Flaring

Little Rock       For five years my family said we lived in Rangely, Colorado on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in the far northwestern corner of the state.  We were closer to Vernal, Utah, and what is now the Dinosaur National Monument, than we were to almost anything else in Colorado.  In fact, we actually didn’t live in Rangely either.  We lived in California Company, now called Chevron, company camp five miles out of town.  You knew you were coming into the camp as you drove down the highway when you saw the flare burning 24/7 from the small refinery across from the oil company offices before you arrived at the small community of houses they had built for the workers.

I’ve been back there over the years, though it has been some time at this point, in order to show my kids where we lived, and where my brother was born.   The last I knew, the Rangely field is still producing, and the refinery was still in operation.  The company camp is now quasi-abandoned.  The company sold some of the homes to long time employees who wanted to stay there, but otherwise, it’s part of the boom-and-bust cycle so common in the extraction world of the West.  To the best of my knowledge, the flare is still burning from time to time.

Flaring is the process of burning off natural gas that for various reasons cannot, or will not, be refined.  The rationale for most oil and gas companies is that this is gas is too low grade for refining.  The reality is that the cost is too high for the price they can garner or they can make more on the oil, and the gas is a byproduct. Is this good for the climate or utilization of such a scarce and diminishing resource.  Of course not!

Contrary to their promises, companies in the main are burning off and releasing more gas than they said they would.  In a New York Times analysis, they found that in some fields Exxon Mobil and BP (formerly British Petroleum) didn’t decrease flaring and venting, but increased it.

Since 2011, the period for which reliable numbers are available, Exxon has flared or vented more gas overall than any other operator in the three oil fields, which include the Eagle Ford and Permian basins in the Southwest, and the Bakken straddling the Canadian border. Companies often treat natural gas as a byproduct when drilling for oil, which is far more lucrative. The data also shows that BP this year acquired some of the most polluting sites in the Permian and then allowed flaring and venting to increase. BP burned off 17 percent of the gas it produced in the Permian between April and June of this year (the first full quarter after the acquisition) making it the worst performer in percentage terms among the top 50 producers. In the year-earlier quarter, BP had burned only 10 percent.

What the heck!

Perhaps it should not be a surprise given the record of these companies around climate change, but there were a couple of shocks in the article nonetheless.  One was the fact that they do indeed “mess with Texas.”  “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.”

I knew, guiltily, how much the smell of flaring was so imprinted on me as a boy, that whenever I passed a flare burning in Rangely or Pasadena or Billings, it felt like home again. I read the article and its litany of bad behavior and corporate irresponsibility, cringing as I looked for any reporting on what Chevron might be doing, so the second huge surprise was the following passage in the article:

Chevron, on the other hand, has demonstrated more discipline over the past three years, keeping flaring and venting to less than 3 percent of the gas it drilled, the data shows. Analysts said the company appeared to have stricter internal rules that discourage drilling in areas that offer few prospects of economically recovering the natural gas produced.  “We built a strategy early in our Permian development that, whenever possible, we would not flare to produce,” Veronica Flores-Paniagua, a Chevron spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Well, I’ll be damned.  It’s happened.  Finally, Chevron is doing the right thing for a change.  Is this the same as every broken clock being right twice a day or could they lead from the front for a change, rather than trailing behind?

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