Flaring still standard practice as regulators aim to reduce emissions

James Fenton
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Oil and gas companies continue to flare gas, while some point to a loss of potential profits and concerns about air quality for people who live in areas where there is industry activity.

This, at a time, when energy regulations from the federal government are increasing.

On Aug. 18 in an effort to address the problem of climate change, the Obama administration proposed cutting methane emissions from all U.S. oil and gas production by nearly half over the next 10 years.

The effort seeks to reduce methane from oil and gas drilling by 40 to 45 percent by 2025 compared to 2012 levels.

Natural gas is 90 percent methane, which is a climate-warming pollutant 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period, although methane is not as persistent. New Mexico is the second leading producer of natural gas in the U.S.

A proposed federal rule would cut emissions from new and modified oil and natural gas wells, which includes new drilling standards designed to reduce leakage from wells on public lands.

Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said in an email that the state’s oil and gas producers have a vested interest in minimizing any loss of natural gas by leaks or flaring.

“Over the past several years, the oil and gas industry has made great progress in minimizing avoidable losses of natural gas,” Henke said. “In addition, producers are working hard to further minimize avoidable losses of natural gas for both environmental and economic reasons.”

ConocoPhillips  is New Mexico’s largest natural gas producer, responsible for a third  of all the natural gas that comes from the state.

The company has installed the latest pollution controls at well sites as a tool to reduce emissions, according to Jim Lowry, a ConocoPhillips spokesman.

“Our operations in (the) San Juan (Basin) are expansive. We hold 1.3 million net acres of oil and gas leases in San Juan and have more than 10,000 producing wells, but our (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions in San Juan account for less than 0.2 percent of the 3 billion tons emitted by entities that report their emissions to the (Environmental Protection Agency),” Lowry said.

ConocoPhillips is currently replacing all “high-bleed” — sizable releases of natural gas — pneumatic devices at all its existing well sites across the company’s existing operations, he said.

Pneumatic devices automatically control pressure, gas flow and liquid levels, and operate valves. Replacing high-bleed devices with low- or no-bleed parts or retrofitting them with air-based pnuematics, can reduce methane released into the atmosphere.

WPX Energy says its infrastructure investments are limiting the amount of flaring the company does.

In the last few years, the Tulsa-based company, which has an office in Aztec, laid 95 miles of pipe in the San Juan Basin at a cost of $18 million.

By the end of 2015, the company plans to complete an additional 92 miles of “gathering” pipelines to move natural gas, water and oil that it captures to process and then sell.

The infrastructure investments help reduce flaring and increase, which means they can more of the produced gas, according to Ken McQueen , WPX’s San Juan Basin director.

The company builds pipelines in advance of drilling to expedite the delivery of oil and gas for processing and sale. The infrastructure also allows for greater recycling of produced water at well sites, McQueen has said. Forty-five percent of the company’s total oil production is carried by pipeline, a new standard for efficiency that makes drilling profitable and increases safety by reducing the need for flaring, he said.

WPX spokeswoman Susan Alvillar  said the flaring is a trade off for using less water.

Flaring of wells occurs after completion and is necessary and happens for two reasons, Alvillar said.
First, flaring is used to reduce nitrogen — which cuts the amount of water needed during drilling — from the natural gas that is produced.

The nitrogen is used during hydraulic fracturing to help “energize” the formation for greater flow of oil and gas, she said, but it must be reduced before the product can be sold to companies such as Enterprise and Williams.

“In order for the concentration of nitrogen to be acceptable for the pipeline companies, we have to flare off the gas until the percentage of nitrogen is acceptable,” Alvillar said. “We have been able to work with the pipeline companies to increase the amount of nitrogen (that is) acceptable.”

The other reason to flare, Alvillar said, is when a oil well — especially early wells the company drilled — lacks a natural gas pipeline to carry the gas.

She said the company’s increase in pipelines, separators and storage tanks will reduce the need to flare, but the costs of the infrastructure make the process toward reduced flaring slow.

“Because we have the infrastructure in place, our average flaring time is eight to 10 days, but it has been as low as two days,” she said. “(The Bureau of Land Management) allows flaring up to 30 days. After that you need a waiver. We do not pay royalties on gas flared, but we have to report the quantity. From time to time, we flare the gas during certain maintenance activities. We have to let BLM know when we plan to flare.”

While those improvements mark some progress toward curbing atmospheric haze, Sister Joan Brown, executive director of Albuquerque-based New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, said methane emissions in the state, captured last fall in NASA imagery that showed a “hot spot” of methane over the Four Corners area, is still a problem that requires federal oversight.

“As people of faith, we cannot remain silent while unnecessary pollution spills into our air, so I am encouraged that the EPA is moving to reduce this insidious problem that is so dangerous for our environment, our people and our climate,” Brown said in a statement. “Following in the footsteps of Pope Francis, who calls us to address pollution and climate change, we are working to keep New Mexico enchanting by embracing methane regulations for the benefit of our brothers and sisters here and around the world.”

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.