Natural gas flaring increases in North Dakota oil fields

More than a dozen oil companies failed to meet North Dakota's natural gas flaring goals three months ago.

Operators burned off over 300 million cubic feet (8.5 million cubic meters) of natural gas per day in September, a level the state hasn't seen since the summer of 2015, reported the Bismarck Tribune . According to regulators, September's increase in flaring is a result of maintenance issues with pipeline systems and other infrastructure outages.

"I think it was a very isolated period," said Dave Tabor, a supervisor for the Oil and Gas Division.

Energy companies "flare," or burn off, vast amounts of natural gas at drilling sites because it earns less money than oil. The practice has become so prevalent in North Dakota that nighttime flaring is visible in NASA photos from space. The primary gas burned off during flaring operations is methane, which is a contributor to climate change. Environmental groups say flaring increases the risk of ozone formation in the air and ozone-related health problems.

In 2014, the state Industrial Commission adopted gas capture targets to reduce wasteful flaring of excess natural gas in oil fields. Under the policy, North Dakota regulators limit a company's oil production if they don't capture the target amount, which is currently 85 percent. In September, 13 companies failed to meet that target, according to the Department of Mineral Resources.

But there are exceptions that make imposing restrictions unlikely.

State regulators plan to limit oil production from three Sinclair Oil wells in December for failing to meet September's gas capture targets, according to Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources.

"It's a pretty significant reduction," Ritter said.

Regulators are also withholding drilling permits until the company demonstrates it can capture the gas, according to Ritter.

But the 12 other companies that also captured less than 85 percent aren't facing any restrictions. Exceptions to the gas capture policy include allowing wells to produce unrestricted for the first 90 days and subtracting flared volumes for the first well in a spacing unit. Regulators also don't impose limits on wells that produce less than 100 barrels daily.

Regulators only restricted production under the gas capture policy one other time in 2017.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune,