Bright torches of natural gas are to become an ever-more common sight along the horizon of North Dakota as the environmentally devastating practice of flaring, or burning off natural gas as a byproduct of oil production, continues to skyrocket, according to a report released Monday by sustainability research group Ceres.
Analyzing oil and gas production data on the Bakken oil fields, researchers estimate that the volume of flared gas "more than doubled between May 2011 and May 2013," and in 2012 alone, the greenhouse gases emitted from flared wells was equivalent to "adding nearly one million cars to the road."
Further, as report authors Ryan Salmon and Andrew Logan note, because the flares only partially combust the natural gas, "a variety of other hazardous pollutants are generated by the process, including black carbon, another potent driver of climate change with adverse health effects."
Though the report focuses on the great economic waste—an estimated $3.6m in fuel lost each day, or $100m a month—of this practice, the impact on the environment is undeniable. Further, one cannot help but compare this dramatic squandering of fuel to the untold environmental toll that natural gas extraction processes, particularly fracking, are taking elsewhere in the United States.
The latest data shows that the state’s oil and gas developers flared 29 percent of the natural gas they produced during May 2013.
The spike in flaring is the result of environmentally negligent production companies combined with historically low natural gas prices. "At current market rates, oil is approximately 30 times more valuable than natural gas. As a result, producers have chosen to flare much of the gas they produce, rather than invest in the infrastructure necessary to collect, process and market it," explains the report.
"Without large-scale mitigation effort," notes the authors, "flaring will continue to grow over the next several years."
"Gas flares are nothing short of crimes against humanity," Nnimmo Bassey, director of Lagos-based Environmental Rights Action and chair of Friends of the Earth International, told the Guardian last fall. "They roast the skies, kill crops and poison the air. These gas stacks pump up greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, impacting the climate, placing everyone at risk. Gas flares go on because it is cheap to kill, as long as profits keep on the rise."