Jennifer Hiller and John Tedesco | The San Antonio Express-News
KARNES COUNTY — On a recent spring day, a crew from the Norwegian energy company Statoil arrived at a gravel pad in Karnes County where three brand new wells hissed with the sound of pressurized gas.
“Hear that money?” foreman Jerry Williams joked as he parked a pickup.
Hydrocarbons moved from each well through a pipe to a large metal cylinder that separated gas from oil and the brackish water that flows up through the well.
Each substance was measured, remixed and piped miles away to a central processing plant connected to dozens of other Statoil wells.
The site didn’t have a flare. Statoil didn’t need one.
Before the company works on a well in the Eagle Ford Shale, it installs pipelines to capture the entire stream of natural gas — gas that otherwise would be flared and wasted.
“This is a world of keeping all flaring to zero,” said Ben Mathis, Statoil’s Eagle Ford drilling and completion manager. “It’s much more efficient.”
Mathis said some other operators are moving to this sort of system. But it’s unclear whether this is what the future holds for the Eagle Ford, where operators flare more gas than in any other Texas oil field.
The industry group South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable, known as STEER, was formed by the Eagle Ford’s biggest operators, including Statoil.
The organization is looking at ways to reduce flaring in South Texas, but it’s a problem without simple solutions, said Haley Curry, director of external affairs for STEER.
Statoil has contiguous acreage, most of it along one highway, making it easier for the company to plan pipelines and gathering systems. Some other companies hold acreage that look like a broken jigsaw puzzle.
“Every acreage is different. What’s coming up from the wells is different. All the pipeline infrastructure is different. All the times on the leases are different. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach and it never will be,” Curry said.
“Drilling into the rock here is different than drilling into that rock over there,” she said, pointing at the wildflowers and scrub brush near the Statoil wells.
Gas flaring in the Eagle Ford increased in 2013 and released 25,560 tons of air pollution, up 65 percent from the year before, according to a San Antonio Express-News analysis of the state’s oil field production data and pollution formulas used by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
So far, there’s no sign the industry’s interest in the Eagle Ford is waning. More than 9,600 wells have been drilled, and nearly 5,700 others are permitted.
New Environmental Protection Agency regulations in 2015 will force companies to eliminate flaring and venting during natural gas well completions — the time after drilling and before production when mostly wastewater flows up a well.
Capturing the gas and other hydrocarbons during that process is called a “green completion,” and many gas drillers across the country already have made that switch.
But the EPA rules will apply only to natural gas wells, making for a limited impact in the Eagle Ford, where many companies pursue the more lucrative crude oil. That’s where most of the flaring occurs.
Some reports predict flaring from oil fields such as the Eagle Ford is likely to grow.
The nonprofit environmental advocacy group Ceres modeled increasing oil production in the Bakken, Eagle Ford and Permian Basin in West Texas to predict the U.S. is in for more flaring, not less, through around 2020.
“It suggests that if development is continuing to happen in all of these plays on the outskirts of the gathering system reaches, it’s likely we’ll see flaring continue to grow,” said Ryan Salmon, manager of the oil and gas program at Ceres.
A key finding in a report by the consulting firm ICF International was that methane emissions would grow 4.5 percent from 2011 to 2018, with most of it coming from flaring and venting of gas in the oil sector.
The report was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that works closely with industry, and looked at whether it was economic and realistic for companies to do things such as reduce air emissions through leak detection and repair, which improve operational efficiency.
Some of the options would cost a penny for every thousand cubic feet of gas produced, others would require a large upfront investment.
“We want to be respectful of the fact that operating conditions can vary. These are affordable options,” said Ben Ratner of the Environmental Defense Fund. “We don’t think the right attitude is, ‘This is a cheap resource so it’s OK if we waste it.’ We want American entrepreneurs to meet this head-on.”
Getting to scale
Texas regulators say a rise in natural gas prices eventually will reduce flaring because more companies then could afford pipelines.
Others in the industry argue that natural gas prices have nothing to do with it — the solution lies in using the gas in the field itself.
Allen Gilmer, chairman and CEO of the research firm Drillinginfo, said that because South Texas drilling is profitable on oil alone, the best way to use flared gas is by skipping pipelines altogether.
“The problem is that the state and the royalty owners look at that stranded natural gas as an asset and not a waste product,” Gilmer said. “There are some folks that see this problem as a commercial opportunity.”
