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Natural Gas Flaring in North Dakota



As Seen From Space



The population density of western North Dakota is very low; however, the satellite image at right shows a high density of night-time illumination. These lights are not from communities or buildings. Instead they are oil drilling sites where natural gas is being flared into the atmosphere instead of being utilized or placed in a pipeline and transported to customers.


Why is this Gas Being Wasted?



At a remote well site crude oil can be collected and transported to market by truck or rail. Even at low production wells, the crude can be stored in a tank, periodically picked up by a truck and transported to a refinery. That can't be done with small volumes of natural gas. If the gas is not used at the well site it must be transported to consumers through a pipeline.

Marcellus Shale natural gas flaring
Natural gas flaring is common practice in North Dakota and at oil wells throughout the world where natural gas pipelines are not available. It occurs at locations where natural gas pipelines can not be justified by the value of gas that is produced. It occurs at wells where oil is being produced ahead of a natural gas pipeline connection. It also occurs where new wells are being tested for their production potential. This photo shows natural gas flaring at a Marcells Shale well in southwestern Pennsylvania. Image by Tom Mroz, United States Department of Energy.

Natural gas flaring is not good stewardship of a valuable natural resource. That gas is lost forever without any human benefit. Property owners do not collect income when their resource is wasted. The state does not collect tax. The combusion of natural gas also causes pollution without any human benefit.


Development of the Bakken Formation



The oil field that supports all of these wells is over the Bakken Formation, a tight shale that just ten years ago was not considered to be a high-potential source of oil. However, once horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing were applied to wells in the Bakken Formation it became a prolific source of oil and natural gas.

Drilling the Bakken has been so lucrative that oil and gas companies were in competition to lease valuable properties as rapidly as possible. The resulting production has made North Dakota the #2 state in the nation for production of crude oil (see production graph at right). All of this drilling for oil progressed but the developmenet of natural gas infrastructure has lagged. That is why the satellite image at top right shows so many flaring sites.


Natural Gas Infrastructure Development



Utilizing natural gas requires an investment in infrastructure that can lag behind the drilling of oil wells. Pipeline right-of-ways must be negotiated, gathering pipelines must be built, processing plants must be constructed and transmission pipelines must be linked to distribution systems. As these systems are developed a rapid drop in flaring is expected.


Other Natural Gas Flaring Solutions



To reduce the flaring of natural gas a few drilling companies now have drilling rigs and other on-site equipment that are powered by natural gas. The gas produced from the well is treated by a small local processing plant. These plants do enough conditioning to make the gas useful as a drilling rig fuel. Some companies are also converting local vehicle fleets to run on this previously wasted natural gas.

Both of these uses reduce pollution and costs. Most of the local fleet vehicles and drilling rigs originally burned diesel fuel. Replacing diesel with natural gas produces fewer emissions. It also lowers costs because the drilling rigs and vehicle fleets are now running on natural gas that was previously wasted instead of on diesel fuel that was previously purchased. Other local uses are being explored for this gas.

It might also be possible to build small-scale plants that convert natural gas into fertilizer. These plants could be set-up at a well site and be operated until a pipeline connection is made. They would then be moved to a new well.


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natural gas flaring from space
NASA satellite image of night-time illumination over the Bakken Formation of western North Dakota where waste natural gas at oil drilling sites is being flared into the atmosphere because it can not be utilized. Image by NASA. Enlarge image.




Bakken Formation oil production graph
Oil production from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota has been rising rapidly making the state the #2 oil producer in the United States. Graph from the Energy Information Administration using data from the North Dakota Geological Survey.


Bakken natural gas not marketed
This chart shows the amount of Bakken Formation natural gas that has been produced and the amount that has been marketed. The difference is the amount of gas that has been flared. About 1/3 of the gas has been flared. Graph by the Energy Information Administration using data from the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.


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