U.S. oil and gas companies set fire to billions of cubic feet of natural gas every year and directly release into the atmosphere additional unknown amounts of the methane-rich gas. But what they release and what they report to state authorities don’t always align, leaving regulators in the dark about how much greenhouse gases are being released through these processes, known as flaring and venting. That’s the main finding of a new investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The Howard Center’s monthslong investigation, Gaslit, was based on an analysis of satellite data of oil and gas operations in states with significant flaring or flaring potential. Reporters compared those volumes to the data that companies have to report and found vast discrepancies in the totals from 2012-2020.
“You can’t regulate what you don’t measure,” said Gunnar Schade, a scientist at Texas A&M who has used satellite data to study flaring in Texas. “We actually don’t have a good handle on what goes in the atmosphere for various reasons — some of them by design, some of them by negligence.”
The Howard Center found that over much of the last decade, oil and gas operators in Texas and a dozen other U.S. states have flared, or burned off, at least 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of nearly 42 million cars driving for a year, or more than $10.6 billion in revenue based on the market value of natural gas during the study time period.
Flaring occurs mostly at oil wells, but even companies that primarily produce and sell natural gas burn off some of it. Companies argue that they flare and vent for safety and maintenance and because selling or reusing the gas is not financially feasible. But experts say that, in addition to impacting global warming, this valuable resource is being squandered because of weak regulations and oversight, ineffective tracking and a lack of economic incentives to capture and sell the gas.
Reporters traveled to the three states with the highest flaring numbers – Texas, North Dakota and New Mexico – and brought back local stories on regulatory requirements and loopholes, political contributions and lobbying, and community responses and pushback. They also delved into the environmental and health impacts of flaring and venting and explored the fact-checking opportunities and limitations of satellite technology.
“Gaslit” features an interactive map comparing state-reported and satellite-recorded flaring totals in the 13 most active flaring states. A short documentary based on reporting in Texas, North Dakota and New Mexico explains flaring and venting and how different states are addressing these practices. An animated graphic explains the differences between flaring and venting and their emissions. The project’s multimedia offerings also include an audio story about New Mexico’s efforts to recast itself from a drilling state to an environmental leader.