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The amount of natural gas being burned as an unwanted byproduct of oil production in North Dakota is at an all-time high, state officials said.
Oil companies burned 24.1 percent of the 10.5 billion cubic feet produced in January, the most natural gas flared in one month since December 2008, said Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources. Gasses and vapors coming from the well increase the so-called flaring percentage to 29.5 percent, he said.
The federal Energy Information Administration says less than 1 percent of gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide.
Flaring has increased in North Dakota with the explosion of oil development of the Bakken and Three Forks formations in the western part of the state. Companies and state officials say excess natural gas is wasted because of a lack of infrastructure in North Dakota and a glut in the market.
The excessive flaring has drawn criticism from some in the state who see the gas go up in smoke at the same time they are stuck paying high heating bills.
Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said oil companies in a rush to develop the state's oil patch have treated natural gas more as a nuisance than a commodity.
"We're not keeping up with this and we need to slow down," Schafer said. "We are wasting energy and causing all kinds of pollution and environmental problems."
A bill reviewed last week by the North Dakota House's Energy and Natural Resources Committee says legislators should study how to reduce flaring.
North Dakota pumped a record 113 million barrels of oil in 2010, shattering the high set a year earlier by 33 million barrels, state Industrial Commission records show. The state also produced a record 113 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2010, up from 92.4 billion cubic feet the year before.
Industrial Commission records show that about 30 percent of natural gas produced last year was not sold.
Justin Kringstad, director of the state Pipeline Authority, said nearly $3 billion in infrastructure improvements are either planned or under way in North Dakota to capture natural gas and move it to market.
"Even though we'll have these additions, which will make a dent, it's difficult to say when we will have flaring wiped out by them," Kringstand said.
Three new gas plants in McKenzie County are slated to be operating by the end of the year, and will be able to process about 195,000 million cubic feet daily. The state produced about 340,000 million cubic feet of natural gas in January.
Kringstad said of the 5,300 wells operating in the state's oil patch, about 720 of them are not connected to a natural gas-gathering facility. About 2,000 new wells are expected to be drilled this year in the state, and many of those won't immediately be linked to facilities that can capture and move the gas, he said.