North Dakota's governor attributed the high volume of gas flared in his state to the incredible speed at which the Bakken shale has been developed, outpacing gas recovery efforts. Oil output ramped up from 200,000 barrels per day five years ago to just over a million today, in a place without the dense oil and gas infrastructure present in Texas and other states with a legacy of high production.
Nor is this situation unique to the Bakken. The World Bank has estimated that around 14 BCF of gas is flared every day, globally. Such flaring is a problem for more than states and other mineral-rights owners that worry about missing potential royalties. Aside from our natural aversion to waste, flaring natural gas has environmental consequences.
The tight oil produced from the Bakken shale is quite low in sulfur, and so is most of the associated gas, but some of it contains relatively high percentages of hydrogen sulfide (H2S). When that gas is flared, rather than processed, the resulting SOx emissions can affect local or even regional air quality.
Gas flaring also contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions implicated in global warming, although it must be noted that flaring is 28-84 times less climate-altering, pound for pound, than venting the same quantity of methane to the atmosphere. When annualized, and assuming complete combustion of the gas, North Dakota's recent level of flaring equates to around 6.7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, or nearly a fifth of total US CO2 emissions from natural gas systems in 2012. That means this one source accounts for just over 0.1% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, or somewhat less than US ammonia production.
Why would anyone flare gas in the first place? As the Journal pointed out, the oil produced from Bakken wells is worth significantly more than the gas, although the energy-equivalent price ratio favors oil by more like 4:1 than the 20:1 cited. The economics of Bakken drilling are mainly driven by oil that can be sold at the lease and delivered by pipeline or rail, and not by the associated gas, particularly after tallying the cost of capturing and processing it, and then hoping capacity will be available to deliver it to a market that in the case of the Bakken might be hundreds or thousands of miles away. The characteristics of shale wells, with their steep decline curves, make this hurdle even higher. Shale gas infrastructure at the well must pay for itself quickly, before output tails off.
There is no shortage of technical options for putting this gas to use, instead of flaring it. A recent industry conference in Bismarck, ND featured an excellent presentation on this subject from the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) of the University of North Dakota. Among the options listed by the presenter were onsite removal of gas liquids (NGLs), using gas to displace diesel fuel in drilling operations, and compressing it for use by local trucking or delivery to fleet fueling locations. However, contrary to the intuition of the rancher interviewed by the Journal, none of these options would reduce high-volume flaring by more than a fraction, despite investment costs in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per site.
Even in the case of the most technically interesting option, small-scale gas-to-liquids conversion to produce synthetic diesel or high-quality synthetic crude, EERC estimated this would divert only 8% of the output from a multi-well site flaring 300 million cubic feet per day, while requiring an investment of $250 million. And to make this option yet more challenging to implement, of the 200-plus such locations EERC identified in the state, fewer than two dozen flared consistently at that level over a six-month period. The problem moves around as older wells tail off and new ones are drilled.
Significantly reducing or eliminating natural gas flaring ultimately requires a large-scale market for the hydrocarbons being burned off. That's as true in North Dakota as in Nigeria. While various technical options could incrementally reduce gas flaring from Bakken wells, the highest-impact solutions would be those that promote market creation. That would include fast-tracking long-distance gas pipeline projects or building gas-fired power plants nearby. Absent large new customers for Bakken gas, additional regulations on flaring will either be ineffective or stifle the region's strategically important oil output.