The Flares Of North Dakota

The Bakken isn’t quite booming again, but on a recent trip there I saw plenty of signs that drilling activity is heating up. One thing that means that is flaring is evident almost everywhere oil is being produced.

Underneath the surface of North Dakota is the Bakken Formation, which is part of the Williston Basin that also lies underneath parts of South Dakota, Montana, southwestern Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan. Last week I was in Bismarck, North Dakota at the 2017 Bakken Conference and Expo. I spoke about my company’s efforts to eliminate natural gas flaring in oil fields and then drove around the state to observe the most recent drilling activity there.

The Bakken was known to contain oil for many years, but it just wasn’t economical to produce. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling changed that. Up until about 2008, North Dakota hadn’t produced much more than 100,000 barrels per day (BPD). But in 2008 the shale oil boom started to pay dividends. In late 2008, North Dakota’s oil production reached 200,000 BPD and then climbed steadily to a peak of 1.2 million BPD in late 2014.

As production in the Bakken Formation boomed, infrastructure raced to catch up. This often meant that there was insufficient takeaway capacity for natural gas that is co-produced with oil (“associated gas”). The result was a significant amount of natural gas flaring in the state, which the North Dakota government sought to address through legislation.

In early 2014, North Dakota was flaring 36% of its natural gas production. An article from the Energy Information Administration last year stated that the amount flared had fallen to 10% of the state’s natural gas production by March 2016, but that also corresponded to a period of time that oil prices collapsed (which subsequently caused drilling activity in the state to plummet).

In 2014 there were around 200 rigs drilling for oil in the Williston Basin. By March 2016, the rig count had fallen to 31. That ultimately fell to a low of 22 rigs in May 2016, but the number has since rebounded back to more than 50 rigs. That, in turn, has resulted in a small rebound in North Dakota’s oil production.

Following my talk in Bismarck, I spent a couple of days driving around the North Dakota Bakken region to get a sense of the drilling activity in the state. According to Baker Hughes, there are currently 53 rigs drilling for oil in North Dakota, and I managed to find most of them as I drove around the state. Below are a few of my observations about the early stages of the Bakken Shale Boom 2.0, along with some photos I took.

Let me be clear that just because a company is flaring, they aren’t necessarily doing anything in violation of the law. There are plenty of reasons companies are allowed to flare, but the gas that is flared is a wasted resource that could potentially be utilized. But I don’t want to give the impression that I am suggesting these companies are doing anything wrong.

3 thoughts on “The Flares Of North Dakota”

  1. Nice pictures and comments on whole area, not just the flaring issue.

    FWIW, I actually think companies should be allowed to flare freely. If the cost of the gathering (including delay costs) is not worth it, why force them to conserve the gas? If it was worth it to sell it (and feasible), they would. I wonder how much oil development is being retarded by the flaring restrictions. In some cases, it is even a bizarre catch 22, where the same people who are anti flaring are also obstructing gas pipelines. It can take years to get basic permissions especially on Federal land (even a small crossing).

  2. Yeah, but many of the anti-flaring people are simply anti-fossil fuel period, so of course, they are against pipelines and oil development in general (as they spew righteous indignation while traveling around the country in their fossil-fueled vehicles).

  3. OT, but I thought this was an underplayed story:

    “TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s GS Yuasa Corp will begin mass-producing as early as in 2020 a new lithium-ion battery that would double the range of electric vehicles while keeping prices steady, the Nikkei business daily reported on Tuesday.”


    Better battery announcements are a dime a dozen. But GS Yuasa is a major manufacturer of batteries and a large, publicly held company. Ergo, this announcement will probably hold its charge (ha-ha).

    Really? Battery cars with 400 miles of range?

    There is still a problem of charging times. Most people do not have access to 440 volts, which would speed things up.

    Still, battery cars are becoming more and more viable, and may offer a lower-cost alternative to ICE within several years.

    Also, note that Great Britain is banning ICE new sales as of 2040.

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