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North Dakota’s gas flaring rate 7 times higher than next-highest state, study finds

North Dakota now captures 95% of natural gas, the vast amount of which comes from oil wells, but still stands out as a major source of flaring, which releases climate-warming methane.

A natural gas flare on an oil well pad burns as the sun sets outside Watford City, North Dakota January 21, 2016.
A natural gas flare on an oil well ad burns as the sun sets outside Watford City, North Dakota, in 2016.
Forum file photo
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BISMARCK — North Dakota is one of five states that together account for 90% of the nation’s flared natural gas and is an “outlier” with flaring intensity that is seven times greater than the next-highest state.

Those are among the findings by consultants Rystad Energy in a study commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund that determined infrastructure capacity limits are by far the greatest cause of flaring gas that can’t be captured and processed.

North Dakota greatly exceeded the other four major flaring states in flaring intensity, the percentage of flared gas as a percent of total produced gas, according to the report.

North Dakota accounted for 35% of the flaring by the group of five leading states — second to Texas, with 41% — but had a flaring intensity of 7.1%, seven times greater than the next-highest state, New Mexico, which flared 1% of the gas it produced in 2021, the Rystad Energy report found.

Flaring in New Mexico was 11% of the total for the five states. Texas, the leading oil and gas state, flared 0.9% of the gas it produced in 2021, the report said. Wyoming flared 0.2% of its natural gas, followed by Colorado with 0.1%.

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“It’s a huge source of waste. It’s unconscionable, really. It’s also a huge source of pollution,” Jon Goldstein, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs, said of flaring. “That’s a big problem, particularly in North Dakota.”

Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, said the vast majority of natural gas produced in the state is a byproduct of oil wells, making it more difficult to capture.

Elsewhere, most natural gas is produced from natural gas wells, specifically designed to capture the gas for processing, he said.

“I don’t believe that the way they did that analysis is a good method,” Helms said. “The problem is North Dakota is the only one of these five states that the vast majority of our gas comes from oil wells.”

In North Dakota, 65% of natural gas is from oil wells, compared to 10% in Texas, he said. Flaring occurs at oil wells, not natural gas wells, Helms said.

Natural gas flare
Natural gas is flared at an oil well in Williams County, North Dakota.
Amy Dalrymple / Forum Communications Co.

Still, Helms acknowledged that even if only “associated” gas is taken into account — gas production associated with oil production — North Dakota still tops the list, but at a rate that is closer to 1.5 times the next-highest state, he said.

“I’m not happy being at the highest percentage,” Helms said. “We still have a significant amount of work to do.”

In September, the most recent figures available, North Dakota petroleum producers captured 95% of natural gas — achieving all-time highs both for gas produced and captured. The statewide flared gas volume from August, when 94% of gas was captured, decreased 35,000 cubic feet per day to 156.4 million cubic feet per day, according to state figures.

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To further reduce flaring, North Dakota is focusing on four oil fields that lag far below the overall capture rate, ranging from 52% to 87%, Helms said. Three of the four oil fields are located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

“If we can bring those up to the 95%, associated gas capture would fall in line with other states,” Helms said.

Companies are preparing to capture the gas, and Helms anticipates that in a year or so much of the gas on the problematic oil fields will be captured and delivered to the market.

Plans also call for reversing two pipelines, originally designed to carry natural gas from Wyoming to North Dakota, allowing more gas to be exported for processing, Helms said.

Increased pipeline capacity also would allow two or three gas processing plants in North Dakota to expand, adding half a billion cubic feet per day of capacity, he said.

Natural gas processing capacity in North Dakota quadrupled from one billion cubic feet per day in 2013 to four billion cubic feet per day in 2021, which Helms said helped to significantly reduce flaring.

Gas processing infrastructure continues to expand. In a project expected to start construction in 2023, a Canadian company called Cerilon plans to develop a $2.8 billion plant in Williams County that will convert natural gas into liquid fuels. Plans call for the plant to produce 24,000 barrels per day of ultra-low sulfur diesel and other specialty products.

In 2011, flaring peaked in North Dakota, when 36% of natural gas was captured. In 2020, North Dakota, which has 2.4% of the nation’s natural gas reserves, accounted for 24% of total vented and flared natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

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North Dakota has a goal of capturing 91% of natural gas, a level that in 2018 was reduced from 95% by 2020 when the policy was adopted in 2014.

Today, most major petroleum producers aim to capture 95% to 98% of natural gas, and the state is considering increasing its capture goal, Helms said.

The most productive area of the Oil Patch’s Bakken formation is 80% to 85% developed, prompting oil producers to extend beyond the core, where oil and gas are not as easy to reach, he said.

That will make it more difficult to increase the gas capture rate, Helms said. “It’ll be an interesting challenge,” he said. The industry’s use of horizontal drilling is now extending up to three miles laterally, up from the one mile laterals that once were standard, making drilling more efficient.

“It’s very exciting,” Helms said, but added it will be a challenge to build gas-capturing infrastructure in time to reduce flaring.

The study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that flaring in North Dakota is largely driven by a lack of infrastructure. Infrastructure capacity constraints account for 84% of flaring in North Dakota and 64% in Texas.

North Dakota is one of five states that contributed 90% of total flared volumes in 2021. North Dakota flares an amount similar to Texas, which produces more than nine times as much gas, causing North Dakota's flaring intensity to be much greater than other states.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas. Over a period of 20 years, methane is more than 80 times as potent, pound for pound, as more abundant carbon dioxide.

A recent study has found that flaring isn’t as efficient at destroying methane as commonly assumed, both by industry and government.

Flares burn off excess natural gas from oil well sites. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)
Flares burn off excess natural gas from oil well sites.
Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald

A team of researchers led by the University of Michigan, in findings published in Science , determined that flaring is the source of five times more pollution than previously thought due to inefficient burning.

Industry and government generally assume flared gas is burned with 98% efficiency, but the researchers found that only 91.1% of methane is destroyed by flaring, due to unlit flares and inefficient combustion.

“This represents a five-fold increase in methane emissions above present assumptions and constitutes 4% to 10% of total U.S. oil and gas methane emissions,” the study found.

The Environmental Protection Agency has published a new, 505-page draft rule on regulating flaring and venting of methane.

The proposal would reduce methane emissions from covered sources by 87% below 2005 levels, according to the EPA.

Lisa DeVille of Mandaree, a member of the Dakota Resource Council, applauded the new methane rule, which she said would help reduce flaring.

“Fort Berthold Reservation, where my family and I live is where the most flaring occurs, in North Dakota – the state with the most flaring!” she said. “Quickly finalizing strong EPA rules will protect communities like mine from the immediate threats from flaring and other oil and gas activities and the threats we already experience because of climate change.”

The proposed rule, which is open to public comments, focuses attention on methane “super emitters,” such as unlit flares or major equipment leaks, an approach Helms said makes sense.

“I think that’s healthy,” he said, adding that North Dakota is taking a similar approach by focusing on the four oil fields that flare at much higher rates.

On the other hand, Helms has concerns with provisions in the rule involving certification of methane emissions that he said conflict with North Dakota law. Emissions measurement is highly technical and requires special training, Helms said.

In the new rule, the EPA is tightening down on routine flaring, but doesn’t go as far as the states of Colorado and New Mexico, Goldstein said. Although an improvement, he said the government should go further in requiring methane emission reductions.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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