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Burned Up: Oil Fields Are Wasting Enough Natural Gas Daily to Heat Half-Million Homes

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January 29, 2013

Burned Up: Oil Fields Are Wasting Enough Natural Gas Daily to Heat Half-Million Homes

By Hal Herring

There was a lot of hubbub around the West when NASA revealed the beautiful “Black Marble” satellite images of America and the world, showing the intensity of our settlements through the brilliance of our electrical lights. So much of the eastern and southern U.S. is lit, and the lights only began to fade as you reach the northern Great Plains, and then look to the northern Rocky Mountains, which remain fairly dark.
 
But it was a spot of glaring light, burning like a huge fire in North Dakota and far eastern Montana, that caught people’s eye. This fire is the booming Bakken oil fields, the economic superpower of the Plains, centered near Williston, North Dakota. The light is literally fire, the burning or “flaring off” into the atmosphere of 240 million cubic feet of natural gas, according to the story linked above, each and every day, enough gas to heat half a million homes. Natural gas prices are low right now, as supplies have exceeded demands, and the export terminals planned to ship our gas to Asia and Europe are not yet finished. So it burns.
 
For almost ten years now we’ve covered the issues surrounding natural gas drilling and development and big game and other wildlife: loss of winter range, pollution of streams and rivers, loss of hunting opportunities as mule deer and antelope herds give way to a dense matrix of roads, well pads and truck traffic.

Plentiful supplies of natural gas, and the technology to bring it forth from deep in the earth, has been a blessing to our economy and to our employment figures. But it is not without a cost. And that cost was always supposed to be lessened by new and better ways to get the gas without sacrificing wildlife and other resources. We as a nation were going to become hyper-efficient-- the model for the world--in using our energy resources. A few years ago I wrote a post for this blog about how efficient appliances mean bigger mule deer and more habitat, because we don’t have to drill our public lands for what we don’t need to burn.
 
Last week, Bob Marshall wrote here of the plans to drill from 15,500 to 18,000 new gas wells in the “mule deer factory” of the White River country of Colorado, winter range to our nation’s largest elk herd, holdout of imperiled sage grouse, largest herd of mule deer left on earth, beloved by generations of sportsmen. Such development will cost us much of the landscape and an estimated 30% of the mule deer herd, though such estimates are vague--the mule deer on the Mesa outside of Pinedale, Wyoming, site of another huge gas play, have declined by more than 60%--and no, folks, coyotes are not the culprits for the devastation. Only someone who has never been there and witnessed the development would say that.
 
We are accepting these sacrifices, and planning new ones (on the Atlantic Rim of Wyoming to name only one) even though, right now, we are burning off 240 million cubic feet of North Dakota gas every day? Really?
 
As a hunter and a fishermen and a reporter (and gas consumer) who has written on these issues for over a decade, I have come to accept and celebrate the finding and development of cleaner burning natural gas--even as I have tried my best to advocate for such wildlife saving strategies as directional drilling techniques to limit the miles of roads and the number of well pads, ideas for core habitat preservation such as the TRCP’s Backcountry Conservation Areas, the reapplication of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act to the drilling process, phased development of gas fields, where one area is reclaimed before another is developed, and on and on.

I’ve been pretty dumb, I know. That great fire of wasted natural gas, visible from the black reaches of space, is a tough thing to witness. We’ll flare that North Dakota treasure house of gas into our atmosphere, and later, when the price of gas goes up, we’ll bring the heavy industry and the roads and traffic into my big-game hunting country here in Montana, and yours in Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Alabama. We’ll just go get more gas. What incentive is there to conserve it? We’ll sell that gas on the global market, so we can compete for our own resources with our economic rivals in Asia, and we’ll live with the losses, the billions of gallons of water, the landscapes, the hunting. Some of us will still hunt the White River country when there are 15,000 gas wells there. A lot of us will choose to go somewhere else, and realize that the hunting in the American West is not nearly as endless as it looked, once upon a time.
 
When the gas is gone, we’ll try to explain it to our children, try to explain what it was we thought we were doing with our energy and our water and land and the hunting and fishing that should have been theirs. We can tell them that we abdicated our responsibility as citizens. We let somebody else make the rules. We blew it.
 
Or we can start making the rules ourselves, right now, while gas is still so cheap that we are lighting the skies with it, to limit the impacts of energy development on our wildlife and our hunting.

