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Updated: May 20, 2020

By Justin Mikulka - DESMOG BLOG

In 2018, the oil and gas industry operating in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale burned off record amounts of natural gas, largely obtained via hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This process, known as flaring, costs the industry money — it literally burns one of the products being pumped out of the ground — but more importantly, the resulting release of globe-warming emissions of carbon dioxide and methane spells disaster for the climate.

And a new analysis of satellite evidence indicates the industry is likely underreporting how much gas it is actually flaring in the Permian Shale, with implications for other oil fields.

According to the Bismarck Tribune, the amount of gas flared in North Dakota in October was enough to heat 4.25 million homes in America. And while the fracking industry in North Dakota is flaring the most gas in the nation, it's not the only place this is a growing issue. Flaring reportedly also doubled in 2018 in the booming Permian Shale in Texas and New Mexico, with an estimated $1 million a day of gas burned off.

In addition, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently analyzed satellite data and concluded that the industry is likely underreporting the actual volumes of gas flared in the Permian. EDF says that the real numbers are closer to double what the industry reports.

This increase in flaring is just one more example of how the oil and gas industry has recklessly pushed forward with the so-called “shale revolution,” producing record amounts of oil while losing money and showing blatant disregard for the environment and climate along the way. It is also an excellent example of how federal and state regulators are allowing this to happen.

Fracking Oil in America Means Flaring Gas

Flaring has alway been a part of oil production, conventional or otherwise. Natural gas often is found with oil reservoirs and when adequate infrastructure doesn't exist to capture both the oil and gas, the gas is flared, or burned, while the oil is captured and sold. (Natural gas is primarily methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and burning it transforms the methane to water and carbon dioxide, which is perhaps the best-known greenhouse gas.)

Flaring did not begin with fracking's modern introduction to oil and gas fields, but the rush to develop shale fields via fracking seems to have encouraged the practice in recent years. For comparison, let's look at Iraq.

In Iraq, where the oil industry has been rebuilding after the damages of the Iraq War, production currently falls between 4 and 5 million barrels of oil per day, using conventional drilling methods. Compare that with the approximately 4 million barrels per day of oil produced via fracking in the Permian Basin.

Iraq's industry has been flaring billions of dollars of gas because there is no infrastructure to capture it, a situation companies there are moving to remedy but one which will require large investments in gas processing facilities. Iraq is working with several foreign corporations to construct the infrastructure and aims to end flaring by 2021, a move projected to save over $5 billion in the next four years. 

However, the companies fracking for oil in America’s major shale plays appear less interested in building adequate capacity, which hasn't been built in the first place, to capture the gas they currently flare. This isn't a technological problem.

A new report from the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota suggests that North Dakota should capture the gas and store it underground, a common method of storing gas. But as the Aliso Canyon disaster made clear when an uncontrolled leak spewed methane from a gas storage facility in southern California for several months, the approach is not without its risks. However, it is the cheapest option. 

John Harju, vice president for strategic partnerships at the EERC, told the Associated Press that capturing the gas and using pipelines to move it to processing facilities is always the ideal way to handle it. However, the best option is often the most expensive option.

“The economics aren't great, but it is economic under the right circumstance,” Lynn Helms, the director of North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources, said of the proposed underground gas storage plan, according to the trade publication Natural Gas Intel.

If the industry can make money capturing the gas, it will. If not, it will continue flaring.

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