EnergyStatewide NewsEnvironmental Group Ramps Up Complaints Against TCEQ Despite Flaring Intensity Improvements in Permian Basin

Following a New York Times investigation on methane emissions in the Permian Basin, The Texan analyzed accusations from an environmental group against TCEQ. Here's what we found.
March 10, 2020
A November 2019 report by the New York Times stated, “Immense amounts of methane are escaping from oil and gas sites nationwide, worsening global warming, even as the Trump administration weakens restrictions on offenders.”

The Times visited the Permian Basin — the epicenter of America’s oil and gas boom located partially in West Texas and partially in southeast New Mexico.

Taking infrared footage of numerous Permian Basin facilities, the report insisted methane leakage by oil and gas operations is being disregarded by those companies and the Trump administration.

In 2017, the Trump administration delayed the implementation of a rule — established in the closing weeks of the Obama administration — that would more intensely regulate methane emissions.

Environmental groups responded by suing the Trump administration, a challenge from which they emerged victorious in February 2018. But the administration adjusted its plan, proposing a new rule to accomplish the same general goal this past August. It will likely be approved and implemented this year after a public comment period spanning the latter part of 2019 since the rule was proposed.

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While methane is considered relatively non-toxic — as it does not have an OSHA permissible exposure limit — those concerned about it cite its role as a greenhouse gas. Methane is 86 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

In Texas, the regulatory body charged with monitoring methane leakages (through specific federal programs) and other environmental concerns is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). 

According to TCEQ, the process after a complaint is filed consists of sending an investigator out to the area. After a complaint is filed an investigation determination must be made within 30 days of the filing.

During the investigation, the TCEQ official uses handheld devices to monitor the document situation and pores over “emission records, reports, and calculations.” 

The length of time this takes varies based on the complaint.

One organization monitoring methane emissions is Earthworks, which in December stated it had filed over 100 complaints with TCEQ. Earthworks is an environmental organization that aims to “[protect] communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions.”

Earthworks has routinely criticized TCEQ for what it believes is a lack of oversight on emissions in the Permian.

In mid-December, a report on methane emissions in the Permian Basin was released by Texans for Natural Gas, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, and the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

Since 2011, production in the Permian increased by over 210 percent. All the while, the study states, methane flaring intensity in the Permian had declined 64 percent in the past seven years.

And a Texas Railroad Commission analysis released on February 18 found that Texas’ flaring intensity is 35 percent below the global average.

Flaring intensity is measured as the cubic meters of gas flared per barrel of oil produced. That is a measurement used by the World Bank, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Energy Information Administration.

Environmental groups say flaring intensity does not show the whole picture. Instead, they prefer to look at total emissions. A 2019 study found that 663 million cubic feet of methane per day are emitted (either vented into the atmosphere or flared) — up from under 200 million in mid-2017. 

Flaring intensity represents the gas released relative to oil and natural gas production. In a world that relies on cheap, reliable energy, flaring intensity offers a gauge on emission reduction without assuming net-zero emissions is possible given existing technology.

Elizabeth Caldwell, a spokeswoman for Texans for Natural Gas, told The Texan, “As the Permian Basin has become a focus of oil and gas development, it also gained the attention of national media and environmentalist groups who have raised concerns with the emissions from production. We wanted to look closely at available data — hard numbers — to get a real picture of what was happening in the Permian.”

“The numbers told a clear story: in the Permian Basin, methane emissions intensity has declined, even as production has soared,” she continued. This would suggest oil and gas producers are getting better at curbing their emissions.

Nationwide, a new EPA report found that methane emissions from energy production have decreased 17 percent since 1990. 

Environmental groups, however, want to see the U.S. become carbon-neutral by 2030 — a benchmark within the famous, or infamous, Green New Deal.

A certain amount of emissions is permitted by TCEQ. Permitted emission quantities are allocated out for a year and vary from facility to facility.

When a violation is determined, TCEQ provides formal notice to the respondent either in the form of a Notice of Violation or Notice of Enforcement — depending on the determined severity of the violation. From there, the respondent is charged with resolving the violation. If that is not done, formal enforcement may follow which entails administrative penalties.

