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As sweet as Bakken crude might be, the large-scale flaring of natural gas in North Dakota's oil fields leaves a sour impression of oil development with many people. It's wasteful and unnecessarily adds CO2 to the atmosphere. The sooner natural gas flaring is brought under control, the better it will be politically, economically and environmentally for the state.

Thirty-four percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota in November was flared -- burned off into the atmosphere. The rule of thumb for mature oil fields in the U.S. is to flare between 6 and 7 percent of natural gas.

Flaring happens because oil exploration and production tends to run ahead of the construction of natural gas gathering systems and processing infrastructure. They involve different companies and separate industries. In North Dakota, companies that collect and process natural gas for market, are playing catchup, which is critical for the state's oil and gas industry.

The Garden Creek plant near Watford City in eastern McKenzie County, which will begin operation on Friday, expects to process 100 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. It is owned by Bear Paw Energy, a subsidiary of Tulsa-based ONEOK Partners, which has 3,500 miles of pipeline for gathering natural gas in the Williston Basin.

Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, expects the Garden Creek plant to bring flaring in the state down close to 25 percent. He told the Tribune, "For the first time, flares will go out in significant numbers."

Bear Paw/ONEOK expects to put two more 100-million-cubic-foot plants into operation in 2012 -- Stateline I and Stateline II, both in Williams County. These additional plants could reduce flaring in North Dakota to between 15 and 20 percent.

Over the next 12 months, North Dakota should see flaring cut in half, despite the aggressive drilling expected in the coming year. Flaring on new wells is common place, especially in the first year of a well's life, and the state has often granted extensions for flaring. Recently, North Dakota has begun to required public hearing before determining the need for any flaring exemptions.

The state has a responsibility to make sure flaring of natural gas declines significantly -- to near the national average.

The state has financed several research projects that address capturing natural gas at well sites before the pipelines arrive -- that gap when natural gas typically gets flared. In one case, Bakken Express has been developing the technology to process natural gas on site and then truck it to a collection point. And Blaise Energy has been taking natural gas at the well head and generating electricity on site, which can be used locally or added to the grid.

The Bakken Express and Blaise projects represent the state encouraging industry to find ways to replace flaring with economically viable alternatives. If these projects prove out, expect them to expand and, hopefully, more reductions in flaring.

Flaring is not good for North Dakota's petroleum industry, the state or its citizens. Natural gas processing plants coming on line in 2012 will improve the situation substantially. North Dakotans need to see the flares snuffed out one at a time until its the exception and not the rule.

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