From his driveway, Tom Wheeler’s view of North Dakota’s sprawling grasslands seems endless. Fields of soy, wheat and canola stretch to the horizon in all directions. But as drillers flock to the state to cash in on North Dakota’s booming shale play, that horizon has become increasingly marked by natural gas flares.
Wheeler, 59, owns 3,000 acres of farmland in Ray, the heart of the state’s oil-rich Bakken Basin, one of the world’s largest shale formations. Shale gas is natural gas, which is found trapped within shale formations.
Still farming the land his grandfather homesteaded in 1902, Wheeler can give a first-hand account of the oil industry’s boom and bust cycles in North Dakota, sometimes known as the “Roughrider State.”
During the area’s last boom in the ’70s, Wheeler spent his winters working on an oil rig. And while he knows just how much an energy surge can change a community, he’s never experienced one that’s transformed the landscape quite like the recent boom.
“In the ’70s we had so many dry holes that you never noticed the flares,” Wheeler said. “But now every well is productive—and the flares are everywhere.”
Brad Quick | CNBC
Tom Wheeler is a landowner in Ray, North Dakota, the heart of the state’s oil-rich Bakken Basin, one of the world’s largest shale formations.
In the Bakken, flaring has become synonymous with drilling.
The prairies—once dotted only with cattle and an occasional lazy oil derrick—are now marked by thousands of flares, open pits or steel pipes burning off excess natural gas, a byproduct of the rapid rise in oil drilling. New wells are coming online so quickly that the pipeline infrastructure for natural gas has not been able to keep pace.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces natural gas and crude oil out of shale buried deep below the earth by using highly pressurized and treated water. Drillers seek out valuable crude oil, but natural gas comes out of the ground, too. Flaring is the burning of natural gas that can’t be processed or sold.
All those flares, meanwhile, are adding up. They burn so brightly that NASA astronauts have taken pictures of their glow from space.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory
Many oil drillers are unable to direct the flow of natural gas coming off wells into existing pipelines, which already are at full capacity. They have no choice but to add a flare at each site with a well. The result is nearly a third of the natural gas produced in the region is being burned to secure crude oil, and subsequently creating thousands of flares.
Now regulators are cracking down. North Dakota passed new flaring standards, with the goal of capturing more natural gas. Energy companies are scrambling to meet the rules and curb flaring—some with creative technologies.