22 Apr 2014

How North Dakota’s fracking frenzy is wasting natural gas

North Dakota’s oil boom has a valuable by-product: natural gas. But the pipelines to transport it do not yet exist, and nearly 30 per cent of gas produced is being burned away into the atmosphere.

Although some American states share the UK’s unease about fracking, North Dakota is not one of them, writes Channel 4 News US researcher Anja Popp.

The use of the controversial technique has transformed the upper midwestern state into a landscape of oil pumps and the fastest-growing economy in America. Oil companies have come from far and wide to get their portion of black gold. Fracking – fracturing rock with high-pressure jets of water – has enabled them to release fossil fuels from the ground.

North Dakota’s oil boom isn’t just boosting the region, but the whole of the United States. The International Energy Agency has projected that the US will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, a position the US last held in the 1970s. Currently Russia and Saudi Arabia are the largest producers.

Boom in gas a ‘byproduct’

Oil production from North Dakota’s Bakken formation increased 50-fold between 2007 and February this year, from 18,500 to 951,500 barrels per day. In 2012, it surpassed Alaska to become the second-largest oil producing state in the US after Texas.

The huge growth of unconventional oil production in the state has also led to a rapid increase in natural gas production. The area yields enough gas per year to fulfil Scotland and Wales’s annual gas consumption.

But here’s the problem: the region doesn’t yet have the pipelines needed to transport all of the gas to treat it. In many cases, drillers are simply burning it into the atmosphere.

Nearly 30 per cent of North Dakota gas is being flared each month as a by-product of oil production. In 2012, North Dakota burned off more gas than the whole of Wales consumed. And it’s rapidly increasing: the state burned off almost double the amount of gas in January 2014 as it did in January 2012.

Read more from Washington Correspondent Kylie Morrishow the fracking industry has transformed North Dakota

Gas flares from space

In 2012 alone, flaring resulted in the loss of approximately $1bn in fuel and the GHG emissions equivalent of adding 1m cars to the road. The flares burn bright on the otherwise barren and unforgiving plains – so bright, in fact, that the light from the Bakken region can be seen from space.

Texas and Alaska flare just 1 per cent of their gas; North Dakota currently burns off a comparatively huge 36 per cent. Many in the area don’t see the flaring as environmentally problematic, merely a waste. Neither do they worry about the associated risks with fracking. North Dakotans believe that their deep wells and distance from fresh water supplies, makes the area ideal for fracking.

But not all of America is so keen on using the method. Ohio geologists reported last week that a small swarm of earthquakes in the state appeared to be linked to fracking wells. Kansas is also exploring the possibility that fracking might have caused an increase in seismic activity. California, known for its earthquake activity is currently debating whether it should begin fracking.

The problem is, no-one really knows what the long-term effects of fracking are. Maybe fracking would help earthquake-prone areas by relieving seismic pressure through small earthquakes. Or perhaps it would be more damaging.

America has made no secret of its desire to become energy-independent. Fracking in North Dakota is helping realise this dream, unlocking almost 1 million barrels of oil a day.

With statistics like that, it’s hardly surprising they’re not troubling themselves with the unsubstantiated risks.