Earthworks’ Credibility Burned in Latest Flaring Report

Earthworks is back with yet another anti-shale report, this time arguing that flaring in the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shale is out-of-control and tons of greenhouse gases are being fired into the atmosphere.  Therefore, (surprise, surprise), Earthworks argues, we should ban fracking.  But as usual, the real story isn’t anything like what Earthworks purports.

Yes, flaring is occurring in the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shales, but this is primarily due to the fact that pipeline capacity hasn’t yet caught up to accommodate the extra gas that’s being produced by the shale boom.  Flaring is a highly regulated, closely managed process that is used as a means of converting methane into CO2 and water, which produces far less emissions than venting the methane into the air. Also, safe exploration does necessitate some flaring to regulate and control pressure levels.

However, what Earthworks left out is the fact that flaring is significantly decreasing in the Bakken shale as production significantly increases and regulators are expecting further decreases in the coming months. Further, it’s important to point out that even with the flaring that’s occurring it’s precisely because of hydraulic fracturing and the increased use of natural gas that greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest levels in 20 years.

It’s time to look at some of Earthworks’ claims followed by the facts:

Claim #1: “Oil and gas wells in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale flared 34 billion cubic feet of gas in 2013.” (p. 6)

FACT: That sure sounds like a lot of gas but, as always, context is key – and it’s important to look at this in terms of amount of energy that’s being harnessed and utilized from these shales compared to the amount that’s being flared. As the Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently predicted, the Eagle Ford Shale will produce 6.59 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas in September – that means it will produce as much as is being flared in a year in the Eagle Ford every 6.5 days.

Claim #2: “Texas flares less gas from all oil and gas operations than North Dakota, but flaring is increasing in both states.” (p. 12)

FACT: Actually in North Dakota, there’s been a steady downward trend in flaring.  A report by the North Dakota Industrial Commission released in July found that producers have reduced flaring to 28 percent in the first quarter of 2014.  That’s actually a pretty substantial decrease from previous years.  As Energy Information Administration (EIA) found in 2011, North Dakota’s flaring was at 37 percent in 2011.  By 2013, that number was reduced to about 33 percent.  As EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski explained in testimony before Congress in February 2013,

“I think the latest statistics from North Dakota suggest that it’s actually coming down. It had been as high as 35 or 36 percent of the gas. It’s now down slightly below 30 percent. This is usually indicative of infrastructure build-out needed in a new area.

The gas is associated with the oil production in North Dakota. I suspect that over time, the pipeline networks will be built out in North Dakota and those numbers will come down even further. Although it seems like a lot of gas, when you just look at the percentage in North Dakota, the amount in North Dakota is less than one-third of one percent. So less than one-third of one percent of total U.S. gas production. And so it’s actually a very small number.” (emphasis added)

Now that “very small number” has decreased even further to 28 percent and will continue to do so.  That’s something that Bruce Hicks of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Commission pointed to this summer when he explained that flaring in the Bakken Shale is going down, even as production soars to unprecedented levels (in June the Bakken reached 1 million barrels per day):

“What’s happening is that the percent of flared gas is not only coming down, but the total volume of gas is coming down. So, we’re having an increase in production every month and we’re having a decrease in the total volume that’s being flared. And we’re hopeful that will continue on its way downward.” (emphasis added)

The North Dakota Industrial Commission has a new rule on the books that will require producers to reduce flaring to 26 percent statewide – and the Commission has said that producers are on track to meet this goal.  Moreover, the North Dakota Petroleum Council has set a very doable goal of reducing flaring to 15 percent by 2016 and 10 percent by 2020.  There are also pipeline projects planned in North Dakota, including one that will connect to a pipeline in Moorehead, Minnesota that is slated to be finished by 2017, which will help producers meet these goals as well.

While it appears that flaring has slightly increased in the Eagle Ford Shale, again context is important: the Earthworks report states that flaring in that shale is about a third of the flaring in the Bakken in 2013.  And as Texas regulators have said repeatedly, that percentage will go down as more pipelines come on line.  As Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission explained, “Nobody wants to flare.  When you do that, you’re burning up money.”  He continued, “There will, ultimately, be pipelines built to reduce this flaring.”

That being said, there are a number of producers who aren’t waiting around for pipeline capacity to ramp up to take action on flaring.  As EIA Administrator Sieminski also said in his testimony before Congress,

“On the technology side, there has been an effort to look into small LNG liquefaction facilities that might be put in place in some of these remote areas where you could turn that natural gas that’s being flared into a liquid, which would be easier to transport. So I think there is a lot of thinking going on in the industry, and although those satellite pictures showing the sky at night and the amount of light being given off in some of these new producing areas seem startling, it is I think relatively small proportion. It’s fairly normal in the course of development in new areas.”

