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By volume, ND oil industry claim on flaring reduction misses mark

WILLISTON, N.D. - North Dakota's oil industry significantly reduced flaring last year, but whether it's as substantial as an industry leader portrayed it in Fargo this week depends on how the decrease is calculated.

Natural gas is flared Sunday, May 25, 2014, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service
Natural gas is flared Sunday, May 25, 2014, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service
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WILLISTON, N.D. – North Dakota's oil industry significantly reduced flaring last year, but whether it's as substantial as an industry leader portrayed it in Fargo this week depends on how the decrease is calculated.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said during a Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday that the industry decreased flaring 65 percent last year.

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But that figure doesn't mean the amount of gas flared in 2015 dropped by 65 percent compared to the amount flared in 2014, and it uses as a baseline a month when flaring was unusually high because a natural gas processing plant was out of service.

After the event, Ness explained to Forum News Service that he arrived at that figure using the percent of natural gas flared currently (13 percent) and comparing it to the industry's historical flaring high (36 percent) in February 2014.

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Using those figures, the industry decreased the percent flared by 23 percentage points between February 2014 and October 2015, or a 64 percent change in the percentage.

Ness said he used the percent of gas flared - rather than the volume - because the gas capture targets set by the North Dakota Industrial Commission are also based on percentages.

"I've always used the percentage basis because that's what the targets have been set on and that's the measuring stick," Ness said.

When comparing the volume of gas flared during that same timeframe, the decrease is still in double digits but less substantial.

The industry flared an average of 375.8 million cubic feet per day of natural gas in February 2014, according to Department of Mineral Resources figures.

In October 2015, the most recent data available, the industry flared 236.7 million cubic feet per day, a 37 percent decrease in volume during the same timeframe Ness references.

However, Ness begins his comparison when flaring in the state was unusually high because the Hess Corp. gas processing plant at Tioga was down as the company transitioned to a new facility.

Ness said he used that timeframe because the industry was criticized for the 36 percent flaring rate even though it was an anomaly. Until the state's largest gas plant went down temporarily, the state hadn't seen flaring at 36 percent since September 2011.

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"That was the number that we were demonized for, so that was the number when the commission took action," Ness said.

Also, for the most recent figure, Ness uses the current flaring percentage from the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, which was 13 percent. But the Department of Mineral Resources, which has access to data on confidential wells, puts it at 14 percent for October, and that's the figure considered by the Industrial Commission.

Burning off natural gas, a byproduct of drilling for crude oil, has been a point of concern for activists and regulators in North Dakota. The state's Industrial Commission has required gas capture rates of 80 percent by April 1, 85 percent by Nov. 1, 88 percent by November 2018 and at least 91 percent and possibly as high as 93 percent by November 2020.

Critics say the flaring goals, initially approved in 2014 and revised in September, aren't aggressive enough given the national average for flaring is 1 percent. They also point out those goals can be revisited at any time.

Still, North Dakota operators decreased flaring significantly over the past two years in both volume and percentage.

In one year, from October 2014 to October 2015, the industry decreased the flared volume of natural gas by 88.8 million cubic feet per day, or a 27 percent decrease in the volume flared.

The flaring percentage went from 22 percent to 14 percent in that same timeframe, according to Department of Mineral Resources numbers. That equals a 36 percent decrease in the percentage of gas flared.

Ness said while decreasing flaring, natural gas production has continued to increase. From October 2014 to October 2015, the industry increased natural gas production by 15.7 percent to an average of 1.7 billion cubic feet per day.

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The American Gas Association says 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas can meet the needs of 10,000 to 11,000 American homes for one year.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
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