The Bakken oil shale drilling provides both immense opportunities and challenges for North Dakota. It’s a huge domestic energy supply resource and creates new jobs, wealth, tax revenues and economic growth. At the same time, there are enormous community costs and social disruptions, and water contamination and air pollution potentially harming human health, ecological safety and farming and tourism economies. There is no “magic bullet” one-shot solution for all problems. There are strategic focused actions, however, that can serve North Dakota and our nation well.
Capturing the massive amounts of flared natural gas from the Bakken oil wells is a common sense strategy that is good for economic growth, good for creating jobs, good for avoiding waste, and good for our environment.This solution can generate wealth and bring people and businesses together for shared success.
Too many Bakken oil drilling companies are still flaring off natural gas while they extract oil. That lights up the western North Dakota sky and produces among the nation’s largest cumulative sources of carbon pollution and other harmful air contaminants emitted into the atmosphere.
Flaring natural gas is wasteful and can be avoided. That gas has economic value in the energy markets, and there are existing technologies and equipment to capture natural gas and dispatch it through pipelines to power fertilizer factories and heat homes and businesses, or use it in power plants to generate electricity. Statoil is also starting to use captured natural gas from flares to help power local drilling rigs and generators, and thus reduce its diesel fuel costs.
Why waste this very valuable energy resource? Why not both avoid pollution and create economic value, jobs and business growth for North Dakotans? Why should landowners miss out on royalty payments and North Dakota lose gross production tax revenues?
The North Dakota Industrial Commission’s standards require oil drilling businesses to capture flared natural gas within one year of beginning operations unless it’s not economically feasible. However, the Commission has waived this requirement more than 200 times during 2011 - 2012. This persistent failure to implement the state’s own standards bypasses valuable opportunities.
Some Bakken oil drilling companies are capturing their flared natural gas. They understand the economic value. They want a level playing field for all drilling companies. They are looking for more natural gas plants and a better gas pipeline infrastructure system to transport the natural gas from the oil fields to factories, power plants and homes.
The human and ecological health harms from pollution, the costs to farmers and ranchers, and the impacts on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and tourism are too big to miss. They won’t just somehow disappear. Here are some constructive solutions:
1. Let’s stop wasting natural gas resources. Let’s require all Bakken oil drilling companies to follow North Dakota law by applying modern technologies to capture the flare gases, avoid pollution, and deliver the gas into pipelines or use it for electricity generation and other purposes. If there’s a strong showing that this isn’t economically feasible, so be it. However, no more blanket waivers.
2. Let’s ask the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University or a consulting firm to quantify the job creation and business growth benefits, pollution cost avoidance, and additional royalty payments and tax revenues to be gained by capturing natural gas. These economic values are real, not theoretical. The state’s entreprenuerial centers should focus on the new business opportunities to use this natural gas and related by-products.
3. Let’s convene the oil drilling, flare gas capture and pipeline companies, electricity coops and power plant businesses, fertilizer factory owners and farm groups, state and local officials, environmental and conservation organizations, and economic development agencies. Bring the key parties together to develop shared solutions and implement them quickly.
This solution-oriented approach is timely and necessary. It’s time to act and move forward to seize the opportunities to create jobs, economic growth, ecological benefits and more wealth by capturing wasted flared natural gas from the Bakken oil fields.
(Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, an environmental and economic development advocacy organization with offices in Chicago and Jamestown, as well as Des Moines, Madison, Minneapolis and Sioux Falls.)