Irving-based Pioneer Natural Resources has likened using natural gas in the field to a farmer eating his own produce. The company built its own natural gas fueling station in Pawnee in Bee County, with plans to power its drilling rigs with compressed natural gas from its Eagle Ford wells.
Other companies such as Apache Corp. have tried running hydraulic fracturing operations on natural-gas-fueled equipment instead of diesel and say it can be done economically.
Robert Stewart, president of Houston-based oil field companies Lime Instruments and Bingo, has a modular, portable unit that can take wellhead gas and process it for use during drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations.
Stewart calls it a “carny circus” approach to natural gas processing “in order to survive the environment” of moving equipment from remote ranch to remote ranch.
Stewart hasn’t been able to test the system in South Texas but has watched the development of several wells in the region.
“They start and they flare and then stop. They get another permit. Whenever they can it’s just easier for them to burn it,” he said. “We can reasonably, reliably and affordably use this kind of system, and were taking $4.50 diesel out of the equation.”
Salmon said other companies, too, have technologies to capture the gas for use on site.
“It seems like there’s some innovation that could be happening,” Salmon said. “Can it get to scale?”
A recent University of Texas at Austin paper said flared gas could provide enough power on site to treat the wastewater that flows up a well after hydraulic fracturing.
Using flared gas to clean wastewater for reuse would address two of the oil field’s most visible controversies: gas flaring and water use and disposal.
Hydraulic fracturing used 14 billion gallons of water in 2012, the approximate annual usage for 153,000 San Antonio households, a 2013 analysis by the Express-News shows.
The UT paper, published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science & Technology Letters, said that, in theory, flared gas could help treat enough water to frac another 9,400 to 28,000 wells, reducing the energy industry’s water use in a “nontrivial way.”
Why haven’t these sorts of ideas been put into practice already?
“They’re busy, in a hurry, not required to do it, it adds cost, it’s not their top concern, and so forth,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the UT Energy Institute, and one of four co-authors of the paper. “It might need some policy help to get it taken care of.”
New pipelines, plants
The sharp increase in gas flaring in the Eagle Ford has happened even as the industry has made multibillion-dollar infrastructure investments.
Existing South Texas pipelines that used to carry product inland were reversed to carry gas and oil to Gulf Coast refineries.
In 2012 alone, new pipeline construction in 14 Eagle Ford counties directly employed more than 11,300 workers, according to the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development.
The Woodlands-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. last year opened a $100 million, 150-acre plant south of Cotulla in La Salle County to process up to 200 million cubic feet of gas per day from its Eagle Ford wells — one of several projects to carry gas to market.
Steve Everley of the industry website EnergyInDepth said companies are trying to reduce emissions, but he said flared gas and other sources of air pollution are a manageable risk.
Texas oil production likely will surpass every OPEC country except Saudi Arabia by the end of the year, “so we’re talking large quantities of energy produced, but only exceedingly small quantities — on a relative basis — of flared gas,” Everley said.
Some Eagle Ford operators including Marathon Oil Corp. and ConocoPhillips participate in the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Initiative, while Pioneer Natural Resources has reduced flaring during completion operations by 79 percent, he said.
“When you have an influx of economic activity and opportunity, you’re typically going to get increased emissions, whether it’s oil and gas, automobile manufacturing, new hospital construction, or any industry,” Everley said.
Regulatory bans or restrictions on flaring would be an oversimplified response, he said. If they weren’t able to flare gas and had to build pipelines in advance, there’s no way companies could afford to drill exploratory wells in Texas — the kind sunk in hopes of discovering fields like the Eagle Ford.
“Companies just don’t operate with that sort of mentality,” Everley said.
A ‘continuing issue’
In DeWitt County last winter, Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger drove south along a web of farm roads and small highways as a blue norther arrived in South Texas. Dust rose like a blanket of fog across the landscape. The sky turned gray and wind pushed against her white Honda Civic.
The appearance of a blustery winter front often makes oil and gas flares trail black smoke, but Riebschlaeger wanted to drive past a few flare stacks that always seem to burn perfectly no matter the conditions.
“Now see,” she said, pointing at one that happens to be across the highway from her cousin’s hayfield. “That’s a good flare.”
Outside the fence line of an EFS Midstream facility, Riebschlaeger rolled down her window and listened to the hollow sound the flare made, like someone blowing across the top of an empty soda bottle.
“They’re done a lot of drilling in this area. I want to be fair to these people. Those who do it right should get just as much credit or maybe more than people who don’t,” she said. “I’ve never seen black smoke coming out of this flare.”
