Energy to Burn: Making Choices by the Light of a Gas Flare

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That burst of light at the northern end of the Great Plains isn't a city. It's North Dakota, lit up by gas flares. Photo: NASA

Energy policy historically has been a matter of policymakers chasing events – and the most recent example is the current boom in natural gas.

The controversial technique of fracking gets most of the attention, and there’s no question that fracking’s ability to  vastly increase the supply of natural gas is reshaping the energy world. Most of the debate is over fracking itself – how dangerous it really is, and how it should be regulated. But that is only one of many changes and choices we’re going to face. In that spirit, we’re pointing out one fact and one choice that are worth consideration:

North Dakota glows in the dark. In nighttime photos taken from NASA’s Earth Observatory, like the one at the top of this post, there’s a sizable burst of light in the upper Great Plains, rivaling major cities like Chicago and New York. NPR science reporter Robert Krulwich, who first examined this on his blog, points out that this area now rivals the aurora borealis in space photos. But there’s no city there. What you’re seeing are flares from drilling rigs in North Dakota.

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More than one third of North Dakota's natural gas isn't making it to market, and most of that excess is flared off.

The new oil and gas fields that have sprung up are producing more gas than the shipping infrastructure can handle, and when that happens it’s actually safer to light it off than simply release it  into the atmosphere. More than one-third of the gas produced in North Dakota isn’t making it to market, and an estimated 29 percent is being flared (compared to 1 percent nationally). (See also “Pictures: Bakken Shale Oil Boom Transforms North Dakota“)

This may be a temporary situation. North Dakota law allows a well to flare for only a year without paying taxes or royalties on the vented gas (although extensions can be granted). Presumably, however, the economics of flaring will change. Plus, the supply infrastructure will catch up eventually. But this is just one example of how the gas boom is reshaping North Dakota  and the national landscape.

Do we export? Our potential excess of natural gas isn’t all going to be burned off in flares. It’s going to take a little time for Americans to get used to being net energy exporters – after all, the last time the United States was self-sufficient in energy was 1957, when cars still had tail fins. If the gas boom continues however, we’re going to have more than we need. So do we sell it? And if so, to whom?

Advocates say exporting natural gas would be good for our balance of trade and create jobs. A new draft study commissioned by the Energy Department  says natural gas exports will be a net economic win. Others warn that exports could push up prices domestically, driving up costs for homeowners who use natural gas and harming U.S. manufacturing, which has benefited from declining energy costs.

Moreover, energy markets are notoriously fickle and hard to predict. After all, just a few years ago investors were backing U.S. terminals to import liquefied natural gas – projects that are now abandoned.

And opponents of fracking warn that counting on exports – and building the expensive infrastructure to support liquefying and shipping gas – will tie the nation that much more closely to an environmentally questionable technique. Fracking isn’t the only environmental question associated with natural gas extraction. Some scientists worry that too little is being done about other problematic side-effects such as methane leaks.

Yet even with these potential problems, natural gas has undeniable advantages. It is cleaner and less dangerous to the climate than coal. Falling natural gas prices have already encouraged energy companies to build fewer new coal plants. Coal is expected to “to slip to 10% of total new capacity in the U.S. in 2013, down from 18% in 2009”—a development nearly all environmentalists should cheer.

But what happens if curbs on fracking drive up the cost of natural gas? Would coal begin to make a comeback? What happens if energy companies find they can make more money exporting natural gas rather than selling it here?

Unfortunately, facts on the ground are getting far ahead of the public debate. Power plants and pipelines last for decades, so we’ll be living with the decisions we make today for a long time. We’re already pretty far down the path of a world fueled by natural gas. If there are still doubts about how we’re getting that gas, then it’s all the more important that we properly weigh our choices now. We need to move quickly to insure that the environment and the common good, along with the economy,  are entered into the natural gas equation.