Oil company flare stacks are wasteful, pollute the environment
While grasslands and forests continue to burn across Texas, flames of a more nefarious sort are deliberately marring the state’s landscape and poisoning its air.
In acts of environmental mismanagement, the oil industry is routinely burning the natural gas that often accompanies the liquid crude oil in drilled wells. Commonly known as flaring, this egregiously wasteful practice is implemented as a cost-saving measure.
Oil companies claim that current low prices simply make capturing and processing natural gas uneconomical. They reason that if they cannot make a profit in the market, they may as well just skip the consumer and pump their pollution directly into the atmosphere.
Flare stacks were once used primarily as safety valves to prevent pressure blowouts and occasionally for testing the production capabilities of a well. The convenience of loose regulatory laws allowed them to become the standard device for waste management with hardly an objection from state and federal governments.
The flares consume 100 million cubic feet of natural gas every day from sites all over the nation. Here in Texas, somewhere between several hundred and a few thousand oil well sites dispose of gas in this fashion, with the exact number remaining obfuscated and openly contested by the industry.
Flare stacks were once used primarily as safety valves to prevent pressure blowouts and occasionally for testing the production capabilities of a well. The convenience of loose regulatory laws allowed for them to become the standard device for waste management with hardly an objection from state and federal governments.”
Unquestionably, the number of locations will increase, considering that in the last year over 537 flaring permits were issued by the state in anticipation of successfully drilled wells.
As appalling as flaring may seem, the oil industry also employs an even more destructive method for disposing of unwanted natural gas; it vents it openly into the air. As with flaring, venting natural gas lacks even the partially redeeming benefits of actually putting the fuel to use.
With a heat trapping effect 20 times that of carbon dioxide, natural gas is capable of expediting climate change faster than most of the emissions from automobiles and power plants.
Again, from the industry’s perspective, costs associated with natural gas production are prohibitive to its storage and shipment. However, other avenues exist for managing this resource other than throwing it away.
During the process of oil extraction, the accompanying gas can be captured on-site and immediately injected back into the well.
This procedure actually facilitates oil recovery by maintaining an upward pressure that directs the liquid to the surface.
At the same time, oil companies would be creating gas repositories that could be tapped into should demand increase. Another option is to use some of the gas to fuel local generators that power the drilling machinery and infrastructure at the well-site.
A long-term approach of promoting compressed natural gas as an alternative to gasoline and the closing of antiquated coal-fired power plants will help spur market-driven demand.
With these financial incentives, the oil industry will be much more inclined to invest in the necessary components for the storage, shipping and selling of natural gas.
For now, the alternatives to flaring and venting will go unimplemented as long as drilling regulations remain subservient to the oil industry. Last Thursday in Arlington, the Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing to discuss proposed rules aimed at curtailing environmentally harmful practices, but the wheels of the federal government turn slowly.
The Texas legislature can act more quickly and implement laws that make managing natural gas part of the cost of doing business for oil companies. While the industry may initially protest, the profit motive will ultimately mandate their compliance if only to ensure continued access to some of the largest oilfields in the country.
After all, the last thing that Texas needs is more fires.
Marc Anderson is a 3rd-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at [email protected].