Citizens-collected evidence (CCE) is permitted to initiate an investigation by TCEQ. To be used, they must be “obtained using agency protocols, procedures, or guidelines, including specific training requirements when collecting and submitting information or evidence.”

When CCEs do not meet those standards “staff explain[s] to the citizen why the item(s) cannot be accepted and provides information on the CCE process and procedures.” TCEQ may still initiate its own investigation into the subject of the submitted complaint.

Organizations such as Earthworks rely on CCEs in their emissions-monitoring in the Permian.

The Texan spoke with Sharon Wilson, a senior organizer with Earthworks based in Texas. 

“The Permian Basin, and Texas as a whole, is a bad actor regarding climate change,” Wilson stated.

Wilson is a certified thermographer as are those employed by TCEQ who conduct their investigations. She visits Permian Basin facilities and captures video evidence of emissions, then files complaints with the TCEQ if she determines violations are occurring. 

One thing Wilson pointed to is a facility operating but not flaring their excess gas — described by Wilson as any flaring tower from which no visible flame protrudes — which, according to Wilson, should be a violation. Wilson alleges that TCEQ effectively ignores these.

When asked about Wilson’s criticism, TCEQ stated, “Some flares are only used when necessary and therefore may not have a constant visible flame. Some flares burn waste gas with a flame that is enclosed or otherwise barely visible.”

However, TCEQ also says, “The TCEQ 2010 Flare Study demonstrated a visible flame on the flare is a good indicator that the flare is burning and destroying waste gas effectively.”

Flares themselves are used to reduce emissions and ensure a safe burn of flammable gases.

Wilson also stated the light and noise pollution caused by the flare is bothersome to surrounding residents.

TCEQ responded that, “Typically, production site flares operate with a minimal amount of sound. Loud noise may be an indicator of an improperly operating flare, however, pressure or steam-assisted flares, which may produce a high decibel or high-frequency sound, are used in some locations. The TCEQ does not regulate sound.”

A public information request to TCEQ for Earthworks’ Permian Basin-based complaints only yielded 58 separate items. TCEQ indicated the discrepancy could be explained by separate complaints concerning the same facility at the same time being consolidated into one in TCEQ records.

A TCEQ spokesman added, “When multiple complaints are received concerning the same regulated entity, or if TCEQ receives a complaint against a regulated entity for which an investigation is currently ongoing, TCEQ will often address all of the complaints with one investigation.”

Earthworks asserts that TCEQ is shirking its investigatory responsibilities.

Of the 58 recorded Earthworks complaints, in all but four cases, no violation had been issued after an investigation was approved.

While it is still possible a violation may be levied (especially regarding more recent complaints), by and large, it remains likely no violation will be issued if a TCEQ investigation found no legitimacy to the particular complaint. However, one investigation is still outstanding and three violations have been confirmed.

Wilson said she’d have to see the reports to know whether TCEQ is under-investigating these complaints. She then stated that TCEQ doesn’t send her copies of the complaints or reports.

To observe a larger sample size, The Texan also requested complaint records from last year.

According to TCEQ data, 359 complaints about air quality in the Permian were submitted during the 2019 calendar year. In 44 percent of cases, a violation of some kind was issued.

Meanwhile, in 35 percent of such cases, no violation was issued. In seven percent of the cases, the investigation remains outstanding. For the remaining number of complaints filed, an investigation has not yet been initiated.

Wilson believes the 359 total to be too low. “The Railroad Commission is issuing permits [for new or continual facilities] faster than they can track where these facilities are,” she added.

The Texas Railroad Commission issues permits.

In response to Earthworks’ accusation, a TCEQ spokesman told The Texan, “TCEQ views its enforcement responsibilities as a priority and thoroughly and diligently investigates noncompliance, including citizen complaints. The TCEQ is carefully reviewing the concerns raised by Earthworks.”

To document the emissions, Earthworks and the Times use optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras (OGIC) which capture emissions invisible to the naked eye. TCEQ also utilizes OGICs but images alone may not be sufficient to determine a violation. 

The fumes it depicts are not limited to gases such as methane or other gases known as volatile organic compounds. As shown in this FLIR (an optical gas imaging camera manufacturer) video, the cameras even pick up emissions from newly applied hand sanitizer. 

