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SOURCE: New York Times

DATE: October 16, 2019

SNIP: When leaders from Exxon Mobil and BP gathered last month with other fossil-fuel executives to declare they were serious about climate change, they cited progress in curbing an energy-wasting practice called flaring — the intentional burning of natural gas as companies drill faster than pipelines can move the energy away.

But in recent years, some of these same companies have significantly increased their flaring, as well as the venting of natural gas and other potent greenhouse gases directly into the atmosphere, according to data from the three largest shale-oil fields in the United States.

The practice has consequence for climate change because natural gas is a potent contributor to global warming. It also wastes vast amounts of energy: Last year in Texas, venting and flaring in the Permian Basin oil field alone consumed more natural gas than states like Arizona and South Carolina use in a year.

Exxon’s venting and flaring has surged since 2017 to record highs, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of gas produced, the numbers show. Exxon flared or vented 70 percent more gas in 2018 than it did the previous year, according to the data, bringing an end to several years of improvements.

Flaring and venting are legal under state laws, and oil companies acknowledge the practices are wasteful. Typically, venting or flaring occur because there aren’t pipelines close enough to a well to capture and transport the gas, or because gas prices are so low that it’s cheaper to discard the gas than to try to sell it. Venting can also occur during equipment breakdowns.

The analysis provides one of the clearest pictures to date of the companies behind the vast emissions of natural gas that have resulted from America’s shale oil boom, fueled by the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to unlock fossil fuels from shale rock.

Last year, operators across the three basins together flared or vented a record 320 million cubic feet of gas, more than 40 percent above levels seen just five years ago. The pace for the first two quarters of 2019 has been even higher.

But flaring releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, where it traps the sun’s heat, driving climate change. Venting directly emits methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas in the shorter term.

Shale oil has made the United States the world’s largest oil producer. But shale wells tend to dry up more quickly than conventional oil fields. That means producers must drill constantly to keep their oil production steady, while venting or flaring off the gas before pipelines can catch up.

When an energy company strikes oil and begins to pump, less-valuable natural gas comes up alongside the oil. That gas could be gathered into pipelines and sold, but drilling has far outpaced pipeline construction, particularly in the booming oil fields of the Permian and Bakken.

Rather than delay drilling, producers will choose to vent or flare.

Many smaller oil producers flare or vent 100 percent of the gas their wells produce, the data shows. In those cases, “gas becomes more like a liability,” said Artem Abramov, an industry analyst at Rystad Energy. “It’s just much cheaper for companies to get rid of it.”

The shale-oil producer Exco Resources highlights this trend. This year it applied with Texas regulators to flare almost all the gas it produced in South Texas, even though a pipeline already exists to move it away, because it is cheaper to release the gas than pay the fees to pipe it off and sell it.