Oil Companies Burn off Natural Gas Flares--Wasting Energy and Releasing Pollution

The New York Times reported earlier this week that oil companies drilling in the North Dakota shales are flaring off more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, enough energy to heat half a million homes. As one expert put it, “this is not what you would expect a civilized, efficient society to do: to flare off a perfectly good product just because it’s expensive to bring to market.”

Gas prices happen to be cheap at the moment, so extraction on the oil shales isn’t generating big profits. But this does not mean that dumping our country’s precious, irreplaceable energy reserves into the atmosphere should be free.  To add insult to injury, we’re all subsidizing this behavior: who’s paying the cost of all these emissions?  The New York Times estimates that the daily impact of wasteful flaring in North Dakota alone is equivalent to 380,000 cars—more than the entire vehicle fleet of Boston!

The perverse fact is that the demand for gas is still very high: these same companies are continuing to drill elsewhere for the same gas they’re burning off on the prairies.   New gas wells are built every day, encroaching on wild and scenic landscapes, disrupting communities, and moving closer and closer to our urban watersheds.

To put this into perspective, here are some numbers to think about:

  • 100,000,000 cubic feet is the amount of natural gas flared off every day in North Dakota
  • 100,000 cubic feet is the daily output of the average natural gas well in the U.S.
  • Consequently we would need 1,000 new wells to compensate for all the gas wasted in North Dakota oil shale
  • For comparison, 763 wells were drilled on the controversial Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania in 2009

And what about the land use impact of all this drilling?  Since the average well disturbs 14 to 80 acres of habitat, drilling 1,000 new wells will impinge on 14,000 to 80,000 acres.  At the low end, this is the size of Manhattan; at the high end, this is twice the size of Washington, D.C., or half the size of the great Zion National Park in Utah.

As NRDC's own expert Amy Mall, told the New York Times, “It’s time for the regulators to take a hard look at the impacts of flaring and make sure that available solutions to the flaring problem are required before there is any further widespread expansion of the practice.”

Something has to change. The way things are done now is not efficiency.  It is pure waste.  And one thing is for certain: you’d have to think twice about doing this if the markets recognized the real price of carbon.