State oil regulator warns warns operators about gas flares

HOUSTON — Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick said the agency is sending letters to operators Wednesday reminding them of the state’s natural gas flaring rules and warning that the state will enforce them.

Craddick said the the letters are not a response to a specific incident.  But flaring has garnered increasing attention lately, including an NPR report last week that highlighted the practice in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

“We have flaring rules in the state, and we will be implementing and enforcing those,” Craddick said, speaking at the North American Prospect Expo in Houston Wednesday. “The letter is going to remind people of that. Sometimes, we’ve had a few not necessarily follow those rules.”

She said the issue warranted particular attention in the booming Eagle Ford Shale.

Burning gas: Gas flaring permits surge in Texas

The state’s flaring regulations — know as Rule 32 — allow operators to burn off excess natural gas while drilling wells and continue to do so up to 10 days after drilling is completed. In other cases, operators can apply for permits that allow up to 180 days of flaring.

The process of drilling an oil well can result in the release of methane, which operators often simply burn off. Environmentally, that’s preferred to releasing it directly into the air, but the burned byproduct is still a pollutant.

Producers flare gas when the cost of moving it to market is higher than the revenue earned by selling it. In some places, there’s a lack of infrastructure to collect and transport the gas, and because of its low price, there’s frequently little financial incentive to build it.

“We know the infrastructure is behind,” Craddick said. “We don’t want to shut you in. But we also wanna make sure you follow the rules.”

Since the 2012 fiscal year, the agency has only taken enforcement action related to Rule 32 three times, according to the commission’s records.

Earthquake concerns

Craddick also said the regulatory agency is moving forward with efforts to address growing public concerns about a recent spate of earthquakes near oil and gas fields.

She said the Texas Railroad Commission currently is interviewing seismologists to bring on board. The hired scientist will “analyze the data and look at what’s going on and be able to tell us if we need to adjust rules,” Craddick said.

Residents of a North Texas town that has been hit by a string of tremors in recent months have been putting pressure on the agency to act faster to address the issue.

Craddick didn’t say she was necessarily convinced that drilling caused the earthquakes, but she said the agency needs expertise to study the situation.