What a waste! You know; that ‘unused’ ignited gas tied to shale-oil-drilling?

Oil shale combustion
Oil shale combustion

Waste: It’s in the news again. This time, it has to do with vented, ignited natural gas from the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of oil in North Dakota’s Bakken oil shale region – gas literally going up in smoke and entering the air. This process; it goes by another name – flaring.

According to FairWarning staff writer Stuart Silverstein in “Crying Foul Over Flaring: Burning Off Natural Gas Called ‘Environmental Travesty,’” a FairWarning Reports piece, it is through this very flaring process that emissions of greenhouse gases coupled with poisonous compounds like benzene, are being released.

Naturally, I would want to know if the flaring going on all across the nation in conjunction with oil-fracking work, is not only excessive but even necessary.

Silverstein explains: “The drilling companies rushing to capture North Dakota’s rich oil reserves often wind up with unwanted natural gas. In other words, they literally have surplus energy to burn. So they do just that, torching vast amounts of the cheap gas — a practice that critics say is tremendously wasteful and a threat to the environment and public health.

“Drillers in recent years have burned off, or flared, about one-third of the natural gas produced in North Dakota. In 2012 alone, the state’s flaring wasted $1 billion in fuel and produced emissions equivalent to adding 1 million cars to the road, according to a report last year by Ceres, a Boston-based environmental group.

“The main reason: The oil is so much more lucrative than natural gas that the companies would rather invest in more wells than speed up construction of pipelines and other infrastructure to bring gas to market.”

Allowing burned-off gas to, yes, muck up the air is, in fact, sad commentary. That a potential source of added revenue is evaporating in the process, well, quite frankly, it’s insult to injury.

Silverstein furthermore emphasizes: “In 2013, [North Dakota] accounted for two-fifths of the estimated 260.4 billion cubic feet of gas flared or vented nationally. The percentage of gas produced in North Dakota that was discharged that way was 29.7 percent last year, versus 1.7 percent for Wyoming and 0.9 percent for Texas.” In the grand scheme of things, that’s considerable.

Can anything be done and, if so, what?

Capture of – and finding a use for – vented natural gas – what is being wasted in this case – would be ideal. One idea is to pipe it to property owners living nearby for their use. And the notion of constructing “mini” natural-gas-fired power plants doesn’t seem impractical.

But, a more practical resolution, however, would be to simply reduce the amount of flaring.

“North Dakota regulators, hit by mounting criticism that they are soft on drilling companies, in July issued a new policy aiming to reduce flaring,” Silverstein notes. “The goal is to cut the percentage of gas that is flared to no more than 10 percent by 2020. Levels are already on a downward trend, with the figure falling to 28 percent in August and 24 percent in September.”

GasDepositDiagram[1]But, with oil-well drilling expansion expected, as I understand it, an increase in the volume of flaring taking place could offset any gains made in this regard.

Adds Silverstein: “The [Western Organization of Resource Councils] complains that the 10 percent target for North Dakota far exceeds the current flaring rates of other energy-producing states.

“The group calls for North Dakota and other states to move toward the example of Alaska, which since 1971 has banned flaring except for emergencies and system tests.”

Then again, advanced and improved technologies to enable, according to Silverstein, water treatment, electricity generation and chemical conversion of gases, could all be part of a prescriptive approach in terms of natural-gas-waste elimination.

I would be quick to add that Alaska, it appears, has not only taken the lead but has set a fine example, if not having as well set a precedent in the process.

For more on fracking, see: “A ‘conditional’ go-ahead re fracking in California” here.

Image of “Schematic geology of natural gas resources” above: U.S. Energy Information Administration

– Alan Kandel

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