 

Comments (20)

Top Rated
All Comments
from labrador12 wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

I have never understood the economics of flaring gas. I suspect it is a safety issue as well as a economic issue. It has seemed a "sin" against nature to me. From where I sit it looks as bad as lighting cigarettes with $100.00 bills, or putting windmills in golden eagle nesting and home ranges.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Horseapples wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

From the article it appears that investors and putting the squeeze on Continental (the holder of a large portion of the Baaken reserve) to reduce flaring. This quote from the article is the most gut wrenching..

The flaring of natural gas represents a waste of valuable product – hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue – and “annual emissions of at least 2 million tons of carbon dioxide, as much as adding 384,000 cars to the road.”

Labrador, they are flaring because capturing the gas inhibits the oil production. They want to get the greater return on the oil and thus sacrifice the gas.

Sad, very sad.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from MaxPower wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Though I don't advocate flaring, people need to realize it's commonality in the Bakken is due to lack of resources. Drilling for oil in that region inevitably taps natural gas reserves, but all the man power and resources up there are devoted to crude because it's so much more lucrative (not to mention much more damaging if it's spilled). There is nothing else that can be done with the natural gas in the Bakken right now until natural gas companies decide to go capture it (I know there are some in the works, but finding housing/property/office space in Williston isn't easy).

As far as environmental impact or winter ranges being affected. The flaring does much less than people believe, really nothing more (and I don't mean to minimize this) than mild air pollution. The growing cities and associated traffic do much more to affect winter range and local herds than the natural gas itself. The Mon-Dak area is still great hunting (the pheasants population is skyrocketing right now), but again, most declines in range or population are because of the necessary growth that's associated with the industry that's booming up there.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from DSMbirddog wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

In this day anmd age there is no sound reason to flare that gas. Follow the pipelines and you will find hey do it along them as well. The natural gas keeps coming off and is being wasted.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rock rat wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Well I'm with you in sentiment, and the TRCP sent my that thank you email, but legislatively it's hard to see. Maybe tighter restrictions by Dept of Interior. Not much gas will be exported, but I really like the way it's weaned us from coal. The number of coal power plants is shrinking rapidly, and coal is a lot worse than gas.

My favorite song lately is conservation, and I've been singing it. One of my favorite complaints is flying, a recent graph showed me just how much damage a couple of flights does compared to driving or even the electricity that's made from that gas. www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2013/01/27/opinion/27rosenthal-ch.html?ref=su... I was amazed at the footprint from electricity, there's your gas.

My personal consumption of electricity (made from gas) is pretty bad, but half the national average, jet A of course comes from oil.

I'd be willing to bet we could conserve more energy than is extracted in our intermountain west with Alaska thrown in and not have to change our lifestyle much at all.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from craig vaughn wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Being a native North Dakotan I've often wondered why we allow this much waste? North Dakota has a huge surpluss and if no companies want to capture the gas I saw we do it ourselves. Spend the states money and use the gas to give people free heat for their houses, after all, it gets pretty cold up here.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Rgw3 wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Does anyone know why gas is flared?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from rock rat wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

I believe but I might be wrong. That gas is flared as it is a safer way than just discharging it into the atmosphere where it could potentially be lit off in an uncontrolled way. Pipelines can only be built over time and when there are enough resources to make them feasible.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from MaxPower wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

@Rgw3, rock rat is essentially correct. In the Bakken region (which is huge) you have hundreds of completed oil wells, and at each one of these 'pads' you have a cleared acre or so where you'll see the pumpjack, crude storage tanks and isolated in one corner you'll have the exhaust location where the natural gas is burned. When drilling for oil in this area they inevitably hit natural gas and, as stated above, there are no resources to utilize it at this time.
The exhaust is protected by an earth berm (usually 2-3 feet high), they utilize a solar powered ignition system which throws a spark every 3-4 seconds and if they're really large will be elevated 10-15 feet.
Follow the link to see what it looks like.
www.youtube(DOT)com/watch?v=jWiuxR-7PfY

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ed Fishhead wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Do the Energy company's pay royalties on all this gas they are burning off? Is it legal? Why are we Leasing all the Big Game winter range and developing new gas fields when we are burning all this gas in North Dakota.If the price of nautural gas is so low that we should just burn it off when it is a byproduct of oil production why are opening new gas fields?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Norske wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

