Gas flaring, the deliberate open-air burning of natural gas, is a practice common in the largest shale oil plays where natural gas is a byproduct of oil extraction.
There are some legitimate reasons to allow limited use of flaring. After a shale oil/gas well is drilled and hydraulically fractured, a temporary flare is used during well production testing. Testing is important in order to determine the pressure, flow and composition of the gas or oil from the well. Flaring at the well site can legitimately last for several days or weeks, until the flow of liquids and gas from the well and pressures are stabilized.
But once the flow is stable, the practice is dangerous and unnecessary unless required for safety reasons.
What’s wrong with flaring? Plenty:
- Flaring releases methane, a greenhouse gas that, when released directly into the air, traps heat in the atmosphere. The process of flaring contributes directly to global warming.
- Flaring has a substantial impact on the health and environment of landowners who live near a flared well. The methane release is smelly, noisy, and, according to the Natural Institute of Health, exposure causes “headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of coordination” in people and animals. It creates a 24×7 bright light, blocking out the night sky.
- Flaring is a waste of a precious natural resource. In oil plays, where natural gas is an unwanted byproduct of oil extraction, flaring is common because oil is 30 times more valuable than natural gas. So rather than capture it and take it to market, it is destroyed — hardly an efficient way to treat precious natural resources.
It’s also unnecessary. Technologies currently exist, and more are being developed, to capture natural gas at the wellhead, and natural gas can be used for purposes such as fueling generators at the well site.
This is a huge problem. In the Bakken, about a third of natural gas produced through the process of oil extraction is flared. According to a study released this month by Earthworks, $854 million in natural gas has been burned as waste in the Bakken since 2010, enough to pay for solar panel installations in almost every household in Fargo. The 130 billion cubic feet of natural gas burned in just two oil plays — the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shale in Texas — has produced the equivalent of 1.5 million cars’ worth of carbon dioxide emissions.
What about state regulation?
So, problem identified. We just need states to regulate flaring to curb this practice, right?
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know the answer to that question. No.
The simplest and most direct way for states to regulate flaring might be to make companies pay taxes on the amount of gas they flare. In that way you can encourage them to move to wellhead methane capture. This isn’t done. North Dakota neither tracks how much companies pay in taxes on flared gas, nor independently tracks the volume of flared gas. Texas does not require producers to pay taxes on flared gas.
North Dakota put regulations in place last June that the state says will eventually reduce flaring to 10% of natural gas produced, but the outcome is not clear because North Dakota has such a poor record of monitoring oil operations. Companies can also seek exemptions to the law, which North Dakota has consistently granted in the past.
And Montana? You’ve got to be kidding. The residents of the Silvertip Zone in Belfry asked the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to prohibit flaring in the permit for the Hunt Creek 1-H well earlier this year, but the plea was ignored. If that well is fracked, as most expect it will be, it (and others that follow) will almost certainly be flared.
There’s a way to deal with this locally
This is why local citizen-initiated zoning is critical. If John Mork is successful in his goal of bringing the “Bakken to the Beartooths,” the only way to protect local landowners from this dangerous and destructive practice is to install local regulations to limit its use. That won’t keep mineral rights holders from getting their oil. It will just require oil operators to use the highest standards in extraction to protect our property, our land, our water, and our way of life.
That’s not anti-business. That is not unnecessary government intrusion.
It’s just fair.