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A company in search of a more sustainable use for the byproducts of drilling for oil will be getting funding from the state government.

Blaise Energy will receive $375,000 in state research funds for its work into how to better use excess gas that surfaces during the drilling process. The Industrial Commission, which consists of the governor, attorney general, and agriculture commissioner, Monday approved the measure unanimously.

In today’s drilling process, excess gas is burned off through a flare, wasting a significant amount of natural gas in an attempt to normalize pressure.

That excess gas can range from 10 percent to 30 percent of total production, and by burning it off, the flaring process releases carbon dioxide into the air.

But by bringing in a mobile generator, oil companies can then use that gas to power the oil well site or tap into a nearby electrical grid. 

“There’s no value being generated from this flared gas right now,” said Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. But the potential is there, Helms said, to provide energy to rural electric cooperatives that want to tap in and eventually to collect the natural gas and sell it.

In 2008, the amount of gas burned through flares was twice the amount used by the whole state. The more oil that is pumped, the more natural gas that could be captured. There are 87 rigs functioning today, said Helms, but by this summer that number could be closer to 120.

Proponents say that while collecting gas from the flare helps increase oil production, running the gas through a turbine also can lead to more environmentally friendly outputs, as it removes some of the hydrogen sulfide.

The North Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club supports the research.

While their spokesman Wayde Schafer said they would rather see more focus on alternative and renewable energy sources,  “we’re hoping they’ll find a way to capture and use flared gas because it’s a waste and contributes to local warming.”

Schafer said the current process means “we get none of the energy, but we get all of the pollution.”

Similar measures have been tried by another company, but it didn’t want to commit the staff necessary to maintain a process that was outside of their usual duties. According to Helms, Blaise will be committing staff specifically to the project.

The commission also voted to give $125,000 to a University of North Dakota researcher for her work in flushing oil out of the ground through a process known as imbibition. The process involves a layer of porous rock that holds oil. By flushing water and other chemicals into the rock, the surface tension changes, bringing the oil to the surface.

(Reach reporter Rebecca Beitsch at rebeccabeitsch@bismarcktribune.com or 250-8255.)

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