North Dakota gas flares equal to a million extra cars on road

Natural gas flaring in North Dakota, which can be seen from space, has more than doubled since 2011

Natural gas flares at North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields can be seen from space (Pic: NASA Earth Observatory/ NOAA NGDC 2012)

By Sophie Yeo

The amount of gas flaring in North Dakota has more than doubled, propelling the US to join Russia, Nigeria and Iraq as one of the world’s top ten flaring countries.

Between May 2011 and May 2013, the volume of gas flared as a by-product from oil production in the Bakken formation in North Dakota grew 2.5 times, from approximately 106,000 to 266,000 Mcf per day.

It is an environmental disaster that is visible even from space.

Images taken by NASA during their “Earth at Night” project reveal that the lights from the gas flaring at the Bakken formation shine almost as brightly as the city lights of Chicago and Minneapolis.

“The U.S. is now one of the top 10 flaring countries in the world, primarily due to the rapid growth of flaring in North Dakota,” said Ryan Salmon, the report’s lead author and manager of Ceres’ oil and gas program, which produced the report.

“Although the state’s oil and gas industry is stepping up its efforts to curb flaring, the total volume of flared natural gas continues to grow. Investors are looking for producers and regulators to take more aggressive action to prevent the loss of this valuable fuel.”

This growth in the volume of flared gas has continued to grow, despite the fact that the percentage of natural gas being flared onsite peaked at 36% in September 2011.

Production of unconventional oil has grown at a ferocious rate since 2007, increasing 40 fold from 18,500 to 760,000 barrels per day. This has led to a concurrent rise in production of the associated natural gas, 29% of which is flared.


The amount of flaring taking place in North Dakota is a problem both environmentally and economically. The greenhouse gas emissions that are emitted as a result of the flaring increase the carbon footprint of the oil production.

In 2012 alone, flaring resulted in the loss of about $1 billion in fuel, and emitted the greenhouse gas equivalent of adding one million cars to the roads.

Professor Paul Stevens, Fellow in Energy, Environment and Resources at Chatham House, told RTCC, “Flaring creates CO2 which is a greenhouse gas. On the other hand, if you don’t flare it and let the methane go into the atmosphere, that’s a far stronger greenhouse gas, and therefore has much greater damaging effects.

“Obviously it would be much better if it wasn’t flared at all, and re-injected into a field, but if it is burnt, then it obviously has implications for CO2 emissions and therefore for climate change.”

Poor infrastructure

In spite of the apparent economic wastefulness of flaring North Dakota’s natural gas – the reserves contain high volumes of liquids such as propane and natural gasoline, making them potentially four times more lucrative than the dry gas produced elsewhere in the US – it is still easy for companies to obtain licenses that exempt them from capturing the gas.

One of the main problems with natural gas is that it requires its own infrastructure if it is going to be captured rather than flared, which requires further investment.

The high price of oil compared to the low price of gas means that companies can argue that it is not “economically feasible” for them to install this infrastructure, and that they should therefore be exempt from flaring regulations.

Over the past two years, 95% of applications were granted by North Dakota regulators.

While the poor infrastructure is the obvious problem, 45% of flaring occurs where the wells are connected to an infrastructure, due to pipeline capacity and compression challenges.

“The flaring of natural gas is a tremendous economic waste, and it threatens the oil and gas industry’s license to operate, as well as the environment,” said Pat Zerega, senior director at Mercy Investment Services, which successfully urged a leading North Dakota oil producer to set a flaring reduction goal earlier this year.

“As oil and gas developments expand into more remote regions like North Dakota, the issue of flaring will continue to be a concern for investors, the environment and the industry.”

Stevens said, “Flaring has started to come back again because with the expansion in liquids production in the US, the infrastructure is not really there to manage a lot of the gas, so a lot of it is being flared.”

But he is optimistic about the situation in the US. He adds, “It will only be a matter of time before they manage to get the infrastructure sorted out so the flaring goes down. It’s still a much bigger problem in other parts of the world – Nigeria is the obvious example.”

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