KEENE, N.D. — 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.
The pledge hasn’t soothed the Leppells, whose 30-acre homestead has become surrounded by three well pads since they purchased it in 2009 — one of them directly on the 1,200-acre pasture they lease. Because they only rent the pasture, they earn no royalties, unlike many North Dakota farmers and ranchers who have become wealthy from oil earnings. They say the state should have required infrastructure for capturing and marketing the gas before allowing more oil wells, which now gush $2.5 billion a month worth of crude.
Leppell said she doesn’t want to move, but she does worry about the health effects from living near so much flaming gas. Her husband, a fire chief for 20 years, is concerned that a gas flare could spark a grass fire on a gusty day.
Advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have spurred a nearly 200 percent increase in North Dakota oil production since 2010, mirroring a similar boom in Texas.
Environmental activists concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions and wasted energy say they will watch to assure lawmakers properly fund enforcement of the new rules.
Distributed by MCT Information Services