The oil field (60 miles west of my house) developed much faster than the pipelines (oil, water, or gas) could be built. Pipelines are being built, and gas fired electric generators at well heads have been approved by the Public Service Commission.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from johntalbott wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

As you drill, you often have to flare gas for safety reasons. I have not drilled in Bakken (I have in other parts of the US), but not all of the gas is the same natural gas we use to heat our houses. In fact, the majority of those gases are not While drilling, it is extremely difficult to extract natural gas- they can extract oil as they drill using a technique called "under-balanced drilling". While, this may seem wasteful, it really is a necessity to do as you drill.
However, it is sickening to see the waste of natural gas once wells are completed and brought online. Increased pipelines would rapidly solve this issue. However, the price of natural gas is too low to make widespread pipeline production anywhere close to as profitable as oil pipelines. Natural gas hit its all-time low in the past 12 months- it may not be profitable at all to construct new natural gas pipelines.
Hal, what specific solutions do you have in mind? I work in this industry and I am curious what specific things should be done differently. I'm not looking to argue with you, I just hate daily seeing wildlife habitat destroyed. In the TX, KS, and AR I can proudly say that I still see TONS of deer, turkey, coyotes, rabbits, etc all around well sites, even while we are drilling. I see the occasional pheasant and quail, but I don't know of the potential impact on these species. I know habitat impact is different in each region, I would like to see more comprehensive studies on ecological impacts of drilling, related to the overall activity/length of wells, etc. Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you if you have any time to respond.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from hal herring wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

Mr. Talbot- be happy to discuss at your convenience. I'm not the expert, but can certainly put you in touch with those who are. Drop me a line by way of my website halherring.com or letters@fieldandstream.com.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Todd Tanner wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

So here's a question that deserves a serious answer. When gas is flared on public land, are the energy companies paying royalties for burning our valuable public resources? That gas belongs to the American public. If it's being wasted - and worse than wasted, because it contributes to climate change, air pollution and acid precipitation - then the companies responsible should be held accountable for that waste, and charged a premium for their wanton destruction of public resources.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from kkrause44 wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

One thing that people fail to understand is that economics and profit drive the oil and natural gas industry. I know people who have put oil wells on their property, and a byproduct of those was the natural gas pockets which slowly come to the surface. In a large majority of these individual wells that are "flaring" gas, they would never turn a profit when taking into account the initial cost of the collection, storage, and transport equipment to get the gas to a processing facility. The Bakkan oil fields might be venting off a lot of gas, but its most likely (i am not an expert, just a hunch) still not enough to make a profit when taking into account how much the initial collection equipment will cost, or else they would already be doing it. Investors and oil speculators don't get rich by being dumb, and they sure don't let money/resources go down the drain when there is a profit to be made. Just like most renewable energy, you can't compete in the market without subsidies, and the question comes down to whether or not you want your tax dollars to subsidize the collection of the gas that is being "flared". Or, drive regulation that forces the oil companies to store and process the gas. We will end up paying for that in the long run through higher energy prices though, causes costs always slide downhill to the consumer...

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from wisc14 wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

i would rather pay a little more than see things just being wasted.
thats what most people in this country have become: wasteful

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Steward wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

I am a strong supporter of developing our natural resources. However, I don't support waste, and the point of preserves is to PRESERVE. We need some areas that remain untouched.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from mdezort wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

Lots of great comments but I see very little in the way of solutions being offered. Maybe there aren't any but it seems if money could be made, someone enterprising business person would be on it.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Goforride wrote 1 year 9 weeks ago

Natural gas has been flared off for as long as there have been oil wells. I remember the astronauts orbiting the earth in the 1960's taking photos of the oil well flares in the Persian Gulf.

It's all a matter of whether there is a commercially viable market for the gas that comes from the oil well. There's no way there anywhere close to sufficient demand in the local market for all the gas flared off in the Persian Gulf, and it's not remotely cost-effective, at current prices, to build liquification plants to ship it to where it could be used.

It's never been about whether there is or isn't enough fossil fuel. It's always been about what fuel is available at what price.

If there were a carbon tax on fossil fuel such that consumers didn't get to dump the CO2 in the air for free, then demand for coal would plummet, gas prices would go up, and a whole bunch of that gas in the world that's currently wasted would be put to very good use.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from martph01 wrote 1 year 7 weeks ago

Terrific article. The conservation blog is well written by both authors. If more pieces on conservation like this or others on this blog, the magazine would be a lot better

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from Horseapples wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

From the article it appears that investors and putting the squeeze on Continental (the holder of a large portion of the Baaken reserve) to reduce flaring. This quote from the article is the most gut wrenching..