Reibschlaeger, a nun with Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, grew up in Cuero, the DeWitt County seat. With her cousins and sister she owns mineral rights to 300 acres in La Salle County to the west, one of the busiest areas for drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale.
A few years ago when her family wanted to sign a mineral lease with an oil and gas company, Reibschlaeger balked at signing. But when she realized she was outnumbered and the drilling would happen with or without her, she brushed up on the oil and gas industry, especially its impact on the environment and health.
“I thought, well if it’s going to happen, then I have a double moral obligation to make sure this is done right with the least amount of damage to the environment and for the sake of the health of my fellow citizens. And so I consider it a special responsibility for that reason.”
Riebschlaeger winds a regular path across the Texas coastal prairie, each week making the trek from her apartment in Victoria to San Antonio to the prison in La Salle County where she ministers to inmates. Her Honda has 140,000 miles so far.
Along the way, she stops and visits with residents. She keeps track of new oil and gas wells and facilities. She looks up which hazardous material a truck is hauling — the number 1267 written in a triangle on the back for crude oil, 1993 for fuel oil, including diesel — in the bright orange Emergency Response Handbook in her backseat. If she sees a dirty flare, she takes pictures. She calls the Texas Railroad Commission.
“I felt an obligation to report them,” she said.
On this winter day, she drives south toward Yorktown and points out new restaurants, their parking lots filled by white contractor pickups adorned with the logos of oil field companies.
“If you had said 10 years ago they were building two new hotels in Yorktown, I would have laughed in your face,” Riebschlaeger said. “It’s really helped the small business community in the Eagle Ford towns, which is why a lot of them don’t want to complain. I keep telling them, ‘It’s not like they’re going to get mad and leave. What they want is under our feet and they know that and they’re not going to go anywhere else to get it.'”
At an event last fall in Panna Maria in Karnes County, the oldest permanent Polish settlement in America, Reibschlaeger told a small gathering of residents to carefully document and report to the state agencies things such as dirty flares and strange smells, and whether not they were getting ill.
“It’s not just a one-time event. It’s a continuing issue,” she said.
“This is a very conservative part of the state. Do not be afraid to stand up for what you know is the truth. Let’s call a spade a spade.”
An unlit flare
Bret Wells, an assistant professor at the University of Houston Law Center, in a recent paper called the flaring of natural gas a “tragedy of the commons” — an economic theory in which people act rationally and in their self interest, but deplete a common resource to the community’s long-term detriment.
He said that the Texas Railroad Commission could prevent much of the gas flaring in the Eagle Ford, but is failing in its mission to preserve the state’s natural resources. Rules that allow companies to flare whenever they want end up encouraging flaring. Companies must race to produce faster than their competitors.
“They’re going to compete to win,” said Wells, who worked for years in the oil and gas industry. “The Eagle Ford Shale is just a replay of our history. We shouldn’t have this problem.”
Some South Texas landowners think flaring may be a permanent part of their landscape.
Mark Mutz lives in Kosciusko in southern Wilson County, a spot where his Polish great grandfather first settled what’s now near the productive edge of the Eagle Ford. Mutz has noticed pipeline construction to the south and southeast.
“Here?” he asked. “Here, I don’t know if they’re ever going to do infrastructure.”
Mutz said many wells just north of his family’s farm were unsuccessful, making it unlikely that operators will spend the money for pipelines nearby.
“Smell that?” Mutz asks at a site with two pumpjacks and an unlit flare stack that rushes with the whoosh of escaping gas. “Smells like a hard night of drinking and eating boiled eggs.”
Mutz has never seen the flare stack lit. He’s a machinist who calls himself “oilfield trash,” the joking nickname that many oil field workers give themselves.
Some of his neighbors have complained of headaches from flares. Last year, his brother, who has a house on a different part of the family’s farm, was one of several people who had to evacuate briefly when the operator of a nearby well said there was a risk of a hydrogen sulfide release.
Mutz worries the well that feeds their stock pond — deep and clear and filled with redfish, black bass and blue catfish — could get contaminated.
But like most in South Texas, Mutz acknowledges the good that comes with drilling.
“I’m excited about the money from heaven. That’s what we call it,” Mutz said. “We lived a good life without it. We never missed any meals. We’ve done well. This is good money that we just put away and forget about. I’m just concerned about the long-term effects of this.”
“I like the money. I don’t like what it does to the air. I worry about the water. I need air and water more than I need oil.”