BISMARCK – North Dakota regulators voted unanimously Thursday to push back next year’s deadline for reducing the flaring of natural gas, in exchange requiring oil producers to capture more of the byproduct of drilling by 2020.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who chairs the three-member Industrial Commission that oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, said after an industry presentation that “there are some very real reasons” why hitting the gas capture goal of 85 percent by Jan. 1 has become more difficult.
“And many of these I think realistically could not really have been expected,” he said.
The goals proposed by an industry task force and adopted by the commission in March 2014 required the industry to boost the percentage of gas captured at wellheads statewide from 77 percent this year to 85 percent on Jan. 1 and 90 percent by October 2020.
But industry officials asked the commission to delay the 85 percent goal for two construction seasons to allow infrastructure to catch up to gas production that has exceeded earlier projections as low crude prices have concentrated drilling into core areas that produce the most oil and gas.
The commission voted to delay the 85 percent goal by 10 months to Nov. 1, 2016, while also setting a midpoint goal of 88 percent by November 2018 and bumping the final goal up to 91 percent and possibly as high as 93 percent by November 2020.
“We’re at halftime. … What really matters is what’s the score at the end of the game,” said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who sits on the commission with Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.
Industry officials cautioned that not extending the deadline would force operators to scale back drilling and not complete wells, resulting in less tax revenue and layoffs that would hurt the state’s economy.
Environmentalists and other activists lobbied the commission not to relax the flaring goals, saying the industry should have done a better job anticipating what it described as unforeseen circumstances such as higher gas production and difficulty obtaining right of way for pipelines.
“I was hoping we had gotten beyond the tail wagging the dog when it comes to the state regulating the oil industry in North Dakota, but I guess not,” said Wayde Schafer, conservation organizer for the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Schafer found no assurance in the 1 percent increase in the 2020 goal, saying, “they can change that next month if they want to.” He said industry needs to slow production if they don’t have the infrastructure in place to meet the goals.
“When the bucket’s full of water, you stop pouring water into it. Otherwise you’re going to get waste,” he said.
Twenty percent of the gas produced statewide was flared in July, the most recent month for which statistics are available. The flaring rate was 18 percent in June and has been as high as 36 percent in September 2011.