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Steffes Corp. helping to produce efficient natural gas flares

A flare system engineered by Steffes sits earlier this year at a well site near Dunn Center.

Whether glancing at satellite images from space or taking a leisurely nighttime drive from Dickinson to Williston, it's clear that flaring is a big part of the Bakken oil play.

A necessary byproduct of drilling for the coveted black gold within the Bakken, natural gas bubbles to the surface and is commonly burned off with flares during the oil retrieval process.

With the continued increase of drilling activity in western North Dakota in recent years, flaring has caught the attention of not only those who think it's an exercise in wasting an energy resource, but also environmentalists and even North Dakota lawmakers during the current legislative session in Bismarck.

In the Dickinson area and to the north -- as Bakken activity increases -- it's not uncommon to see flares reaching 20 or 30 feet into the air, which can be seen from miles around. Though infrastructure to harness natural gas is being built in western North Dakota, the area lacked necessary pipelines to transport the substance to market when the Bakken oil play ramped up several years ago.

One company attempting to help bridge the gap and offer energy companies a partial solution is Steffes Corp. Based in Dickinson and employing more than 200 people in Stark County, part of what Steffes does includes manufacturing products used by energy companies in the oil exploration process.

A supplier with a number of well-known energy companies, one of the products Steffes makes is a flaring system engineered to limit the amount of natural gas flared into the atmosphere. The idea was to offer a product that could control gas flows more readily, offering what the company says is an "excellent mixing of air with gas prior to combustion," according to the product's description.

"The requirement is for the flare to burn or destroy the volatile organic compounds -- to reduce those to a certain level," said Steffes new product development manager Todd Mayer. "This flare that we have out really allows operators to do that. I think this is a little bit of a misconception with some out there, but it's better for the environment if the gas is burned and not just blow it out into the atmosphere."

The flare uses a specially engineered high-pressure or low-pressure tip to be used with a pilot or independently and offers what the company describes as an "advanced burner management system," which allows for a cleaner burn, according to Mayer.

Attempts to limit the amount of flaring done in the Bakken have been discussed at length during the 2013 legislative session, with lawmakers just this week in the Senate passing a bill that would give energy companies further incentives to either beneficially consume or transport up to 75 percent of natural gas collected.

"We're not promoting the burning of the gas," Mayer said. "The best thing to do would be if it could get used in a productive way. But, if that's not possible because of pipelines not being available or other reasons, this product offers a cleaner burn. With these flares, there's always a pilot present, which wasn't typical in the old flares. We also have a proving system in them that can be reportable to government agencies."

Mayer said there are "a few hundred" of the new Steffes engineered flares -- which were introduced during the summer of 2011 -- currently in the field.

"This model seems to be well accepted," Mayer said. "There are other options out there, but this seems to have been well received. That high quality burn is what everybody is looking for -- that's the best situation for everybody. These are quick to set up, easy to maintain and help the Bakken move forward."

Steffes division manager Marc Bogue said when people see natural gas flares, it brings more attention to the issue.

"Every site has a flare, even if it's just as a backup," Bogue said. "When you see a flare, people think about how much gas is being wasted. But all the experts agree that burning off the gas is the best destructive method. It's the least harmful method. We know that politicians and others want to see less flaring and who knows what technology we'll see in the near future, but something like this will still be needed, at least as a backup, until other infrastructure is put in place."

Though oil is currently much more valuable than natural gas, Bogue said that could change -- or at least the bridge could be further gapped -- as the ever-fluid energy markets change.

"The flare today is a very good option until infrastructure or other new technologies come to the forefront," Bogue said. "If you look at the pipelines that are going in and that are scheduled, there is a huge amount of effort being put into pipelines. I think things will be very different five years from now."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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