This should be considered when viewing OGIC anecdotal videos.

Earthworks posts their OGIC videos on their website, but do not post measurements over time — only the incidence videos. TCEQ emission permit amounts span over the course of a year. Occasionally, Wilson says SUMMA canisters are used which record chemical compounds in the air — ideally representing emissions given off. 

Another charge from Earthworks is that oil and gas companies, with the help of TCEQ, chalk large emission events up to “upset emissions” — or unforeseen and/or uncontrollable events that cause unplanned emissions. Earthworks says these emissions are effectively swept under the rug by the regulators. 

TCEQ is required by law to “investigate instances of excess emissions and take enforcement action when appropriate.” 

While not all upset emission events are reportable — they must reach a certain amount to require a report — TCEQ maintained, “the regulated entity is required to create a final record of the non-reportable emissions event and maintain the final record on-site and readily available for review.”

Any violation of this protocol would subject the violator to TCEQ’s “violator enforcement process.” Wilson stated she wants to see more fines issued and followed through on — she also added that oftentimes, facilities essentially plead down the fines avoiding the financial hit.

If a reportable emissions quantity is exceeded, the facility must send a notification within 24 hours of the event. A final report is due within two weeks. To determine if a violation was committed, six criteria are used: frequency; cause; quantity and impact of emissions; duration; and the percentage of annual operating hours during.

The Times posted a graphic in which aerial flight data showed six plants to be “super emitters” — methane releases of “about 60 pounds or more an hour.” While this data can be used to show emissions, it only illustrates a snapshot — not an aggregate emission count for a permit period.

Oftentimes, large methane releases are planned and accounted for in the permit count. That does not mean, however, that what the Times captured was not a potential violation.

Essentially, the Times’ measurements are inconclusive, neither definitely showing violations nor a lack of violations. In other words, there is simply not enough information provided in the Times piece to know.

But as the TNG study shows, methane emissions per unit of production are already being reduced. Oil and gas companies are doing this partially because, in reality, it can help their bottom line. Methane leakages not only cost money in potential citations, but it’s also a vanishing product. 

Methane is the main component of natural gas. After separation and conversion into methanol, it is a valuable component in numerous other products such as adhesives, coatings, types of gasoline, fertilizer, and paint removers. 

Companies have invested in innovative technology that has enabled, in part, the drastic methane intensity decrease — at least partially on the fact that it can be repurposed and sold.

Wilson doesn’t find this argument persuasive, however, pointing to an example in which a company chose to burn off its excess natural gas rather than funnel it into the pipeline to which they were connected. 

Last December, the Texas Railroad Commission was sued by Williams Cos. — a pipeline company — for allowing Exco Operating Co. to burn off their gas rather than funnel their gas into the pipeline to which they were connected. 

Energy companies argue they have an incentive to reduce their waste (methane emitted) as much as the cost will allow. Many have also publicly announced their commitment to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. 

But organizations such as Earthworks insist it is not enough or the progress touted is not genuine — and, worse yet, that the government is helping the private industry avoid “righting their ship.”

Wilson told The Texan she believes America must, by 2030, become a net-zero emitter “to prevent catastrophic climate change.” She wants the oil and gas industry to set a plan to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord benchmarks. 

Wilson stated about the use of the flaring intensity metric, “The climate does not care about flaring intensity.”

“As long as [the oil and gas industry] keeps expanding, there is no room for encouragement,” she concluded.

Organizations such as Texans for Natural gas maintain that emissions improvement is occurring without such a comprehensive top-down government approach as outlined in the provisions of the Green New Deal. In fact, the supplantation of high-emission coal by low-emission natural gas has led to a drastic decrease in emissions as oil and gas production rises to meet current energy needs.

The Permian Basin is the epicenter of America’s energy boom. With that success comes increased scrutiny — and with the scrutiny comes drastic policy change proposals. But as with accusations of any kind, the scrutiny must be backed up by evidence, especially when hundreds of thousands of jobs are on the line and proposed policies could fundamentally alter how people go about their daily lives.

Ultimately, it’s tough to ascertain the validity of either side’s claims when both operate from different metrics and from such disparate worldviews.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.