Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Where Natural Gas Is Burned Off For No Profit Or Cost

The Bakken oil shale deposit spreads across parts of the Central United States and is seen as a huge reservoir for oil. Yet, it also produces prodigious amounts of natural gas and much of that gets wasted.

In fact, it gets burned off in such huge quantities that had it been collected, it would be sufficient to power half a million homes.
Every day, more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared this way — enough energy to heat half a million homes for a day.

The flared gas also spews at least two million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, as much as 384,000 cars or a medium-size coal-fired power plant would emit, alarming some environmentalists.

All told, 30 percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is burned as waste. No other major domestic oil field currently flares close to that much, though the practice is still common in countries like Russia, Nigeria and Iran.

With few government regulations that limit the flaring, more burning is also taking place in the Eagle Ford shale field in Texas, and some environmentalists and industry executives say that it could happen in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Ohio, too, as drilling expands in new fields there unlocked by techniques like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

“North Dakota is not as bad as Kazakhstan, but 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,” said Michael E. Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

The oil companies say economic reality is driving the flaring in the Bakken, the biggest oil field discovered in the United States in four decades. They argue that they cannot afford to pay for pipelines and processing plants to capture and sell the gas until they actually drill oil wells and calculate how much gas will bubble out of the oil. And reinjection of the carbon dioxide, commonly done in conventional oil fields, is more difficult and expensive in less permeable shale fields.

“This field covers 15,000 square miles, so it takes time to go and test what’s there and then build a gathering system and plant,” said Harold G. Hamm, chief executive of Continental Resources, one of the biggest oil producers in the Bakken.

The widespread flaring is a step backward for a domestic energy industry. Most oil and gas fields in the United States have well-developed facilities to gather and process gas.
The companies driving the oil-shale exploration and drilling claim that they can't effectively and cost-effectively deal with the collection and transmission of the gas to market because natural gas prices have dropped.

It would seem to me a tremendous waste of a limited natural resource to simply burn it off because it can't be collected and stored. Collection and storage seems to be more cost effective in the long run than burning it off and contributing to increased air pollution downwind.

Perhaps the federal government should impose more stringent fines for flare-offs to encourage other methods for storing what the energy companies consider to be a waste product at this point. The government should also encourage natural gas pipelines by reducing the costs for permitting and siting such facilities.

Driving down the cost of natural gas would be a boon to consumers who rely on natural gas for home heating during the winter, and it would also reduce power generating costs as coal powered plants are shuttered in favor of more efficient and less-polluting natural gas plants.

Lower natural gas prices could also feed interest in fuel cells and other technologies (CNG) that can be used in the auto industry.

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