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Thanks to North Dakota, US waste of natural gas grows rapidly

The United States is posting rapid growth in the waste of natural gas in new oil fields where the fuel is either burned or vented into the atmosphere.  Experts say the process damages the environment and fails to maximize the return to investors.

By Staff writer / July 13, 2012

This satellite image is a composite showing nighttime lights data from three years: 1992 as blue, 2000 as green, and 2010 as red. White indicates lighting detected in all three years. Most of the red in the Bakken oil field area is due to gas flaring.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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The United States is flaring so much natural gas into the atmosphere - burning it as oil-field waste rather than extracting energy from it in power plants - that it now leads the world in the growth rate at which it is trashing that energy source.

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Evidence of the trend can be seen flickering in the night across western North Dakota, where new oil drilling in the Bakken shale formation there has helped propel a surge in US flaring since 2007. As is often the case, many companies find it cheaper to burn off gas that emerges in new oil fields, rather than build pipelines and facilities to collect it.

But that common practice has created a big problem globally. About 5 trillion cubic feet (b.c.f.) of natural gas were flared or vented without burning worldwide last year.  That huge amount of wasted energy is roughly equal to a quarter of all natural gas consumed in the US annually, the World Bank reports. Flaring also dumped 360 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the same period, equal to the exhaust of 70 million cars.

Even so, flaring, which produces carbon dioxide emissions, is less harmful than venting natural gas directly to the atmosphere. That's because natural gas is mostly methane, about 25 times more potent than CO2 in trapping atmospheric heat.

From space, the light of gas flares blazing in the night is tracked by orbiting satellites that relay the data to analysts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). From there, analyzed data goes to the World Bank, which since 2002 has campaigned to get nations to reduce flaring and quit wasting gas.

As a result, over the last decade most of the top 20 flaring nations have begun curbing the wasteful practice. While Russia leads the world in flaring - 37 b.c.f. burned last year - that number represents a 28 percent drop from 2007. Nigeria, the second largest flaring nation, as well as a dozen others also have cut back on flaring.

But in the US, flaring has grown rapidly over the past five years - soaring from 78 bcf) in 2007 to 251 b.c.f. in 2011 - a 223 percent increase. That rate of growth is far faster than all other big flaring nations, new World Bank data shows. That also has led to another dubious distinction for the US - thrusting it from a virtual tie for 14th place among the world's top 20 flaring nations by volume in 2007 into fifth place last year.

In North Dakota, flaring is "due to insufficient natural gas pipeline capacity and processing facilities in the Bakken shale region," the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported in November. "Over 35 percent of North Dakota's natural gas production so far in 2011 has been flared or otherwise not marketed."

That percentage of flared gas in North Dakota is far higher than the national average.  Less than 1 percent of natural gas produced in the US overall was vented or flared in 2009, the EIA found. North Dakota officials say the state's flaring is responsible for about a quarter of the US total. But researchers are certain about the increase.

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