’ oil and gas fields is basically uncontrolled, and there are very few rules that limit how much gas companies can flare. The few existing rules are not enforced. The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, does a poor job of tracking who is flaring, and the volume of gas flared.

For the last several years, the Environmental Defense Fund has conducted scientific aerial flaring surveys over Texas’ Permian Basin – the nation’s #1 oil-producing region – and publishing its data for public view and analysis at permianmap.org. Earthworks recently released an analysis of some of the flaring data, and its findings were significant: Not only has the number of flaring permits issued by the RRC increased 65-fold in the last 11 years, but at least 69 percent (and as much as 84 percent) of observed flares did not have a proper permit.

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The bottom line is that flaring around the country is much more prevalent than claimed, as proven by optimal gas imaging (which makes normally invisible air pollution visible), multiple peer-reviewed academic studies and state data released through formal public information requests. Documentation in Texas makes it impossible for the RRC and the TCEQ to argue that they have a handle on flaring or that they have taken reasonable steps to reduce it. It is a clear dereliction of duty in the country’s largest oil and gas producing region. 

This is particularly important right now because methane is a greenhouse gas some 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, even though it stays in the atmosphere for only 12 years versus carbon dioxide’s 100 years. Because methane is so short-lived, climate experts say that if methane pollution is reduced immediately, we could effectively slow global warming in the short-term until impactful environmental and energy planning and strategies are implemented.

Pollution from oil and gas development in Texas, including but not limited to those generated in the Permian Basin, have been and continue to be greatly understated. With Texas regulators and politicians unable or unwilling to provide environmental leadership, EPA must step up for our communities by proposing the strongest rules allowable under the authority of the Clean Air Act.

As long as flares from oil and gas operations continue to light up the night skies, emissions will continue to harm communities in Texas and around the country.

Doty worked at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for nearly three decades.

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