North Dakota Drillers Will Stop Wasting Gas When They Feel Like It

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North Dakota drillers are acknowledging that gas flaring is a problem, and they’re working to get it under control — as soon as the Bakken oil boom drops off. While flaring — the burning of unused natural gas — wastes valuable fuel and releases millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, serious action to limit it likely won’t be in place until the 2020s, when oil production is already petering out.

Flaring is what happens when drillers are rushing to pull as much oil out of the ground as quickly as they can, and they don’t have the infrastructure in place to trap and transport the natural gas that accompanies the oil, which is worth ten times more than gas. So they burn the gas — releasing carbon dioxide — which is better than letting the methane into the air, since methane is such a potent greenhouse gas. This process still releases a lot of carbon and may release toxic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde as well.

Flaring in North Dakota alone emitted 4.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, and six million nationwide, about the same as three medium-sized coal plants. The wasted gas would be enough to heat a million homes.

The industry is happy to talk about their initiatives to cut back on flaring, but there isn’t much hurry in getting them started. And they’re certainly not going to delay drilling to get the necessary infrastructure in place.

Even though many of the new technologies would actually save drillers money by letting them run rigs and other equipment on otherwise-wasted natural gas, they likely won’t be making a serious dent in flaring until the 2020s. A report from Ceres projects that Bakken oil production will have passed its peak by that time, already having wasted billions of cubic feet of gas.

Industry rhetoric focuses on the public benefit of drilling, for U.S. energy independence, for jobs, and for lower prices for consumers. Even leaving out the dubious impact of U.S. fuel production on prices and the small effect of fossil fuel employment on national unemployment, those things would not change if the oil was left in the ground for a while.

No more total jobs are created by rushing to grab the oil before infrastructure is in place to trap all the fuels that come from drilling, even less-expensive natural gas. Fossil fuel prices are, in fact, likely to go up as the years and decades pass and scarcity gets worse. That would mean more money to spend on employment, more money flowing to the government in royalties, and yes, even more profits for the companies. And in the meantime, the fuel would sit safely underground as it has for millennia already. The only reason to rush production before the tools are in place to utilize all fuel produced is short-term greed.