BISMARK -Facing pressure in terms of environmental concerns as well as waste when it comes to an effective, usable energy source, North Dakota state lawmakers have imposed a limit on the amount of natural gas that can be burned off while in the process of producing oil; limits, according to reports, that drillers regularly continue to exceed by a wide margin as the industry struggles to catch up with the current rapid rate of production.
Known as “flaring,” natural gas – produced as a byproduct of drilling for oil – is typically burned off at well heads. The practice produces a striking visual – especially during the evening hours – but also results in excessive emissions of carbon dioxide, which is a major factor that contributes to global climate change. It also represents a large waste of money, as natural gas that is burned off obviously can no longer be captured and sold as an alternative energy source.
Flaring occurs via a combustion device known as a gas flare or flare stack, which are used in industrial plants such as petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and natural gas processing plants, as well as at oil or gas production sites having oil wells, gas wells, offshore oil and gas rigs and landfills. In industrial plants, flaring is primarily used for burning off flammable gas released by pressure relief valves during unplanned over-pressuring of plant equipment, and essentially protects against the dangers of over-pressuring industrial plant equipment.
The breaking point for North Dakota lawmakers occurred in 2014, when it was revealed that over one-third of all natural gas produced during oil drilling efforts was flared, compared to the current national average of only 1 percent . At that time, the state instituted regulations that required companies to reduce the amount of natural gas burn-off to 15 percent or less as of 2016, and 10 percent of less as of 2020.
North Dakota oil companies endorsed the new regulations, but have nonetheless encountered struggles in meeting them since they were first implemented five years ago. Even today oil drillers are, for the most part, missing the mark on these regulations. For example, companies exceeded the current limit of 12 percent – for the 13th successive month – by burning off 20 percent of the 2.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas they produced in March 2019. The amount of natural gas wasted, reports note, would have supplied far more than enough energy to provide heat for every home in North Dakota for an entire month.
Due to increased oil drilling and production efforts in recent years, the industry has been working hard to increase their ability to combat flaring – to the point of having spent upwards of $4 billion dollars on infrastructure improvements that are slated to increase gas capturing and refinement by as much as 56 percent – but reports note that they are still approximately two years from curbing natural gas waste to legally and environmentally acceptable levels.
However, some experts are predicting that at the current rate of oil production in North Dakota, these infrastructure improvements – while acceptable for modern estimates – may nonetheless fall short of the mark of where drilling may be in two years’ time, given its rapid ascent into one of the state’s most viable and profitable industries. Indeed, increased drilling over the next two years may still result in wasted natural gas despite the efforts being undertaken by the companies involved.
Also, some are doubting the timeline that oil companies are projecting for completion of the natural gas refineries that are currently in the works, with some experts noting that these facilities typically take at least three years or more to fully set up, not two. Environmentalists have decried the damage that the excessive natural gas waste has caused, and blame the issue on the fact that current regulations lack monetary penalties that can be imposed upon those who exceed flaring thresholds. Currently lacking the teeth needed to truly enforce these regulations, lawmakers are faced with the possibility of passing additional legislation granting them greater punitive powers if oil drillers do not start adhering to gas waste limits.
Reducing oil production to address the problem is not an option, unfortunately, as North Dakota’s economy has come to depend more and more on oil and gas revenue over the years. Instead, officials have come to accept flaring as a necessary evil, while slowly but surely introducing regulations intended to combat it in the long-term, while striking down more radical bills containing strict financial penalties that have been introduced in the state Legislature recently.
Oil, first discovered in North Dakota in 1951, became a huge boon to the state’s economy in the early 2000’s once technology had created the means of drilling through the region’s notoriously difficult bakken shale rock formations by means of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” As a result, drillers were able to finally take full advantage of the large oil reserves that had been under their feet for decades, transforming the economy of the state almost overnight.