Too Expensive to Capture, So Natural Gas Is Flared

New York Times
September 26, 2011

In North Dakota, Flames of Wasted Natural Gas Light the Prairie
Clifford Krauss

In North Dakota, more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas – about 30 percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota – is flared rather than captured. The gas that is released alongside the more valuable oil is treated as waste, and simply burned, which releases at least 2 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, as much as a medium-sized coal plant. The cause is the extraction of oil from the Bakken shale field, the biggest oil field discovered in the U.S. in four decades. Without a price on carbon to provide an economic incentive, or any regulatory requirement to capture the natural gas, burning it through flaring is the rational solution for the oil companies. There are no current federal regulations on flaring at oil and gas wells, and North Dakota regulations do not address it, either. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is beginning to address the issue, through new air emission standards for fracked wells and in the greenhouse gas (GHG) reporting requirements that are being adopted for oil companies and gas pipelines. The number of wells in the Bakken field is projected to increase from 5,000 to a 48,000 over the next 20 years. So while the current practice of flaring may not present air pollution concerns now, it will over time. Putting a price on carbon, through a cap and trade program or a carbon tax, would address this issue, by providing an incentive for the oil industry to capture the natural gas rather than simply flaring it. The oil industry should seriously consider getting out ahead of this issue by taking steps now to begin installing the infrastructure to enable the methane to be captured rather than flared.