Flare Scare

How North Dakota reduced its flaring footprint

This article was originally published in the November issue of COMPRESSORtech2. We only publish a fraction of our magazine content online, so for more great content, get every issue in your inbox/mailbox and access to our digital archives with a free subscription.

The Dept. of Mineral Resources in North Dakota knew it had a flaring problem well before a misleading photo put the spotlight on the state.

In January 2013, a nighttime satellite image of North America revealed heavy light saturation in North Dakota, nearly on par with larger cities, such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Chicago, Illinois. Several news sources picked up the picture, which then spread across the Internet. Soon, conversations shifted to flaring and how North Dakota was one of the worst perpetrators of the practice.

“There wasn’t a day or week that went by that there wasn’t an article on flaring,” said Chad Wocken, a principal engineer at the University of North Dakota. “It got to the point that folks in the (oil and gas) industry were using it in presentations.”

The image, however, was merely a talking point in a larger conversation. Photo or not, local officials that year set out on a path to reduce North Dakota’s flaring footprint, even with more oil and gas companies clamoring for their share of the state’s abundant resources.

The popularity of North Dakota

Aside from a movie set in the state’s most populous city, North Dakota wasn’t on anyone’s radar near the turn of the century. Oil had been discovered in the 1950s, but recovery techniques weren’t as refined as they would be when horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing debuted.

Additionally, many oil producers weren’t aware how much oil was contained within the Bakken formation, which rests on the state’s west side. When a 2008 report from the U.S. Geological Survey revealed that there were 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the formation, the producers flocked to the state.

The heaviest influx of producers took place between 2006 and 2009, said Alison Ritter, public information officer, North Dakota Dept. of Mineral Resources – Oil & Gas division. Oil production quickly ramped up, but each drilled well released another resource: natural gas. Because the state lacked the infrastructure needed to support the sudden surge of production, oil companies turned to flaring.

State law allowed oil companies to flare natural gas for one year without penalties. After that, those companies would have to pay taxes and royalties on the flared gas.

“There was not a lot of incentive to collect the gas,” Ritter said, adding that producers had to drill the wells to determine the size of the pipeline they would need. Additionally, North Dakota had outdated rules, not enough pipeline space and formulas that didn’t apply to horizontal well drilling. “We had a lot of things working against us and we had to come up with something different.”

Changing the rules

With lax laws and policies without teeth, North Dakota found itself flaring more than one-third (36%) of its natural gas in 2011. This statistic caused state officials to make capturing natural gas a priority.

“Flaring is a waste,” Ritter said. “You’re burning off natural gas that could be utilized for heating homes. It’s a resource that you can’t get back.”

On Sept. 11, 2013, the state brought together oil and gas experts to form the North Dakota Petroleum Council Flaring Task Force. Over the next four months, the task force developed several recommendations, which it presented to the Dept. of Mineral Resources in Jan. 2014. Two months later, the department brought those recommendations to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, with a formal public hearing on gas capture plans following in April.

By summer, the state had a new set of policies in place, as well as gas capture targets for all oil and gas producers to meet. Instead of giving producers a year to flare natural gas without penalties, the commission required each company to have a gas capture plan established ahead of time before obtaining a permit. Once a company had a permit, they could have access to the oil-rich landscape.

“This way, we were thinking about capturing natural gas on day one rather than on day 365,” Ritter said. “The indus- try has done a great job of meeting the gas capture targets.”

According to the commission, the gas capture targets are as follows: 77% by Jan. 1, 2015 through March 31, 2016; 80% by April 1, 2016 through Oct. 31, 2016; 85% by Nov. 1, 2016 through Oct. 31, 2018; 88% by Nov. 1, 2018 through Oct. 31, 2020; and 91% by Nov. 1, 2020. If a producer fails to hit these targets, the department will restrict its oil production. So far, production restrictions have been few and far between, especially when they are capturing up to 88% of the gas this year, Ritter said. The peak amount captured was 91%, which occurred in April 2016.

Early on, producers used mobile on-site units to capture the gas while the pipeline infrastructure was put in place, Ritter said. Those units are still used, but to a lesser extent now that the state has more pipelines to handle natural gas.

North Dakota’s success with flare reduction even caught the attention of the federal government, which modified its own regulations to mirror North Dakota’s.

“That speaks tremendous volumes to how well this program works,” Ritter said. “They (the federal government) looked at the percentage-based approach for gas targets and they implemented gas capture plans. “They took key elements from our plans. We came up with a new way of doing things.”

But what about the photo?

Like many officials in North Dakota, Ritter knew something was odd about the satellite image that suggested the state had similar light pollution to a major metropolis.

“We (at the department) definitely talked about it for the sheer wow factor that the picture had,” she said. “At the same time, a lot of us knew it was pretty hard to believe. We’ve all driven through North Dakota at night and we know it was not like driving through a major city.”

Wocken thought the same thing, which prompted a study from the University of North Dakota’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC). Through the study, researchers from the EERC and Dept. of Earth Systems Science and Policy, used remote sensing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as new processing methods and pixel-based techniques to measure and validate heat sources, including flares.

With more refined image-capturing technology — NO-AA’s VIIRS sensor, which captures near-infrared spectral images — photos of the Bakken taken over a nearly two-year period turned out much darker than the infamous (and overexposed) satellite image.

The reason the Bakken formation appeared bright in the satellite image is because of the “blooming” effect that occurs when a lower-quality photo is taken of a combustion source and later overprocessed. Like a candle flame captured with a low-resolution camera in the dark, the flame will saturate the surrounding area with light, even though it is emitting far less lumens than a bright energy source, such as an incandescent light bulb.

“The (satellite) image conveyed a picture of things being worse than they really were, but it fit the narrative,” Wocken said. “Scientific facts require more information than what you get in a soundbite.”

Following the study, the researchers crafted a fact sheet and technical report and posted it on the center’s website. A technical paper also received publication in the peer-reviewed journal Remote Sensing.

“The feedback we got was appreciative for providing a more comprehensive perspective,” he said.

Ritter said she’s thankful for the study as well as North Dakota’s handle on natural gas production. Still, she doesn’t expect state officials to rest on their laurels.

“We know natural gas production will continue to grow, along with continued pipeline development,” she said. “We still have more targets to hit. It’s not something we’re going to take our eye off of. We’ll continue to build on our capture percentage.”

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