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Published January 01 2014

Forum editorial: No flaring solution in sight

North Dakota has yet to make a significant reduction in the wasteful flaring of natural gas, which continues like a runaway horse that can’t be corralled. Recent weeks have brought welcome announcements of major plants to process large volumes of natural gas, and pipelines to carry it to market. But other developments make it clear the stubborn problem is far from being resolved.

Most discouragingly, regulators report that industry applications for flaring exemptions are up two to three times what is normal for this time of year for wells that are not connected to gathering systems. North Dakota law allows exemptions when wells are deemed too remote. Critics have long argued that the state has been too generous in granting permission to burn a valuable resource. Regulators have routinely been handing out exemptions for half a year at a time, meaning companies face no penalties for foot-dragging.

Meanwhile, recommendations from a task force that is exploring solutions to the flaring problem have been delayed until Jan. 29. The task force was announced just as mineral owners filed 10 lawsuits against companies seeking damages for lost royalties due to flaring, which total $1.2 billion a year, according to a recent estimate. “It’s a big job,” Lynn Helms, the state’s mineral resources director, said when announcing the delayed recommendations.

The news hasn’t all been discouraging, as some major natural gas projects are in the works. ONEOK Partners plans a

$390 million natural gas processing plant in McKenzie County. The company says the plant will “considerably” reduce the volume of natural gas flared, in tandem with other facilities. The plant will process up to 200 million cubic feet per day. ONEOK also plans to expand a pipeline to handle the volume of liquid natural gas produced by the plant. Earlier, Hess Corp. began operating an expanded natural gas plant near Tioga with a new capacity of up to 250 million cubic feet per day.

The percentage of flared gas recently dipped to 28 percent, but the volume nonetheless increased. Flaring is most acute on the Fort Berthold Reservation, where an appalling 55 percent of gas is burned. Those figures are far above the North Dakota Pipeline Authority’s goal of reducing flaring to between 5 and 10 percent over the next decade.

In the face of such wasteful flaring, North Dakota politicians’ rhetoric recently has become more pointed. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem proclaimed that public patience with flaring is “coming to an end.” It would be encouraging to see a stiffening regulatory resolve to match the rhetoric from Stenehjem and his Industrial Commission colleagues, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. Permanent solutions will take time. Meanwhile, the state can be less lenient in granting exemptions and extensions without penalty.


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.