Not Much Ado About Natural Gas: It's Getting Burned Up In North Dakota

The natural gas flares in the Bakken Shale are so bright they're visible from space.
The natural gas flares in the Bakken Shale are so bright they're visible from space.
Photo by Jesse Allen and Robert Simon from NASA Earth Earth Observatory

Back in the days of the Great Depression, legend has it, money was so worthless that people were burning it by the barrelful. Though natural gas was once the Tickle Me Elmo of energy, right now it's got a lot more in common with that legendarily worthless paper money of old, all thanks to fracking. They're burning so much natural gas in North Dakota, you can see it from space.

We're living in an unexpected world these days, energy-wise. About a decade ago, natural gas was rare enough that the quest for this relatively clean-burning hydrocarbon had drillers tearing it up in Barnett Shale in North Texas. They drilled expensive wells using hydraulic fracturing and slant drilling because natural gas was going for $13 per thousand cubic feet, guaranteeing a payoff from the well.

The thing is, all that drilling in the natural-gas-rich-Barnett, and the other shale plays that slant drilling and fracking unlocked across Texas and the United States, produced a glut of natural gas on the market, changing the face of U.S. energy. Natural gas prices have dipped so low these days, drillers say it's not worth the money it would cost to get the natural gas out of the ground.

Which brings us to those flares. If you've driven much in Texas in recent years, you've seen them, the huge plumes of flame licking the sky. These are flares, where drillers are burning off the natural gas coming up out of the ground alongside the more valuable crude oil. The flares dot the landscape in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the Barnett in North Texas and the Cline in West Texas, and are familiar sights in the Barnett, the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and, of course, the Bakken in North Dakota.   Natural gas is a big hit in the United States and around the world right now. Roughly a quarter of the world's energy currently comes from natural gas. It's a relatively clean-burning fuel and President Obama has grabbed hold of the huge supply and made it a key component of his whole energy strategy.

It has changed the market to the point that the country just started exporting the stuff from liquified natural gas terminals along the Texas Coast, becoming exporters instead of importers for the first time in decades. However, natural gas is also famously unstable and difficult to move, which is why, despite the fact that it's become a key part of the U.S. energy strategy, and we're shipping the stuff out from Texas, they're burning the stuff like it's 1929 up in North Dakota (and hopefully partying like it's 1999.)

Right now, producers in North Dakota are allowed to burn off about $100 million in natural gas produced per month, roughly a third of the natural gas produced, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Despite the fact that natural gas is the McDonald's of energy right now -- cheap and filling -- it can't be put in storage tanks or transported easily by truck. Since no one ever expected such an energy boom in North Dakota, there's no pipeline infrastructure so there's no way to easily move the product out.

The flaring in North Dakota is so intense that NASA astronauts can see it from space. While it's not as environmentally devastating as you'd think to simply burn the stuff, oil producers are just this side of literally burning money, according to Reuters. Of course, oil producers don't like burning a product instead of, you know, selling it (despite those awesome flames), and they're scrambling to get pipelines in place to move the natural gas to market. Fun as it is to burn stuff, it's probably a little more fun to sell it.


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