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Why North Dakota is like Iran, Nigeria & Russia: Wasted natural gas

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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Natural gas flares are seen at an oil pump site outside of Williston, North Dakota. Oil drillers are losing over $1.2 billion a year due to flaring.

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What does North Dakota have in common with Iran?

If North Dakota were a country, it would rank fifth behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran, and Iraq on the list of worst natural-gas wasters, according to the World Bank.

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An editorial in The Forum of Fargo-Moorehead blasted the North Dakota natural-gas industry for wasting valuable resources through flaring, the burning of natural gas in open air as it's released from a well.

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Flaring typically occurs when there isn't a way to capture and use natural gas on site. For instance, natural gas often appears as a byproduct of crude-oil drilling. 

The editorial slams the practice of flaring, however, saying that it is out of control.

Crucially, the practice costs the state's mineral-rights owners $1.2 billion per year in lost revenue they would otherwise receive if the gas were captured as a fuel rather than wasted as a byproduct.

According to The New York Times, the flared gas produces emissions that are equivalent to more than the smokestack output of two medium-size powerplants fired by coal.

Last week, mineral rights owners filed lawsuits against 10 oil and gas companies operating in North Dakota, claiming they were owed money in lost royalties for the flared gas.

Flare Up

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Such excessive flaring flies in the face of the policies of most international oil companies (IOCs), according to a source who has worked all his life in the global oil-and-gas business, but preferred to remain anonymous.

"IOCs would have a no-flare policy," he said "they would gather and sell [the gas] ... or not produce new-field developments if it led to flaring beyond testing flares and emergency flares."

Flaring used to be an industry-standard practice in cases where there was no demand for natural gas or ability to redirect it, but efforts by oil companies and the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership--a public-private group formed by the World Bank in 2002--have curtailed it.

"Maybe the ND fields aren’t IOC-owned, but smaller producers who have different policies." the source suggested.

"Or maybe some of the infrastructure promised to gather and market the gas didn’t show up on time," he said, "but this is surprising to me."

Still, he noted that $1.2 billion a year is not considered a large amount of lost gas by the industry.

Building Momentum

Natural gas is an increasingly large part of United States energy production.

The EPA has proposed rules to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from new power plants. If the new rules are enacted, coal-fired plants may no longer be economically viable.

Consequently, the next big emissions battle could be over whether coal or natural gas will be the dominant fuel for power generation.

According to the Energy Information Administration, only two of 127 new plants expected to open next year will use coal.

[hat tip: Kamal Elias]

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