Watching Our Future Go up in Flames
Natural gas flaring in the Bakken has to stop
Published: Monday, February 3, 2014
Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 09:02
The landscape and lifestyle of western North Dakota isn’t all the Bakken oil rush is laying to waste. Each day, as millions of dollars worth of oil are pulled from the ground and shipped across the country, millions more dollars are burned off right at the pump jack.
When oil is extracted from the Bakken, it brings with it copious amounts of natural gas. While in some parts of the country, massive drilling operations are underway to produce natural gas, in North Dakota the focus is so strictly on oil that nearly 30% of this gas is simply burned away.
Drive through the countryside outside of Williston, Parshall or New Town at night, and you’ll see bright orange lights dotting the countryside where once, not a decade ago, there was only darkness. No, these aren’t the yard lights of new farmhouses; they are the 2-story tall flames of natural gas flares at oil pad sites.
So much gas is burned in North Dakota that the light from the nighttime flares can be seen from outer space. Night imagery used to examine light pollution from large urban centers reveals what, at first glance, appears to be a sprawling metropolis in western North Dakota.
Yet as we know, there is no metropolis out in the Bakken. The western half of the state is simply ablaze with wasted fossil fuel resources. Oil industry analysts report that the state currently does not have the infrastructure required to transport or store this gas away from the well pad sites. With nowhere else for the gas to go, it is necessary to have it flared off at the well pad.
As the Bakken boom continues to grow, less emphasis has been put on capturing this natural gas than on expanding the oil transport infrastructure. Which, given a market economy and its current state, is understandable. With oil trading from $90-100 per barrel, and natural gas selling for under $5 per 1,000 cubic feet, energy companies can hardly be expected to devote massive amounts of time and capital to capturing natural gas.
Perhaps this example exposes a flaw in the market economy. When maximum profit is the driving force, not maximum efficiency, giant wastes of precious resources are approved without the bat of an eyelid. In a world with dwindling energy resources and societies that are shifting all too slowly toward renewable energy, what right do corporations have to waste the natural gas that could be powering our industries and heating our homes?
In a broader sense, the oil boom of the Bakken is a thing to be condemned on all levels simply on the basis of dwindling fossil fuel reserves and intensifying climate change. Yet if we are to accept that the boom is going to happen one way or the next, we could at the very least make sure that we are using its proceeds as beneficially as possible.
If we are going to further pollute our atmosphere by burning natural gas, we could at least make sure that we are using it for something — anything. There is no room for waste in a world of finite resources, and there is even less room when that waste endangers the livelihood of societies the world over.
Nathan is a senior majoring in landscape architecture. Follow him on twitter @nwstottler.