The flaring of natural gas represents a waste of valuable product – hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue – and “annual emissions of at least 2 million tons of carbon dioxide, as much as adding 384,000 cars to the road.”

Labrador, they are flaring because capturing the gas inhibits the oil production. They want to get the greater return on the oil and thus sacrifice the gas.

Sad, very sad.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from MaxPower wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

@Rgw3, rock rat is essentially correct. In the Bakken region (which is huge) you have hundreds of completed oil wells, and at each one of these 'pads' you have a cleared acre or so where you'll see the pumpjack, crude storage tanks and isolated in one corner you'll have the exhaust location where the natural gas is burned. When drilling for oil in this area they inevitably hit natural gas and, as stated above, there are no resources to utilize it at this time.
The exhaust is protected by an earth berm (usually 2-3 feet high), they utilize a solar powered ignition system which throws a spark every 3-4 seconds and if they're really large will be elevated 10-15 feet.
Follow the link to see what it looks like.
www.youtube(DOT)com/watch?v=jWiuxR-7PfY

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from johntalbott wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

As you drill, you often have to flare gas for safety reasons. I have not drilled in Bakken (I have in other parts of the US), but not all of the gas is the same natural gas we use to heat our houses. In fact, the majority of those gases are not While drilling, it is extremely difficult to extract natural gas- they can extract oil as they drill using a technique called "under-balanced drilling". While, this may seem wasteful, it really is a necessity to do as you drill.
However, it is sickening to see the waste of natural gas once wells are completed and brought online. Increased pipelines would rapidly solve this issue. However, the price of natural gas is too low to make widespread pipeline production anywhere close to as profitable as oil pipelines. Natural gas hit its all-time low in the past 12 months- it may not be profitable at all to construct new natural gas pipelines.
Hal, what specific solutions do you have in mind? I work in this industry and I am curious what specific things should be done differently. I'm not looking to argue with you, I just hate daily seeing wildlife habitat destroyed. In the TX, KS, and AR I can proudly say that I still see TONS of deer, turkey, coyotes, rabbits, etc all around well sites, even while we are drilling. I see the occasional pheasant and quail, but I don't know of the potential impact on these species. I know habitat impact is different in each region, I would like to see more comprehensive studies on ecological impacts of drilling, related to the overall activity/length of wells, etc. Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you if you have any time to respond.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from MaxPower wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Though I don't advocate flaring, people need to realize it's commonality in the Bakken is due to lack of resources. Drilling for oil in that region inevitably taps natural gas reserves, but all the man power and resources up there are devoted to crude because it's so much more lucrative (not to mention much more damaging if it's spilled). There is nothing else that can be done with the natural gas in the Bakken right now until natural gas companies decide to go capture it (I know there are some in the works, but finding housing/property/office space in Williston isn't easy).

As far as environmental impact or winter ranges being affected. The flaring does much less than people believe, really nothing more (and I don't mean to minimize this) than mild air pollution. The growing cities and associated traffic do much more to affect winter range and local herds than the natural gas itself. The Mon-Dak area is still great hunting (the pheasants population is skyrocketing right now), but again, most declines in range or population are because of the necessary growth that's associated with the industry that's booming up there.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from DSMbirddog wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

In this day anmd age there is no sound reason to flare that gas. Follow the pipelines and you will find hey do it along them as well. The natural gas keeps coming off and is being wasted.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rock rat wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

I believe but I might be wrong. That gas is flared as it is a safer way than just discharging it into the atmosphere where it could potentially be lit off in an uncontrolled way. Pipelines can only be built over time and when there are enough resources to make them feasible.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ed Fishhead wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Do the Energy company's pay royalties on all this gas they are burning off? Is it legal? Why are we Leasing all the Big Game winter range and developing new gas fields when we are burning all this gas in North Dakota.If the price of nautural gas is so low that we should just burn it off when it is a byproduct of oil production why are opening new gas fields?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Norske wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

The oil field (60 miles west of my house) developed much faster than the pipelines (oil, water, or gas) could be built. Pipelines are being built, and gas fired electric generators at well heads have been approved by the Public Service Commission.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from kkrause44 wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

