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.
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.
"The increase in US gas flaring is from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota," Chris Elvidge, a NOAA researcher who has analyzed the satellite flaring data writes in an e-mail interview. "It's possible that current low prices for natural gas may be contributing to the decision of the companies operating in North Dakota to flare the gas off rather than invest in the infrastructure to capture it and bring it to market."
Others, too, are concerned about that possibility. "As long-term investors, we are concerned that flaring of natural gas wastes a valuable product," wrote a group of 37 investors in March in an open letter to oil companies operating in the area. "Even at today’s depressed wellhead price of under $3.00 per thousand cubic feet, the 100 million cubic feet of natural gas that were flared each day in North Dakota last year represent approximately $110 million in lost revenue."
Still, there are signs that at least some infrastructure to collect and process gas is being put in place. One expected new processing plant and expansion of another should add about 230 million cubic feet of gas processing a day by 2013, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.
But with thousands of new wells expected to be drilled in the coming decade - and gas flared from many of them across the 15,000 square mile expanse of North Dakota - it remains a question whether the pace of such construction can keep up with drilling and flaring.
"We need to continue to build the infrastructure and get [the infrastructure] put in place to handle that natural gas," says Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources in Bismarck. "We're not happy about the flaring. But this Bakken field is still relatively new area and very rural. So it will take some time to get it built."
Overall worldwide flaring dropped 20 percent between 2005 and 2010. But in 2011 there was a global increase propelled by growth in flaring in the US and Russia.
“It is a warning sign that major gains over the past few years could be lost if oil-producing countries and companies don’t step up their efforts,” Bent Svensson, manager of the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership, said in a statement on new data released July 3.
In an interview, Mr. Svensson adds that he believes that the bump-up in flaring is temporary and that it will resume its downward path soon. The World Bank's partnership program to reduce flaring was just renewed for another three years in June.
Still, a big factor in reducing the global flaring problem has to do with price - and with national policies concerning air pollution, he notes. In Norway, for instance, natural gas production facilities are required to be built before oil production can commence. There are also stiff pollution-related fines for flaring gas that costs companies about $2 per million Btus, roughly the current cost of natural gas in the US, Svensson says.
North Dakota officials say industry is stepping up and has invested billions in gas. "The price isn't slowing it down," Ms. Ritter says. "It's just taking time to get the processing plants built. We're confident industry is investing in natural gas in our state."
But in North Dakota, producers can flare natural gas for one year without paying taxes or royalties on it - and ask for an extension due to economic hardship associated with connecting the well to a natural gas pipeline, the EIA reported in November.
"We think the trend is going downward with small hiccups," Svensson says. "The question is whether we are reducing gas flaring enough overall.... We think a good mixture of policies and incentives, but also regulation, is the way forward."