Oil Majors Dump Millions Of Cubic Feet Of Methane Directly Into The Atmosphere

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At a time when public awareness of the dangers of a warming planet is at its highest level ever, when millions of protesters around the world are subjecting themselves to arrest to protest the timid approach to climate change by governments, and when scientific evidence confirming the cause of the oncoming climate emergency increases daily, a report by the New York Times and Greenpeace finds oil companies are releasing more natural gas into the atmosphere than ever — enough to meet the needs of Arizona or South Carolina.

natural gas flaring
Image credit: Greenpeace

Why, you may ask? Isn’t natural gas a valuable commodity with a significant market value?  The answer is yes, but the cockamamie patchwork of rules and regulations in place have created an Alice in Wonderland alternate reality.

You see, some companies drill for oil and some drill for natural gas but few companies drill for both. The companies that drill for oil are interested only in oil. To them, natural gas is a waste product to be disposed of as cheaply as possible. Since they are not in the gas business, they do not drill near where natural gas pipelines are available. Rather than capture it and transport it to the nearest pipeline, it is just cheaper and easier to release it into the atmosphere or burn it.

Pollution Is Pollution, No Matter What You Call It

If it is vented into the air, a powerful greenhouse gas — methane — adds to the climate crisis. If it is burned — a process known prosaically as “flaring” — the methane is converted into carbon dioxide, which also leads to a hotter environment. Think of it as a giant Bunsen burner running 24 hours a day out in the middle of nowhere. Either way, the Earth is the loser. The New York Times report says about 350 million cubic feet of natural gas was wasted in the United States alone last year.

Both practices are “a tremendous waste of a natural resource,” Riccardo Puliti, global director for energy at the World Bank, tells the New York Times. The Bank estimates that flaring last year emitted more than 350 million tons of carbon dioxide globally, equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of almost 75 million cars. “We can’t afford for this to continue unabated,” Mr. Puliti says.

That’s for damned sure. This situation is like an arsonist setting fire to your home and then coming back later to pour gasoline on the conflagration. Why are the heads of these corporations not in prison? Because flaring and venting are not illegal in any state in the United States and industry pressure has prevented the federal government from mandating an end to these practices.

You know the industry mantra by now. Government regulations make it too costly to do business, which means fewer jobs. Better to destroy the Earth and everything on it than lose a penny in profits. Such is the insanity of humanity’s insatiable thirst for cheap energy and the oil companies’ blatant disregard for the environment.

The Lie Behind The Oil & Gas Climate Initiative

Last month, major oil companies like ExxonMobil and BP made a big show when they announced the creation of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, pledging to dramatically reduce their environmental footprint in coming years. In fact, according to the Times report, both are leading the pack when it comes to methane venting and flaring in the US and are increasing rather than decreasing methane dumping.

“Exxon’s venting and flaring has surged since 2017 to record highs, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of gas produced, the numbers show. Exxon flared or vented 70 percent more gas in 2018 than it did the previous year, according to the data, bringing an end to several years of improvements,” the newspaper says. “BP burned off 17 percent of the gas it produced in the Permian between April and June of this year….making it the worst performer in percentage terms among the top 50 producers. In the year-earlier quarter, BP had burned only 10 percent.”

methane emissions
Image credit: Unearthed/Greenpeace

Those numbers contrast sharply with the pledges the members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative have made. The group says its goal is to limit methane losses to just 0.25% of global production. BP says it is already at 0.2%. Environmental groups are skeptical and are pushing the companies to be more transparent when it comes to verifying progress toward their stated goals.

“They’re saying, ‘Here’s our number. Trust us,’” says Ben Ratner, a senior director with the Environmental Defense Fund, which is working with oil companies to track and reduce methane. “There’s been no breakdown of how they arrived at that number. And we don’t have all the facts, the transparency, to assess whether that’s accurate or not.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a staunch climate advocate, told Greenpeace after the latest report was released, “These are troubling findings, which belie the American Petroleum Institute’s seven-figure ad campaign claiming the industry is working to reduce carbon pollution. Industry claims to support methane regulation look like greenwashing — old bad habits from an industry that spent decades trying to deceive the public about climate change.”

An ExxonMobil spokesperson told Unearthed, an online blog created by Greenpeace, “Flaring is an important issue we take very seriously. We have made great progress in reducing flaring by working with third-party gas gathering systems, accelerating installation of gas facilities, improving facility reliability and curtailing production when appropriate.

“The company is in full compliance with state and federal flaring regulations and makes every effort possible to exceed those standards. In the examples you cite, flaring is done for safety reasons or because the gas cannot be used due to barriers to the development of gas markets and gas infrastructure,” she added.

That last part translates into plain English as, “If it weren’t for those job killing restrictions placed on the industry by those SOBs in the Obama administration, we would be free to do whatever we want with the methane. It’s our methane, after all, and we should be free to decide what to do with it without the nanny state sticking its nose into our business all the time.”

The Takeaway

What this all comes down to is that oil companies continue to blow sunshine up our skirts while continuing their full frontal assault on the Earth in the name of progress…..and profits. Unless We The People demand an end to this madness, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, endangering us all. Based on the incessant blathering of politicians, none of them — including all the current Democratic candidates for president — has the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the oil industry in any meaningful way.

We get promises and projections for the year 2050, but little in the way of substantive progress toward a zero emissions world that can sustain life in the future. Are we marching like lemmings toward our own extinction? Based on the observable evidence, the answer is yes.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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