By Jonathan Marshall
If someone were giving out a booby prize for the worst example of human waste—even worse than Imelda Marcos and her 3,000 shoes—I would nominate oil production in the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota.
Intense drilling there has boosted North Dakota’s oil production roughly six-fold since 2005, putting the state just barely behind Alaska.
At the same time, however, energy producers are throwing away more than a third of the state’s natural gas output. In fact, every day they burn more than 100 million cubic feet of gas that escapes from their wells, “enough energy to heat half a million homes for a day,” the New York Times reports.
The soaring flames, visible from space, “illuminate the prairie skies like giant fireflies,” the paper adds. More invisibly, and more insidiously, North Dakota’s gas fires produce at least two million tons of greenhouse gases each year, as much as a coal-fired power plant or 380,000 cars.
Owing in large part to North Dakota’s oil boom, the rate of gas flaring in the United States soared 223 percent from 2007 to 2011. As a result, the United States jumped from being the 14th worst offender five years ago to fifth place last year, just behind countries like Russia, Nigeria, and Iraq. Last year, total flaring worldwide came to 140 billion cubic meters, about 40 percent more than Britain’s annual consumption.
In a call for congressional hearings earlier this year, three Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce committee noted that state rules in North Dakota “are permissive and allow oil producers to flare natural gas at an oil well for at least a year after production begins, offering industry little incentive to identify alternatives.” Federal rules don’t exist at all for oil wells that co-produce natural gas.
But the drillers, and state officials, say in their defense that pipeline companies can’t expand their infrastructure fast enough to take the gas from thousands of new wells, giving oil producers no choice but to flare. (Simply releasing the gas into the atmosphere would be much worse, since methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.)
Fortunately, some energy producers in North Dakota are working hard to reduce flaring—and increase profits—by capturing the natural gas and the valuable liquid propane and butane it contains. “Our goal is to have zero emissions,” said James T. Brown, president and chief operating officer of Whiting Petroleum. “It’s a waste to be wasting all of this energy.”
Last summer, four Montana entrepreneurs formed a company called G2G—short for gas to green—to help solve the environmental problem and make money at the same time. They licensed technology to capture, liquefy, and store well gas, all from a mobile trailer. It’s especially effective at capturing the natural gas liquids that come mixed with oil as it emerges from the ground.
“We’re creating wealth from a waste stream,” said co-founder Brian Cebull. “We’re converting the gas to liquids, so we can transfer it by truck or rail.”
With natural gas selling at rock-bottom prices these days, investors aren’t rushing to follow G2G’s lead. But for the sake of the planet, let’s hope that the combined forces of Yankee ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit, and social responsibility will quickly convert North Dakota’s appalling waste into a productive resource.
Email Jonathan Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.