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Forum editorial: Gas flaring suggestions not enough

Later today, North Dakota’s top oil and gas regulator will present recommendations for reducing flaring of natural gas in the booming Bakken oil region. The goal, regulators say, is to significantly cut flaring by, possibly, imposition of oil production curtailments if goals are not met.

We’ll see.

North Dakota has the distinction of being the nation’s poster boy for wasting hundreds of millions of dollars of natural gas through flaring. Thus far, state officials, including Gov. Jack Dalrymple, have said flaring must be reduced and the state will act to stem it if the industry does not. Furthermore, a collaborative industry group was formed months ago with the stated purpose of reducing flaring levels considerably in a few years. The targets are impressive, but observers are beginning to wonder if it was more public relations than a blueprint for substantive changes in industry practices.

North Dakota oil and gas producers have been burning off as much as 30 percent of natural gas that rises when oil wells are developed. It’s been cheaper to flare the gas than finance facilities to capture and refine it for sale on the natural gas and byproducts markets. State regulations have been flaring-friendly. Producers get a year to capture gas from a new well. Sounds reasonable, but regulators have routinely granted extensions.

Moreover, even when the percentage of flared gas seems to drop a little or stay steady, the volume (as measured in cubic feet) actually rises because more oil wells are coming on line every day. More dollars are lost and more pollution fouls the once-pristine air over the Badlands.

For example, numbers from the state Department of Mineral Resources show that while gas production from 2006 to April 2014 rose seven times, flaring skyrocketed 21-fold.

The industry and state policymakers insist steps are being taken. The flaring situation is a symptom of an industry that is not yet mature as it is in other states, and infrastructure to capture gas has not caught up with volumes coming out of the ground, they say. That’s true, but to date there have been no incentives or penalties that move the industry toward more capture. Gas flaring and capture regulations are tougher – and effective – in every other oil/gas producing state. North Dakota is the outlier.

Today’s recommendations will be meaningless if they remain merely suggestions. Unless converted into regulations with sanctions that bite, it will be business as usual in the Oil Patch, and the landscape will continue to look like a vast and surreal birthday cake.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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