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Other views: ND must curb flaring, an act long overdue

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opinion Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Back in 2011, The New York Times published a front-page story on North Dakota’s lax policies toward flaring, and the state’s reputation for prudence and good government took a hit.

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“All told, 30 percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is burned as waste,” The Times reported.

“No other major domestic oil field currently flares close to that much, though the practice is still common in countries like Russia, Nigeria and Iran.”

Back then, oil companies in North Dakota were flaring or burning off 100 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, the newspaper reported.

Now, it’s 2014. Have the flaring numbers improved in the nearly three years since The Times’ story appeared?

No.

In fact, they’ve gotten worse. While the percentage of gas being flared has stayed roughly the same, the run-up in drilling activity means the volume of flared gas has ballooned.

“Drillers flared 340 million cubic feet, or 30 percent, of the 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas produced per day in January,” Bloomberg News reported this month.

“The lost revenue adds up to $1.4 million each day.”

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering tougher rules on flaring, which would take effect June 1.

The commission should approve those rules. Then it should monitor the situation with care — and if, over the next few years, the new plan fails in its promise to dramatically cut flaring, the commission shouldn’t hesitate to take a harder line.

It should do this for several reasons, including the fact that the current level of flaring is just such an astounding waste. “The amount of gas being flared in the Bakken is roughly equivalent to 5 percent of the total energy output of the field,” wrote Christopher Helman, energy columnist for Forbes magazine, in December.

“Most modern oil and gas fields waste just a tiny fraction of that. There’s always going to be some flaring of new wells, but North Dakota would probably be well served by new regulations limiting the number of months that operators can let those flares burn before they have to find a more constructive outlet for their gas.”

Flaring also incinerates would-be royalties for mineral owners and tax revenues for North Dakota state government. It creates air pollution, thus transferring the cost of flaring from oil companies — who can flare for free — to people who live downwind. (And with some pollutants, we’re all downwind.)

Last but not least, North Dakota should cut back on flaring because if the state doesn’t do it, the federal government probably will.

Currently, the feds don’t regulate flaring, in part because they haven’t had to. But that can change — and it probably will change if states such as North Dakota break their promise to regulate effectively on their own.

“Find the good life in North Dakota,” reads the slogan the state is using to attract workers. But that job isn’t made any easier by the industrial torches lining the approaches to many communities and turning prairie nights into day.

The Grand Forks Herald’s Editorial Board formed this opinion.

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