Four Fast Facts on NBC’s Misleading Report on Flaring
A new report on flaring in West Texas’ Permian Basin by NBC News’ experimental video outfit relies on misleading data and activist talking points, according to a review from Energy In Depth. The one-sided portrayal appears to be more of an attempt to frighten viewers rather than informing them.
From the opening scene and fearful title, NBC Left Field’s “Texas is on Fire With Polluting Flares From Fracking” does not appear to have been an objective look at the Permian Basin, one of the most significant oil fields in the entire world. Here are some facts to consider:
FACT 1: New Pipeline Capacity Will Far Exceed Flared Volumes
According to data featured prominently in the video, collected by the Environmental Defense Fund, flaring in the Permian totaled roughly 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2016. This figure was shown along with commentary from an EDF staffer who claimed, “the market is not going to solve this” and that “there needs to be some sort of regulatory oversight.”
What NBC omits, however, is that the 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas flared (because of pipeline constraints) equals just 1.2 percent of the 5,110 billion cubic feet per year expected to come online in the Permian Basin by 2022.
In other words, the new pipelines coming online in the next three years – a market-driven development – will provide more than enough capacity to handle the volume of gas currently being flared.
FACT 2: Fails to Acknowledge the Climate Benefits of Natural Gas
Crucially, the video fails to recognize the climate benefits of natural gas use. At one point, the video mentions that while the “U.N. is calling for a managed decline in fossil fuels, the U.S. is doing the opposite,” suggesting that by increasing development, the United States is incorrectly addressing climate issues. This, however, is not true. In fact, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the fuel’s role in reducing emissions is crucial:
“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply…this is an important reason for the reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, American power sector emissions dropped 28 percent since 2005, in large part due to greater use of natural gas. Additionally, EIA data show total U.S. carbon emissions in 2017 reached their lowest level in 25 years.
FACT 3: FLIR Technology Has Limitations – But Earthworks Uses it to Scare the Public
The video relies heavily on claims made by the anti-fossil fuel activist organization Earthworks – a group whose executive director once stated, “The only surefire way to protect human health, clean drinking water and the global climate from coal, oil and gas is to keep them in the ground.”
In the video, Earthworks organizer Sharon Wilson shares images from a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera, which she describes as showing methane leaks from equipment. However, FLIR videos do not identify the substance being emitted, let alone the quantity. In fact, Wilson herself has said of her FLIR videos in the past: “We can’t say which VOCs [volatile organic compounds] or how much.”
Unfortunately, NBC News presents these grainy and misleading videos without scrutiny.
FACT 4: Earthworks Not Interested in Fair Regulations
To further remove any doubt about Ms. Wilson’s goal, she plainly states that all fossil fuel use needs to end:
“There is a path forward how we can get it out of this runaway warming that we are in because of methane. But, it’s not happening. And it means that we have to stop using fossil fuels.” [4:14 – 4:26, emphasis added]
It’s unclear why NBC News would present Wilson — who once compared fracking to sexual assault – as a legitimate authority on methane emissions.
By leaving out this critical context and relying instead on anecdotes and activist talking points, the NBC Left Field piece at best only tells part of the story. Despite a plethora of scary images and alarming claims, there is plenty of information showing that what’s happening in the Permian is not a scene out of Mad Max. Market developments are addressing many of the issues identified in the video, and natural gas is actually reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. With the right infrastructure in place, natural gas from the Permian will also play a key role in reducing emissions worldwide as global demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG) soars in the coming decade.