Gas flaring — what a waste

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

A recent NASA satellite image suggests light levels from flaring natural gas in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields are similar to light levels in Minneapolis and Chicago.

As companies raced to develop the Bakken field, they shifted their focus to fracking for oil rather than natural gas, as the oil is more valuable. With oil and natural gas commonly found together, it is cheaper to burn off the natural gas — given its low market value — and only harvest the oil.

North Dakota farmers have expressed concern about the effects of resulting air pollution on their crops. State legislators are considering creating incentives to capture waste gas.

Natural gas selling at about $3.50/British thermal unit delays building the infrastructure to store and pump it to distant markets. Gas could also be captured at the wellhead and trucked to a facility to be converted into liquefied natural gas, which could supply fuel for the drilling rigs. Such actions not being taken illustrates the failure of the marketplace to include environmental costs and resource waste in the price system.

Another possible casualty of cheap natural gas is the withdrawal of new furnace regulations, which were set to be implemented after May l in 30 markets in northern states, including Illinois. The standards would have required all gas furnace installations to reach 90 percent efficiency instead of the existing 80 percent standard. Natural gas interests claimed the more efficient furnaces would be too costly for some of their customers, causing them to heat with less efficient fuels. The delay protects the natural gas market from its competitors.

Kjell Aleklett points out that when firms in Norway seek government permission to produce oil, they are not allowed to so do until they show how they will handle the natural gas associated with it. Instead, the North Dakota legislature waited until the predictable problem occurred and is now considering providing incentives to firms to capture the gas. It is similar to the old adage of closing the barn door after the horse escaped.

Another possible casualty of the rush for energy is the ongoing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study on natural gas drilling and its potential for groundwater contamination. The lengthy and detailed study failed to address the issue of the frequency with which groundwater contamination is likely to occur from fracking. The study concentrates on the Marcellus shale region in which fracking is occurring and which provides drinking water to Philadelphia and New York City.

The EPA had planned to do both computer simulations and field tests at test sites, but has yet to find a drilling company to partner with. Since government funds supported the development of this industry, such tests could have been integral to the industry’s development

If the precautionary principle had been integral to government policy, plans would have been in place to handle the adverse effects of fracking prior to initiating development of the resource. Then, we would have its true cost. We now seem to be discovering why the process was exempt from existing national air and water pollution laws.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the Feb. 13-19, 2013, issue

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