A Wyoming court recently struck down a rule preventing oil and gas companies from deliberately venting or burning off excess natural gas. KPCW looks at what that means for the environment and what the future of that rule might look like.
It’s called “venting and flaring” and it’s the practice energy companies use to burn off excess natural gas or release it into the atmosphere during the extraction of oil.
Energy companies claim there is no economical way for them to capture and use the gas. This gas is a byproduct of fracking, a term you may have heard in the news recently in regards to the presidential election.
Fracking is the practice of using hydraulic pressure in order to access deep pockets of oil or gas.
Jason O'Neil is with Accountable U.S., a nonprofit organization that focuses on government corruption and says of the two, venting is worse for the environment, but flaring is not much better as both release harmful gasses into the atmosphere.
“There’s two parts to this process,” O’Neil said. “One is the direct venting of that gas, so that would be just released directly into the atmosphere. A lot of that happens right when fracking occurs, when you’re drilling the well. But then there’s also the flaring of it, which is a little less impactful in that flaring means that methane is then burned by the oil and gas company, but then released into the air. While it does reduce some of the methane, it does convert it into CO2, which we also know is a harmful greenhouse gas.”
The practice of venting and flaring was curbed in 2016 by the Obama administration’s Methane and Waste Prevention Rule. The rule required oil and gas producers to take steps to reduce the amount of waste gas produced during the extraction of fossil fuels.
The rule was immediately challenged in court by energy companies and according to the Bureau of Land Management, which was in charge of enforcing the rule, it was never fully implemented after the Trump administration took over in January 2017.
In early October, a Wyoming District Court struck down the rule.
O’Neil says the excess gas could be used for energy but, again, energy companies say they just can’t justify the expense of capturing and finding a use for the gas.
“When we look at kind of the broader picture, this is energy that can be used to heat homes,” he said. “It can be used in other processes, other industrial processes as well, but when it has been brought forward about how we’re going to manage this, industry has stood steadfast in saying this is uneconomical for them to conserve.”
So, what does the future hold for the Waste Prevention Rule?
O’Neil says a lot of it hinges on the upcoming election. The Trump administration has not shown a willingness to enact regulations on the energy industry and has rolled back several Obama-era policies aimed at curbing emissions. Joe Biden has said his administration would tackle climate change and work to transition the United States off of fossil fuels and on to more renewable sources of energy like wind and solar.
Biden’s opponents say that’s too expensive and would destroy the American oil and gas industry. President Trump’s critics say climate change is too dire of a situation to ignore.
What is certain, however, is the fight over the future of fossil fuels is not going away anytime soon.
KPCW news reports on climate change issues are brought to you by the Park City Climate Fund at the Park City Community Foundation, an initiative that engages Park City in implementing local, high-impact climate solutions that have potential to be effective in similar communities.