As CNBC reported last week, some companies in the Bakken are moving forward other innovative technologies to address flaring:

“Statoil last year announced a joint partnership with General Electric and Ferus Natural Gas Fuels, a Canadian natural gas logistics company. The companies have been piloting GE’s ‘CNG in a Box’ technology at a Statoil rig just east Watford City, North Dakota. The unit compresses natural gas and stores it for the final distance of the fuel process. This option is referred to as the ‘Last Mile’ fueling solution.

The unit doesn’t look like much—a brown box about the size of a small shed, with pipes running out of it. But the unit holds enough CNG to help power operations for a Statoil rig drilling 11 new wells. By this time next year, Statoil hopes all six of its rigs are partially running on natural gas captured from its wells.

‘It’s a win on multiple levels,’ Langford said. ‘At the site we’re reducing flaring, we’re also capturing value, and we’re lowering our fuel costs.’”

Some technologies are up and running in the Bakken. Oneok Partners has just opened a new gas processing facility in McKenzie County, North Dakota, which as chief executive Terry Spencer explained, “will lead to a reduction of natural gas flaring.”

It’s clear that flaring is issue has workable solutions, which producers are moving to adopt – and ultimately, as State Impact recently reported,

“Overall, the amount of natural gas vented or flared in the U.S. is consistently down since the 1970s, even since the arrival of the latest drilling boom.”

Claim #3:Flaring in the Bakken generated about 11.4 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in 2013, the equivalent of a year’s worth of carbon emissions from 1.1 million cars and light trucks.” (p. 6)

FACT:  While Earthworks tries to make this sound as dire as possible, just last year EID did some math on flaring and found that the greenhouse gas emissions from the practice were actually quite low.  When you take World Bank estimates of global flaring at 140 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas and compare those to the 7.1 bcm the United States flaring, it turns out that flaring in the United States accounts for only about five percent of all flaring worldwide.  We’re also the largest oil and natural gas producer in the world, by the way.  And that was last year when flaring percentages were a lot higher.

Further, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have all credited hydraulic fracturing and the increased use of natural gas with reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a twenty year low.  As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explained in its latest climate assessment, the “rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply” is “an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”

Claim #4: “Flaring can produce air pollution with negative impacts locally due to volatile organic compounds such as benzene.” (p. 11)

FACT: While flaring is certainly not emissions-free, Earthworks appears to be linking the mere presence of an activity with high risk.  The American Lung Association gave several counties leading in Bakken shale production – where the most flaring is occurring in the country – “A” grades for air quality.  In Texas, the Railroad Commission has installed air quality monitors around well pads in the Eagle Ford shale and this is what they concluded:

“The TCEQ has a vigorous, effective monitoring, investigation, and enforcement operation in the Eagle Ford. Therefore, when problems are detected, the TCEQ can make sure they are rapidly addressed.

There are two fixed monitors in the Eagle Ford Shale: in Floresville and Laredo. Neither of these monitors has detected levels of concern for VOCs. The TCEQ has also contracted with the University of Texas to conduct mobile monitoring upwind and downwind of the Eagle Ford Shale.”

Claim #5: “Much of the natural gas that is produced along with the oil is not captured and used for beneficial purposes such as heating homes or producing fertilizer; instead, the gas is simply burned off into the atmosphere because there is not enough pipeline capacity or other economic alternatives to accommodate it.” (p. 11)

FACT: Earthworks is not wrong here, but we can help but point out that the group complaining in this report that the flared gas should have been used to power homes is the same group telling us that we shouldn’t be using gas at all.  As the energy director of Earthworks stated in the press release for the report:

“Flaring is just one of many problems associated with unconventional oil and gas development,” said Earthworks energy program director Bruce Baizel. He continued, “Unfortunately, North Dakota and Texas’s inadequate oversight of flaring is representative of state oversight of fracking across the country. The ultimate solution to these problems is to transition away from fossil fuels entirely and towards renewables like wind and solar.” (emphasis added)

How is anyone supposed to take what Earthworks says seriously when this is their clearly-stated ultimate goal?  Earthworks wants to eliminate fracking – the technology that is responsible for a 20 year low in greenhouse gas emissions – in order to eliminate flaring, which produces minuscule greenhouse gas emissions when examined in proper context.

The United States has been blessed with an abundance of energy, and an incredible opportunity to access these vast resources.  The current energy revolution is driving new domestic energy resources into the marketplace and reducing costs for consumers.  New exploration and production has fostered job creation in energy producing states that exceeds the national average for new job growth.

While there is certainly room for improvement on flaring, when you look at the full picture the outlook is extremely positive: flaring has been reduced significantly in the Bakken and flaring will be reduced further in both shales as rules go into effect, more pipelines continue to come online, and producers continue adopting new technologies.  Meanwhile, the United States is achieving dramatic greenhouse gas emission reductions, thanks to shale development.  If Earthworks was hoping their report would portray a reason to shut down shale development, they missed the mark by about 180 degrees.


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