In North Dakota, oil bonanza leaves natural gas going up in smoke

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times Published: July 21, 2014
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Frank and Wanda Leppell once lived on a quiet cattle ranch in the middle of a rolling prairie, the lowing of cattle and the chirping of sparrows forming a pleasant soundtrack to their mornings. No more.

Not since the pasture they’ve leased since 2009 became part of one of the nation’s most productive new oil fields. Not since a well barely 200 yards from their front porch began shooting a torch of burning gas skyward, 24 hours a day, with a force as loud as a jet engine.

“My bedroom’s like day — I don’t need a night light,” said Wanda Leppell, who has pleaded with state officials — so far without success — to do something. Her husband minces fewer words. “Rotten noise,” he says. “Rotten smell and terrible waste.”

The rapid escalation of energy production in shale formations across the U.S. has produced a bonanza of oil, but it has left many states scrambling to handle the natural gas that often flows in large volumes along with the crude. Gas pipeline construction often lags behind the development of new wells, and the result is that billions of dollars’ worth of gas that might be warming homes or fueling power plants is going up in smoke.

The issue is at its most severe in North Dakota, where the amount of gas flared in the Bakken oil field has nearly tripled since 2011, sending more than $1 billion a year worth of gas as waste into the sky.

The flames have produced a collective glow that makes rural North Dakota resemble a large metropolis on satellite images and prompted environmental analysts to warn that flaring annually releases as many climate-changing greenhouse gases as 1 million automobiles.

Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, saying he is “embarrassed” by a gas flaring record that he said has “been easy on companies,” has vowed that the state will strictly enforce new rules aimed at cutting the waste. State officials say the regulations, which took effect in June, will curb the proportion of total natural gas production flared from 28 percent in May to 10 percent in 2020.

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