Carbon Limits: Improving Utilization of Associated Gas in US Tight Oil Fields
Clean Air Task Force
Tight oil development in North Dakota and part of Texas is now so extensive that the associated light pollution can be seen from space via satellite images. Some of this light is coming from the flaring of natural gas at oil wells that burn 24/7, often for months at a time. This valuable energy resource is literally going up in smoke.
Oil production in the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford formation in Texas has grown significantly: from 0.2 million barrels a day in 2007 to around 3.1 million barrels a day at the beginning of 2015. In addition to oil, these wells produce large amounts of natural gas, and in the rush to produce oil, too often this “associated gas” is flared off (burned) instead of being captured and brought to market. Flaring of associated gas in the Bakken and the Eagle Ford basins has dramatically increased, reaching approximately 125 billion cubic feet of gas flared per year by 2013, enough to provide heat for 1.87 million U.S. homes.
This flaring not only wastes energy, it produces air contaminants including toxic volatile organic compounds, smog-forming nitrogen oxides, and deadly particulate matter – most of which is black carbon soot, a very potent climate warmer. And flaring also emits the most prevalent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
Some in the oil and gas industry have defended this practice on the grounds that building adequate pipeline capacity to carry the gas before wells go into production is often not feasible or economic and that alternatives are not available. That is, they claim it is literally not worth the time and money to capture and use this natural gas, so they burn it off.
A new study, commissioned by Clean Air Task Force, and performed by Carbon Limits, shows that these arguments are not valid reasons to allow oil companies to continue to routinely flare associated gas. The study shows that there are several technologies, beyond building pipelines that provide alternative means to utilize associated gas or bring it to markets. These technologies are proven and in-use today in tight oil formations, and include:
- Natural Gas Liquids Recovery
- Compressed Natural Gas Trucking
- Gas-to-Power Generation
Ultimately, flaring is not a failure of technology, but of regulation. In areas with adequate regulations, flaring is virtually non-existent. Indeed, even in the Bakken and the Eagle Ford, some companies flare almost no gas, because they have ensured that pipelines are in place as wells are completed. However, where regulations are lax, like in North Dakota, companies often neglect natural gas gathering infrastructure as they rush to begin receiving revenue from oil sales.
The availability of these proven alternative technologies demonstrates that there is no excuse for routine flaring. Companies can get pipelines to their wells; if that proves challenging or expensive, they can use these profitable, demonstrated technologies to utilize and get the gas to market. Nationally applicable rules should prevent oil companies from continuing the wasteful and harmful practice of routinely flaring associated gas from oil wells.