North Dakota Fields Up In Flames

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted September 27, 2011

Flames shoot above fields in western North Dakota as oil companies that are in a rush to extract oil from the Bakken shale field intentionally burn natural gas.

Oil companies are in a rush to extract oil because they want to take advantage of the high prices of crude.

The fires are caused when gas bubbles up alongside the more valuable oil, the gas is not as economically valuable, the drillers treat it as waste and burn it.

More than 100 million cubic feet, enough energy to heat half a million homes a day, of natural gas goes up in flames each day. About 30 percent of natural gas produced in North Dakota is just burned as waste.

Not only is there natural gas being wasted, the flared gas releases at least two million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That amount of carbon dioxide is about equal to how much 384,000 cars emit, or how much a medium-size coal-fired plant emits. Environmentalists are becoming concerned.

There are few government regulations that limit flaring. As drilling expands so does the wasteful burning. Eagle Ford Shale field in Texas is another location where flaring is occurring. Environmentalists and industry executives say that the same thing could start to be seen in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Ohio, as new fields are being utilized through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

Oil companies say the flaring in the Bakken is being driven by the economy. As shared in previous articles, the Bakken shale field is the largest oil field discovery the United States has had in years.

Oil companies are arguing that they cannot afford to pay for pipelines and processing plants to extract and sell the gas unless they drill oil wells and calculate how much gas will bubble out of the oil.

 “This field covers 15,000 square miles, so it takes time to go and test what’s there and then build a gathering system and plant,” said Harold G. Hamm, chief executive of Continental Resources, one of the biggest oil producers in the Bakken.

The growing use of flaring is being considered a step back for the energy industry in the United States. Most US oil and gas fields have more environmentally friendly facilities to gather and process gas.

“I’ll tell you why people flare: It’s cheap,” said Troy Anderson, lead operator of a North Dakota gas-processing plant owned by Whiting Petroleum (WLL). “Pipelines are expensive: You have to maintain them. You need permits to build them. They are a pain.”

The rise in shale drilling does have its positives. Natural gas prices have dropped immensely since 2008. New techniques, such as the use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, have led to opening up many shale fields full of rich oil.

High oil prices, a strong world-wide demand, and leases as short as five years on the Bakken, makes taking the oil and burning the gas more profitable for drillers. Handling the natural gas would raise costs and slow the process. Drillers with short leases are not willing to waste the time or the money.

Capturing the gas is ideally the best option, but that’s not likely to occur. Scientists do say that flaring is better for the environment then the alternative, which is venting the gas into the atmosphere.


Until Next Time,


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