One thing that people fail to understand is that economics and profit drive the oil and natural gas industry. I know people who have put oil wells on their property, and a byproduct of those was the natural gas pockets which slowly come to the surface. In a large majority of these individual wells that are "flaring" gas, they would never turn a profit when taking into account the initial cost of the collection, storage, and transport equipment to get the gas to a processing facility. The Bakkan oil fields might be venting off a lot of gas, but its most likely (i am not an expert, just a hunch) still not enough to make a profit when taking into account how much the initial collection equipment will cost, or else they would already be doing it. Investors and oil speculators don't get rich by being dumb, and they sure don't let money/resources go down the drain when there is a profit to be made. Just like most renewable energy, you can't compete in the market without subsidies, and the question comes down to whether or not you want your tax dollars to subsidize the collection of the gas that is being "flared". Or, drive regulation that forces the oil companies to store and process the gas. We will end up paying for that in the long run through higher energy prices though, causes costs always slide downhill to the consumer...

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from wisc14 wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

i would rather pay a little more than see things just being wasted.
thats what most people in this country have become: wasteful

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Goforride wrote 1 year 9 weeks ago

Natural gas has been flared off for as long as there have been oil wells. I remember the astronauts orbiting the earth in the 1960's taking photos of the oil well flares in the Persian Gulf.

It's all a matter of whether there is a commercially viable market for the gas that comes from the oil well. There's no way there anywhere close to sufficient demand in the local market for all the gas flared off in the Persian Gulf, and it's not remotely cost-effective, at current prices, to build liquification plants to ship it to where it could be used.

It's never been about whether there is or isn't enough fossil fuel. It's always been about what fuel is available at what price.

If there were a carbon tax on fossil fuel such that consumers didn't get to dump the CO2 in the air for free, then demand for coal would plummet, gas prices would go up, and a whole bunch of that gas in the world that's currently wasted would be put to very good use.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from labrador12 wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

I have never understood the economics of flaring gas. I suspect it is a safety issue as well as a economic issue. It has seemed a "sin" against nature to me. From where I sit it looks as bad as lighting cigarettes with $100.00 bills, or putting windmills in golden eagle nesting and home ranges.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from rock rat wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Well I'm with you in sentiment, and the TRCP sent my that thank you email, but legislatively it's hard to see. Maybe tighter restrictions by Dept of Interior. Not much gas will be exported, but I really like the way it's weaned us from coal. The number of coal power plants is shrinking rapidly, and coal is a lot worse than gas.

My favorite song lately is conservation, and I've been singing it. One of my favorite complaints is flying, a recent graph showed me just how much damage a couple of flights does compared to driving or even the electricity that's made from that gas. www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2013/01/27/opinion/27rosenthal-ch.html?ref=su... I was amazed at the footprint from electricity, there's your gas.

My personal consumption of electricity (made from gas) is pretty bad, but half the national average, jet A of course comes from oil.

I'd be willing to bet we could conserve more energy than is extracted in our intermountain west with Alaska thrown in and not have to change our lifestyle much at all.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from craig vaughn wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Being a native North Dakotan I've often wondered why we allow this much waste? North Dakota has a huge surpluss and if no companies want to capture the gas I saw we do it ourselves. Spend the states money and use the gas to give people free heat for their houses, after all, it gets pretty cold up here.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Rgw3 wrote 1 year 11 weeks ago

Does anyone know why gas is flared?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from hal herring wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

Mr. Talbot- be happy to discuss at your convenience. I'm not the expert, but can certainly put you in touch with those who are. Drop me a line by way of my website halherring.com or letters@fieldandstream.com.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Todd Tanner wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

So here's a question that deserves a serious answer. When gas is flared on public land, are the energy companies paying royalties for burning our valuable public resources? That gas belongs to the American public. If it's being wasted - and worse than wasted, because it contributes to climate change, air pollution and acid precipitation - then the companies responsible should be held accountable for that waste, and charged a premium for their wanton destruction of public resources.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Steward wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

I am a strong supporter of developing our natural resources. However, I don't support waste, and the point of preserves is to PRESERVE. We need some areas that remain untouched.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from mdezort wrote 1 year 10 weeks ago

Lots of great comments but I see very little in the way of solutions being offered. Maybe there aren't any but it seems if money could be made, someone enterprising business person would be on it.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from martph01 wrote 1 year 7 weeks ago

Terrific article. The conservation blog is well written by both authors. If more pieces on conservation like this or others on this blog, the magazine would be a lot better

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

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