A pair of bills filed for the 2021 Texas legislative session would curb the use of natural gas flaring and venting common in oil and gas drilling.
Flaring — the controlled burning of excess gas — and venting release the harmful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. Oil and gas producers in Texas flared and vented more natural gas than any other state in 2019, according to federal data.
HB 896 would direct the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to develop state standards to limit flaring and venting, while HB 897 would direct TCEQ and the Texas Railroad Commission to study existing and potential regulations to find to lower pollution “through regulations and incentives,” according to the bills' sponsor, state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City.
“HB 896 and HB 897 are two different approaches to deal with an important issue: emissions of methane into the atmosphere from oil and gas drilling and processing," read a statement from Reynolds. "While Texas is the leading producer of oil and gas in the US, it has not been a leader on limiting air pollution, including flaring and venting of gas."
Reynolds added that the pollution from flaring not only impacts workers and nearby residents’ health, but also “wastes a resource and leads to climate change.”
Companies flare off excess gas for a few reasons, including safety and efficiency. It mostly occurs, though, when there’s no way to profitably get that natural gas to market. Rapid developments in oil drilling — especially in areas like the Permian Basin — have led to significantly increased volumes of natural gas as well, according to federal data.
"Oil is far more valuable or lucrative for oil and gas companies than the natural gas is," said Luke Metzger, executive director for the nonprofit Environment Texas. “And in cases where there’s either not the pipelines available to transport the gas or the companies decide it’s just not worth the hassle, they will often just burn off that gas.”
There are some laws in Texas regarding flaring, and in order to flare or vent a company does need a specific exemption from state regulators. But Metzger said the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, has granted thousands of exemptions in the last handful of years.
"We’ve burned up about one trillion cubic feet of natural gas," Metzger said. "Which is enough to meet all of our power, heating and industrial needs for the state for three whole years."
Still, Metzger remained skeptical that the state legislature, which he said has a pattern of rejecting more regulations for the oil and gas industry, will take meaningful action towards reducing flaring.
And he does see increasing pressure on the oil and gas industry, both from investors and from Texans concerned about pollution.
The state's oil and gas industry has created a the voluntary Texas Methane & Flaring Coalition to address the issue, with a stated purpose of assessing and promoting “industry-led” solutions.
The Texas Oil and Gas Association, a trade group representing industry interests, supports the Coalition, but does not endorse the proposed bills.
In a statement, the group argued that the oil and gas industry has already taken the lead on lowering flaring and methane emissions, and touted the Railroad Commission’s efforts.
“Oil and natural gas is projected to be an essential part of a cleaner energy future and we must ensure Texans do not suffer the consequences of misguided policies and mandates, such as brown outs and sky-high electricity prices in states like California,” the group said.
But public sentiment may be moving toward more regulation.
The University of Houston recently surveyed 500 Texans about their attitudes towards climate change. Researchers found 81% of those surveyed believe global warming is real, a majority said it's driven by human activity.
Researchers also asked whether people were willing to pay more for electricity from sources produced without flaring, accoring to Pablo Pinto, director of the Center for Public Policy at UH's Hobby School and one of the principal investigators for the report.
The answer, in the vast majority of cases, was “yes.” And as flaring is expected to be a topic of the 2021 legislature, Pinto said it's vital that lawmakers have more information about what Texans are willing to do to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"All but 11% of respondents said they were willing to pay at least, somewhere between $1 or over $50 more per month on the electricity bill," Pinto said. “People are willing to pay more as long as they are educated on what it means to internalize the cost of our carbon footprint.”