Gas flaring permits surge in Texas

The number natural gas flaring permits issued in Texas has more than quadrupled over the past two years, as oil and gas production in the state has boomed, according to the Texas Railroad Commission.

The state commission issued 651 permits last year, compared to 306 in 2010. In 2009, 158  permits were handed out.

Companies flare, or burn off,  natural gas produced from their wells if low prices make the fossil fuel uneconomical to sell or if there’s not enough pipeline capacity to get to it market. Flaring also occurs to relieve dangerous pressure levels in wells and for other safety reasons.

The rapid increase in gas flaring is even more pronounced in North Dakota, where more than one-third of the fossil fuel is going up in smoke, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A group of institutional investors recently released a letter to 21 oil and gas companies decrying the rise of flaring because of the environmental and financial impacts. The group specifically called out Texas and North Dakota for the problem.

“We are concerned that flaring of natural gas wastes a valuable product,” the letter reads. “Even at today’s depressed wellhead price, the 100 million cubic feet of natural gas that were flared each day in North Dakota last year represents approximately $110 million in lost revenue.”

The letter, which was sent to leaders of Anadarko, Apache, ExxonMobil,  Marathon Oil, Chesapeake Energy, Noble Energy and other major producers, pointed to the proliferation of shale oil production as a key driver for flaring’s growth.

Ramona Nye, spokeswoman for the Texas Railroad Commission, says most of the flared gas in Texas comes from oil wells, where it is produced as a byproduct. While natural gas production has slowed because of its low price, oil drilling has boomed in Texas and across the country in recent years.