Texas Oil Drillers Look For Ways To Snuff-Out Flared Gas

The oil industry is staying busy in Texas. State regulators are issuing over a thousand permits a month to allow the drilling of oil wells. But the state is also issuing hundreds of permits to burn millions of dollars worth of natural gas — just to get rid of it at the oil well site.

As oil drilling surges in Texas, natural gas worth millions of dollars is going up in smoke.

“Some people consider it a waste gas or a nuisance but it’s actually very valuable if it’s captured and reused,” said Birnur Guven, an environmental scientist with the Houston Advanced Research Center.

The number of state-issued flaring permits are soaring. The permits allow oil drillers to temporarily flare the natural gas that comes up during drilling operations. In Texas, the number of permits issued increased from 306 permits in 2010 to 3,012 permits this fiscal year.

State regulators say the flaring involves only a small percentage of all oil wells and is a mere .04 percent of the total natural gas produced in the state (North Dakota is second behind Texas in oil production but flares triple the amount of natural gas as calculated by StateImpact using the states’ data). Nonetheless, the wasted gas would be roughly worth some $92 million dollars (which is un-taxed in Texas because flared gas from oil wells is exempt from the state’s severance tax).

But there’s another reason drilling companies are interested in harnessing the gas and putting it to a better use: drilling rigs are often in remote areas and have to rely on electrical generators powered by big diesel engines. According to exploration and production company Apache, the drilling industry nationwide last year used 700 million gallons of diesel fuel to pump sand and water during fracking operations. The industry could save hundreds of millions of dollars by converting to cleaner-burning and cheaper natural gas from drill sites that’s otherwise being flared.

“We have an effort to not flare at all,” says Mike Maneffa, an engineer at Chevron who manages drilling operations for company’s “shale unit.” Maneffa oversees an experimental project in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale.

Chevron has outfitted drilling rigs to use natural gas as a fuel for the rigs’ electric generators.

“We have two rigs right now that are doing that as a pilot,” Maneffa told StateImpact, explaining that one of the rigs runs totally on “field” gas produced at nearby wells while the other uses a mix that includes compressed gas transported to the site.

“It does save the company money because natural gas is cheaper than diesel,” said Maneffa.

Richard Haut
Richard Haut on left
Birnur Guven on right, both research scientists at Houston Advanced Research Center

Chevron is among energy companies working to reduce pollution by working with a group of researchers on a project called the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program.

“There’s always room for continuous improvement and industry is addressing that. That’s why we’re looking at ways to reduce the amount of air pollution that’s associated with the equipment,” said Richard Haut, a senior scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center which manages the program.

While only a tiny percent of fracking operations nationwide use natural gas to run their equipment, one fracking company had become the first to use natural gas 100 percent. But last month, Green Field Energy Services filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it continued to operate.

Chevron’s Mike Maneffa told StateImpact their pilot project is promising, but stopped short of predicting if the company would make it standard practice at more of its drilling operations.

“I think right now it’s just a little too early to say. I think technically there’s no reason why, but we just want to make sure we’re realizing the benefit that we expect.”


Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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