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August 09, 2013

Flaring Up in North Dakota, Natural Gas Emissions from Oil Production

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Photo credit Tim Evanson. Flaring of natural gas in McKenzie County, North Dakota.
While a great deal of attention has been paid to the dangers fracking poses to drinking water, oil and natural gas production are also major sources of air pollution. Flaring of natural gas is one of the many reasons that there are air pollution issues with oil and gas drilling. It is a major issue that contributes to climate disruption, puts public health at risk and is economically wasteful.

Oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation has increased 40-fold between 2007 and mid-2013, from 18,500 to 760,000 barrels per day, according to a recent report by Ceres, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainability. In fact, flaring from the Bakken Shale is visible from space. Surpassing Alaska in May 2012, North Dakota became the second-largest oil producing state after Texas. This tremendous growth in oil production has led to the simultaneous increase in the production of natural gas. However, unlike in most other states, a significant portion of the gas that is co-produced with oil production in North Dakota doesn’t make it to the market.

What happens to the gas? Nearly 30 percent of the gas produced in the state is flared during oil production. This process, “flaring,” is the controlled burning of natural gas that commonly occurs during oil production. A flare system consists of a flare stack and pipes that feed gas to the stack. The absolute volume of flared gas in North Dakota has increased 2.5 times between May 2011 and May 2013. Sadly, this has propelled the United States to join Russia, Nigeria, and Iraq among the world’s top-10 flaring countries.

Although some might argue flaring doesn’t harm the environment as much as venting natural gas directly, flaring does significantly contribute to carbon pollution from the Bakken Formation. In fact, in 2012, natural gas flaring in North Dakota emitted 4.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent of the emissions of 1 million cars! Flaring only partially combusts the natural gas, and it releases many other hazardous pollutants such as black carbon, a major component of soot, which poses many adverse health risks and also contributes significantly to climate disruption.

Unfortunately, under current North Dakota rules, companies get a free pass to flare natural gas for the first year of a well’s production, when a majority of natural gas is emitted. Producers can obtain yet another free pass to flare in the second year if they can show that capturing the natural gas doesn’t make sense economically. But given the significant environmental and public health impacts of flaring, like respiratory and cardiovascular disease, these rules are disastrous and should be overhauled.

Although North Dakota regulators have indicated that their ultimate goal is that only 5 to 10 percent of the state’s co-produced natural gas will be flared, they haven’t specified a date by which they will achieve this goal. However, steps are being taken to reduce flaring. The North Dakota legislature has passed new statutes that will offer tax incentives for producers to capture and use gas, instead of flaring it. Although many oil and gas companies have tried to reduce flaring, the amount of gas actually flared has increased by more than 50 percent between September 2011 and May 2013. It’s projected that the total percentage of flaring will decrease, but the total amount of flared gas will increase until 2020. In fact, in 2012 flaring amounted to a loss of $1 billion in fuel. Until clean energy replaces dirty fossil fuels, the industry should work to find best practices to curb flaring.

Fracking and natural gas production is harmful to communities and families and flaring is but one example of the dangerous effects of this dirty fossil fuel. Ultimately, the only way to ensure a safe, clean, and sustainable energy future is to invest in renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. The time has come to move beyond fossil fuels, save lives, and save the environment.

[Information from Ceres’ report, Flaring Up: North Dakota Natural Gas Flaring More Than Doubles in Two Years]

--Lindsay Garten, Sierra Club Media Team Intern

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