This is important because, as bad as flares are, unlit flares are worse.
Flares are permitted by regulators to burn off “waste” gas, usually associated with oil production. “Waste” is in quotes because the gas involved is natural gas — the same stuff that heats homes and is the main product of key drilling areas like the Marcellus shale. But in the Permian Basin, the target product is oil — and the gas, even though people elsewhere would buy and use it — is so much less valuable than oil that capturing it and getting it to market isn’t “worth it” to Permian producers. So they ask, and receive, regulatory permission to burn it off.
Unlit flares may look harmless to the naked eye, and far less scary than a burning flare. But they are worse for climate and public health than flaring because they effectively serve as vent stacks–spewing untold, and often unreported, volumes of pollution straight into the air. This includes both methane, a greenhouse gas 86x worse for the climate than carbon dioxide, and health-harming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, a carcinogen.
Unfortunately, unlit flares seem to be on the rise. EDF’s data shows that 1 in 10 flares they surveyed are unlit or malfunctioning. Our hundreds of field inspections in the Permian confirm the severity of the problem, and suggest that rate is likely to worsen because our records show that prevalence of unlit flares seem to rise as prices drop.
I’ve had conversations with operators (MDC Texas Operator, DiamondBack Energy, Apache Corp., Parsley Energy) workers, and regulators (TCEQ and Texas Railroad Commission) about unlit flares, and I have many stories from those conversations and evidence from visiting sites repeatedly over days/weeks/months and even over a year to find the flares unlit at each visit.
People often ask if operators intentionally leave flares unlit. All I can say is that I often experience a bizarre form of gaslighting:
But unlit flares are only a part of the emissions problem. The industry, especially in the Permian, vents methane by design to deal with pressure issues. It was already a severe problem, but as natural gas prices went lower, the emissions got much worse. The below video is an Apache emissions event I witnessed over three days. It was still happening, blowing into the tiny town of Balmorhea when I left the area. Apache did not report it, and the regulatory agencies I reported it to, TCEQ and EPA, took no action.
The industry has trained the public to call their methane and VOC emissions “leaks.” That conjures up a dripping faucet, not a fire hose turned on full blast. What I see most often is far from anything I would call a leak, and is indicative of industry practices far more problematic than small measures can solve.