The San Antonio Express-News
The flaring of natural gas in the Eagle Ford Shale makes for spectacular images. And it is slowly killing Texas and the world.
The state clearly needs to begin offering more than the illusion of regulation. This is the biggest take-away from the exhaustively reported four-part series, “Up In Flames,” in the Express-News by Jennifer Hiller and John Tedesco. The series began last Sunday.
It’s difficult to determine which is the most disturbing detail in “Up In Flames.”
Eagle Ford flaring is wasting enough natural gas to power cities and is emitting enough pollutants and greenhouse gases into the Texas sky to rival that spewed by six oil refineries. There is forgone tax revenue that the wasted natural gas represents. All occurring as a matter of the state’s careless laissez-faire posture on the issue.
The market has dictated relatively low natural gas prices. So, oil and gas producers would rather burn the gas into the atmosphere than build the infrastructure required to collect and pipe it to processing plants for sale.
When gas prices warrant, pipelines will be built, said Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, who recently ran for attorney general.
That’s unacceptable. As the state’s regulators dither, smells and pollution are sickening area residents and the greenhouse gases are contributing to global warming.
Even when done correctly, flaring releases a potent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. But when the gas is simply vented — or not burned properly — it releases an even more dangerous substance, methane, which traps 20 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
The Railroad Commission has contended that no flaring is occurring without a permit, but reporting by Hiller and Tedesco reveals that this simply isn’t true. The Railroad Commission regulates the industry, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality oversees air permits and investigates complaints about odors.
Neither one has demonstrated it is up to the task. And the Railroad Commission is particularly laughable in this regard since its commissioners run for election using campaign contributions from the industry they purport to regulate.
The result is not just inept or inadequate regulation — generating more paperwork than oversight — but allowing the regulated to choose their regulators.
Solutions, though not easy, exist.
Because state agencies have proven themselves feckless about regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency should use its authority to prohibit flaring, not just with natural gas well completions — already to take effect in 2015 — but with oil drillers as well.
The oil drillers are among the most egregious offenders here. They are hunting for crude, but unwanted natural gas comes with the territory.
The EPA should use this same authority to set pollution limits on oil and gas wells as it has with refineries and power plants. And it should include areas for this focus beyond dense population centers. Eagle Ford’s pollution does not sit still.
The Legislature must take the steps to make railroad commissioner an appointed rather than elected position.
The Legislature should require that the TCEQ set up permanent monitoring sites directly in the Eagle Ford and mandate quicker response times to complaints of odors or illness. It should give the agency enough funding to accomplish this.
The Railroad Commission must more scrupulously require permits for those who flare. At the moment, it seems some drillers flare without permits. The commission must start levying real fines and penalties to force compliance on all regulations.
And the Legislature should explore ways — a loan program, perhaps — to incentivize drillers to collect the natural gas they find, process it on site and use it to power their own operations.
The Eagle Ford play has been a boon to the state in jobs and tax revenue. That, however, does not give the industry license to pollute and sicken nearly at will and it should not mean the state has to care more about the bounty than the health of residents and the globe.
“Up In Flames” illuminates the dark side of this boon. The state must act.