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On behalf of Earthworks, thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on the Railroad Commission’s proposed amendments to the Application for Exception to Statewide Rule 32.

Earthworks is a national nonprofit organization committed to protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of mining and energy development while seeking sustainable solutions. For nearly 30 years, we have fulfilled our mission by working with communities and grassroots groups to reform government policies, improve corporate practices, influence investment decisions and encourage responsible materials sourcing and consumption.

Since 2015, Earthworks’ trained and certified thermographers have conducted optical gas imaging (OGI) investigations at nearly 300 Texas well sites, compressor stations, processing facilities, and tank batteries, documenting significant pollution problems at many of them. Earthworks staff have filed over 140 complaints with Texas regulators, who unfortunately took action to reduce pollution in only 12% of these instances.

Earthworks appreciates the RRC’s efforts to require operators to provide additional documentation and reduce some flaring timelines and offer specific comments to further strengthen the amendments.

Flaring has no place in communities and a warming world

Earthworks is disappointed that RRC and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have continued to refuse to take meaningful action to rein in flaring and venting. Many researchers and policymakers are sounding the alarm about the significant damage to health and the climate caused by oil and gas pollution, which is a mix of health-harming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and greenhouse gases.

Nowhere are these impacts more evident than in Texas. RRC should go much further than additional documentation requirements and conduct additional rulemakings. RRC should significantly reduce the frequency with which it grants exceptions for the practice to operators.

Importantly, RRC should heed the August letter from Texas state senators calling on RRC to end the practice of routine flaring of natural gas. This harmful and wasteful practice should be phased out and replaced by gas capture technologies and improved production planning and coordination with midstream operations– actions that industry could and should be required to take.

A recent financial analysis found that gas flaring in Texas has become so extensive as to violate a state law that requires the RRC to address oversupply of product; in 2018 the gas Texas operators wasted was worth nearly $750 million.1 Earthworks’ field investigations have revealed an even more pernicious problem: the direct venting to the atmosphere of pollution from unlit flare stacks.2

Yet both operators and Texas state agencies insist on underestimating the problem. A 2019 study in Texas compared emissions from flaring and venting in RRC records with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) records from satellites.3 Both data sets show a rapid increase in emissions from these practices in recent years, and the NOAA data indicate levels double those claimed by operators. The researchers attribute this in part to a regulatory loophole that allows operators to skip reporting pollution from certain production practices.4

A market research company has also identified wide discrepancies in emission volumes from flaring between operator self-reported data and satellite measurements taken by federal agencies, concluding that operators may be deliberately under-reporting pollution from flaring so they can keep producing oil unhindered by regulations.5

To put this problem in perspective, another analysis of reported versus measured flaring emissions concluded that twice as much natural gas is wasted in the Texas Permian Basin as industry claims, enough in fact to serve all the heating and cooking needs of the state’s seven largest cities.6

  1. Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, “Flaring Burns Texas Economy: Commission’s Failure to Stop Waste Runs Risk of Letting the State’s Financial Future Go Off the Rails,” June 2020.
  2. Sharon Wilson, “Pollution on Purpose? Unlit flares harm health and climate–during a public health and climate crisis,” Earthworks, April 2, 2020, https://earthworks.org/blog/pollution-on-purpose/
  3. Willyard, Katherine Ann and Schade, Gunnar W. “Flaring in Two Texas Shale Areas: Comparison of BottomUp With Top-Down Volume Estimates for 2012 to 2015,” Science of the Total Environment, November 2019.
  4. Texas Railroad Commission, exceptions to venting and flaring authorizations, https://www.rrc.state.tx.us/about-us/resource-center/faqs/oil-gas-faqs/faq-flaring-regulation/
  5. Brian Collins, “Are some shale producers under-reporting gas flaring to keep oil flowing?” S&P Global, October 2018.
  6. Colin Leyden, “Satellite data confirms Permian gas flaring is double what companies report.” Environmental Defense Fund, January 2019.

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