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Putting Out the Fire: Low-cost Solutions are Available to Prevent Flaring in Tight Oil Fields

April 30, 2015

Flaring of associated natural gas from oil wells in shale formations like the Eagle Ford in Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota has been growing rapidly for several years. Some well developers have acted responsibly, ensuring that gas pipelines with enough capacity are in place at wells before oil and gas production begins, thereby eliminating the need to flare excess gas. But many oil companies have not planned properly or are in too much of a hurry to begin reaping profits from selling oil to care about wasting the associated gas. Without pipelines in place, or when the pipelines can’t handle all the gas, they simply flare it off. This not only harms local air quality – flares produce toxic pollutants, smog ingredients, and deadly particulate matter – it also wastes gas and is a big source of climate pollution. And it is completely unnecessary.

Last week, Clean Air Task Force released a report, “Improving Utilization of Associated Gas in US Tight Oil Fields,” describing a number of technologies that are already in-use in the Bakken and Eagle Ford to collect or use gas at wellpads, instead of flaring it, when no pipeline is available or the pipeline cannot handle all the gas from the well. Right now, oil companies are making money using these technologies. They include:

  • Compressing gas and trucking it to a gas plant or another point where it can be put into pipelines;
  • Generating electricity from the gas, either for use on-site (to power pumps, etc.) or for sale onto the grid; and
  • Removing natural gas liquids (such as butane and propane) from the raw associated gas from wells – the remaining “dry gas” is actually more useful at wellsites, because it works better as generator fuel, for example.

The report shows not only how these technologies can use gas that is being flared today, and so avoid wasteful flaring and its associated air quality problems, but also how companies can do this profitably.

Industry associations defend flaring by citing the many obstacles that can prevent pipelines from being completed on time. Our report shows that there really is no excuse for the wasteful practice of routinely flaring gas – there are numerous, flexible options that oil companies can use to avoid flaring when pipelines are not in place. Yet in their rush to get oil to market, many companies simply don’t bother to find a way to utilize gas. Simply put, because companies make more profit from oil, opportunities to make money from the associated gas get left on the table.

Flaring wastes gas and causes local pollution problems. But widespread flaring is not a failure of technology – it is a failure of policy. Regulations are needed to keep oil companies from continuing to routinely flare gas to the detriment of local communities and a stable climate. And experience shows that when effective rules are in place to limit flaring, the quantity of gas being flared is much lower. In Colorado, available data shows that less than 0.1% of gas is flared off. This is in contrast to North Dakota, where oil companies are currently flaring about 20% of the gas they produce. State regulations put in place last year are intended to reduce that flaring rate over the next five years to 10%.  However, even this lower flaring rate is still one hundred times higher than is occurring in Colorado. And given the expected growth in oil and gas production, the total quantity of pollution may remain high, even as the flaring rate drops.

BLM and EPA are in the midst of developing rules to reduce wasteful practices and methane pollution from the oil and gas industry. (Flares are also a big source of methane in places like North Dakota, because they are often operated crudely so they don’t burn up all the gas that is fed into them.) This report shows that oil producers have a number of proven, flexible, and profitable technologies to use natural gas from oil wells instead of flaring it off – and that the Agencies have technical support for an effort to control the level of wasteful, polluting flaring now associated with oil production.

No excuses! BLM and EPA should issue clear rules to rapidly curtail, and even phase out this harmful practice.

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