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ConocoPhillips Drops Request for Oil and Gas Flaring in West Texas After Challenge from Clean Air Groups

41 Flares at Oil and Gas Sites Released 1,262 Tons of Sulfur Dioxide Air Pollution near Odessa
For Immediate Release:

Austin, Texas – Following a challenge from four clean air advocacy groups, ConocoPhillips yesterday dropped a request for extensions on flaring permits at 41 oil and gas sites in West Texas that released more than 1,300 tons of dangerous air pollutants last year.

The company’s 41 flares are located in Ector and Andrews counties near Odessa and burned 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2018-2019, releasing more than 1,262 tons of sulfur dioxide, which can damage the lungs, as well as 99 tons of nitrogen oxides and other pollutants, according to state records.

Local residents of the Permian Basin region worked with the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Environment Texas and Texas Campaign for the Environment to file an objection to the state permits in May because the flares damage air quality and threaten public health.

A hearing before the Texas Railroad Commission, which reviews permits for flaring at oil and gas sites, had been scheduled for September 28. But yesterday ConocoPhillips sent the state agency a letter announcing that it was withdrawing its applications for the 41 flares because of “operational changes” that make them unnecessary.

“People should care about this issue, because these flares emit toxic air pollution that is hurting public health, and the Texas Railroad Commission has been granting permits for flaring with no real standards or oversight for years,” said Colin Cox, Attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.

Cyrus Reed, interim director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said: “While we are pleased that under pressure Conoco-Phillips is doing the right thing and withdrawing their request to expand their massive ongoing air pollution through flaring, it again demonstrates that the regulator is not doing its job. It shouldn’t take local citizens and organizations to state the obvious: it’s time for the Texas Railroad Commission to do more than require expanded reporting and actually set a course to eliminate the routine flaring and venting of air pollution.”

"Today's decision shows us that industry knows how to reduce these harmful flaring activities. We need to hold them and the Texas Railroad Commission to a higher standard and stop allowing operators to forfeit our precious resources and put our health at risk," said Corey Troiani, Senior Director with Texas Campaign for the Environment.

"Flaring pollutes our air, warms our climate, and puts our health at risk. Giant balls of fire in the sky should not be a part of business as usual," said Emma Pabst, Global Warming Solutions Advocate with  Environment Texas.

The number of flaring permits issued by the Texas Railroad Commission jumped to 6,972 in 2019, up from 5,488 in 2018, 3,708 in 2017, and 306 in 2010, according to the agency’s website.  The volume of flaring and venting at oil and gas sites in Texas has also multiplied, rising to 194 billion cubic feet in 2019, up from 74 billion cubic feet in 2017 and 5 billion cubic feet in 2010, according to state data.

Nationally, flaring and venting of natural gas has also increased, with 468 billion square feet flared and vented in 2018 – which was quadruple the amount two decades earlier, and the most since 1970, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Drilling companies often burn natural gas (methane and other gases) because they don’t have a pipeline nearby available as they drill for oil and produce the gases as a byproduct.  The recent economic downturn, caused in part by Covid-19, has driven many oil and gas companies to curb production and close wells.

It’s not clear what drove ConocoPhillips to drop its application for the flaring permits in Ector and Andrews counties. But the company wrote to the Texas Railroad Commission: “ConocoPhillips has instituted operational changes that have significantly reduced the need for flaring at the facilities.…As a result, the two-year flaring authority sought in these cases is no longer needed.”

Neta Rhyne, a lung cancer survivor and resident of West Texas who is concerned about the air pollution from flaring, said: “I’m happy to learn ConocoPhillips is instituting operational changes that will significantly reduce the need for flaring.  This is absolute proof that the fossil fuel industry can reduce harmful flaring activities that are polluting the air we breathe.  I’m looking forward to the day I can enjoy going to Odessa and Midland to visit my grandsons without being a prisoner indoors.”

The Environmental Integrity Project is an 18-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., that is dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.

Permian Basin Venting and Flaring of Natural Gas as a Share of Texas Total, 2010–2019 (million cubic feet)

 

The chart above shows the rapid growth of natural gas flaring and venting in Texas from 2010 to 2019.  Ector and Andrews counties (discussed in this press release) are only a portion of the Permian Basin; and ConocoPhillips is one of several oil and gas companies drilling and flaring in the region.

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