The Calm behind Fracked-Well Flaring Optics

Flaring at fracking sites makes for great TV pictures but flames don’t speak and don’t come with explanatory tags.  For a fiction writer, it’s even better than a blank slate.  TV news anchors are served up with a screen of agile flames in brilliant colors.  The viewer is treated to an engaging performance that screams “dangerous fire, waste of energy.”  The release of carbon dioxide seems without purpose.

Against a backdrop of flames leaping here and there, it’s tempting for news and opinion commenters to skip the sober observations and continue stoking viewer emotions with a climate change epistle.  It’s a handy segue that fracking is almost always why flaring is needed.

The more disturbing issue is that the Environmental Protection Agency is in its foundry forging Clean Air Act regulations to curb methane emissions that emanate from landfills, agriculture and fossil fuels.  There is a risk that flaring will be used as a visual aid in the next stage of demonizing fossil fuels.

The bull’s-eye for fracking in new or old wells is almost always crude oil, not natural gas.  But, when drillers hit crude oil, they usually get some natural gas (77% methane, along with ethane, propane, and butane).

Nitrogen and “fracking water” are injected in the well during drilling, but they are violently pushed out by intense pressures when the well erupts with crude and gas.  While the eruption continues, characteristics of the well are studied, natural gas is ignited as a plume of flame that can burn off in days or weeks, and frack water is collected for recycling.  During flaring, up to 40% of the gas released is nitrogen.  Natural gas pipelines are not suited to carrying nitrogen.

If a well is found to produce natural gas in quantities that can be economically recovered and if there is a nearby pipeline, it can be piped into the network.  If there is no pipeline for collection, gas production at the well can be capped.  Crude oil will be collected into a pipeline if one is available, or pumped into tank trucks and hauled to railway tankers for delivery to refineries.

States with substantial fracking experience (Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming) impose regulations that accommodate the engineering realities and consumer safety concerns of fracking and flaring.  States usually limit the time period that flaring is permitted, but regulations differ between states.  Some (e.g. Louisiana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma) grant permission to flare based on a well-specific economic and market analysis.  Other states (e.g. North Dakota and the Texas Railroad commission) incent drillers to use flare gas for generating electricity for equipment at the well site.  Nationwide, about 1% of all natural gas is flared, although the percentage is higher in areas where new well development is concentrated.

The North Dakota regulation on capturing gas and using it for electricity generation depends on the “development of pipeline and gas capturing infrastructure along with the implementation of gas capturing technologies at more remote sites based on some recent technical developments”.  At least one commercial source is providing such technology in the Middle East.  That equipment will increase in demand until the US acquires more natural gas pipeline coverage and better facilities for producing and shipping liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia.  Then the market will raise the price of natural gas and make flaring even less attractive that it is today.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research