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Bakken field haste fuels massive natural gas waste

Tim Evanson 001 - cropped for slider

Natural gas flares from a flare-head at the Orvis State well on the Evanson family farm in McKenzie County, North Dakota, east of Arnegard and west of Watford City.  (photo by Tim Evanson)

State, big oil, greed nix common sense solution

North Dakotan Mark Wald has a great idea. Every one of the 150 oil companies in the Bakken oilfield should be calling him to beg for his services.

His company Blaise Energy finds ways to turn oilfield waste into a money-saving resource. And we’re not talking about garbage. We’re talking about natural gas, which is a waste product in the Bakken.

Frequently when drilling for oil there will be pockets of natural gas “in the way.” Natural gas is a valuable resource which has been put into greater demand by its use as a “cleaner” form of fuel at electrical power plants.

Bakken

Natural gas flare at the Sergeant Major well on the Evanson family farm in McKenzie County, North Dakota, east of Arnegard and west of Watford City. (photo by Tim Evanson)

But the problem is that the drilling of new wells is happening so quickly in such remote locations that pipelines do not exist to pump the gas into. The solution is to set up a stack to let the gas escape and to get rid of the “nuisance” by simply lighting it on fire.

This process is known as flaring. Just to put this into perspective we’re not talking about the pilot light on your furnace.

We’re talking about $100 million worth of natural gas going up in flames every month. That’s enough natural gas to heat half a million homes a day.

And it’s creating enough light that it can be seen from space and shines nearly as brightly as Chicago, America’s third largest city.

OK that’s seems dumb enough to start with. (And I haven’t even mentioned the amount of greenhouse gas it’s spewing into the atmosphere or the health threat). But it gets worse.

Drilling sites require great amounts of electricity to get to the oil and pump it up. Remember how I said many of these wells are in very remote areas? Lots of them are nowhere near any power lines. So they have to make their own electricity.

How do they do that? They set up big tanks and fill them with diesel fuel hauled in by truck. Then they put the diesel in generators that they use to make electricity.

It took a guy from North Dakota to say, “What’s wrong with that picture?” and come up with a way to fix it (and make some money in the process).

Wald’s company Blaise Energy specializes in “market-based solutions to monetize stranded gas through distributed gas processing.” That’s big oil talk for he finds ways to take wellhead flare gas and convert it into electricity that can be used on site.

Blaise builds generators that are tuned to burn natural gas instead of diesel. The various-sized generators can provide the 100 to 450 kilowatts required to run the remote, round-the-clock drilling operations.

Wald estimates his equipment can save the oil producer up to $25,000 per month per well in the cost of diesel. Multiply that by the tens or hundreds of wells that each oil producer is operating and the potential savings are staggering.

Bakken

Pipeline carrying natural gas from the separator tank to the flare at the Orvis State well on the Evanson family farm in McKenzie County, North Dakota, east of Arnegard and west of Watford City. (photo by Tim Evanson)

It seems like a no-brainer. So why isn’t everybody using the system? A better question is – Why aren’t all oil producers required to use a system that eliminates natural gas waste?

In Texas and Alaska where the oil industry has been around for a long time less than one percent of natural gas is burned off. (That’s because they built gas pipelines.)

In 2010 North Dakota oil wells were burning off 17 percent of their natural gas. By 2013 the amount of flared gas in North Dakota had risen to 29 percent. Plus the volume of oil production has tripled in the last two years.

State regulators have the authority to reduce flaring, which could simply be done by scaling back production, or requiring using gas on-site. But North Dakota’s Industrial Commission isn’t in a mood to put on the brakes. The state projects oil and gas royalties will create $1 billion in surplus revenues for its 2013-2015 budget.

The Industrial Commission with its schizophrenic mandate to cut waste and increase production has decided for now the latter trumps the former. “If we restricted oil production to reduce flaring, we would reduce the cash flow from oil wells fivefold,” explains the commission.  

And what exactly is the problem with that?

Bakken

Separator tank at the Orvis State well on the Evanson family farm in McKenzie County, North Dakota, east of Arnegard and west of Watford City. (photo by Tim Evanson)

Does North Dakota need a $1 billion surplus in its budget? Could it survive on a fifth of that and spread it over ten years instead of two.

I just don’t get it. What’s the flipping hurry? The oil has been there for millions of years. It’s not going anywhere. Why not take time to do things right?

All that natural gas could be put to use. The amount of greenhouse gases could be drastically reduced.

Even though it could be, that’s not the way it’s being done. Why?

Is it un-American? Is it anti-capitalism? Is it because it violates the sacred mantra of greed that says, “Make as much as you can, as fast as you can without regard for the consequences to others (and yourself)”? 

Is it because the wealthy, powerful companies have deceived us into thinking that it’s in our best interest for them to gain more wealth and power?

It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I’d like to think that Mark Wald was trying to bring some sanity to the Bakken debacle. But he was probably just looking for a way to make a lot of money like everybody else.

For the sake of the rest of us, I hope he does.

About Ken Steinken

Ken Steinken is a writer, retired teacher (journalism, English, Spanish), park developer, and cave explorer, who lives with his wife in Rapid City.

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