When an oil company drills a well, oil isn’t always the only thing that comes out of the ground. Often, natural gas seeps out, too.
This is a good thing when drilling takes place in a field with well-developed pipeline infrastructure. It means one well can produce two valuable products, and sometimes more, if the natural gas contains other types of valuable gas that can be separated and sold. Less waste, more fuel.
So what happens in a field that doesn’t have pipelines to take natural gas to market? The gas has no value; it’s just waste. While oil can be transported in trucks and on trains if there’s no pipeline from the well, natural gas either gets vented or set on fire, a process called flaring. (And while flaring might look frightening, it’s often better for the environment than just releasing natural gas into the air.)
Wasting this resource should depress all of us, because it has great value. We use it as a fuel every day for heat, for cooking and to make electricity. Texas chemical plants also use natural gas to make the plastics we use. Discarding it is wasteful and potentially harmful to the environment. This is why all Texans, both oil industry supporters and environmental activists alike, should support the idea of building more pipelines.
But more pipelines alone aren’t the whole answer. It’s about putting those pipelines in the right place.
Look to what happened in November, when, according to The Wall Street Journal, the price of natural gas at the Waha trading hub in West Texas went negative for the first time on record. That means natural gas had so little value at this hub, that for a short time, producers had to pay someone to take it off their hands and dispose of it.
According to The Journal, there’s enough capacity in West Texas to move the gas, but some of the pipeline capacity goes to Mexico, where demand isn’t growing as quickly as expected. We know pipeline companies are laying more pipe around the state. In 2015, the Railroad Commission of Texas received 30 new construction reports for pipelines to carry natural gas and natural gas liquids. In 2018, that number rose to 106.
This process of building the right infrastructure for the new level of oil and gas production should continue without unnecessary restrictions. Notice we use the word “unnecessary,” because there are important regulations on construction and handling oil and gas — for safety, for the environment and for the comfort of communities.
And we must recognize that oil producers respond to consumer demand for their product. If we use oil, they will produce it. That’s not going to stop anytime soon. So we need to plan now for ways to responsibly harvest the natural gas that comes with it.