Temperatures were in the single digits on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation in early February when Debbie Dogskin began to take off her clothes. In the throes of late stage hypothermia, people act irrationally as cold clouds their thinking.
The 61-year old was found dead in a friend’s mobile home, an empty propane tank outside. Trailers in this frigid corner of the northern prairie are often patched together with ill-fitting doors and drafty windows. Inside some homes, “you can find frost in the corners of rooms up on the ceiling,” Rev. John Floberg of the Standing Rock’s Episcopal Church told the Episcopal News Service.
Like many parts of the country, the Standing Rock Reservation experienced a severe propane shortage this winter. Unusually cold temperatures in the Midwest combined with the fact that farmers used more propane than they normally do to dry out a huge harvest of wet grain at the end of the season sent fuel prices through the roof. The week before Dogskin died, propane was selling for $4.57 a gallon in North Dakota. That’s almost three times higher than in winter 2013.
Yet some 250 miles away, oil rigs tapping Bakken shale were burning off millions of cubic feet of propane-rich natural gas a day – the same gas that, if captured, refined and sold, could have kept Dogskin’s trailer warm.
The waste is largely an infrastructure problem, says Ryan Salmon, the senior manager for the oil and gas program at Ceres, a national non-profit focused on sustainable investing. Unlike oil, which can be easily stored on site in a tank, natural gas is hard to compress and store. It must first be captured at the wellhead and transported via pipeline to a processing facility. The pace of new drilling has been so fast, Salmon says, that the pipeline infrastructure hasn’t caught up. Plus, comparatively low natural gas prices mean pipelines would take a long time to pay for themselves. In December 2013, flaring in North Dakota hit a new record: 36 percent of all natural gas produced as a byproduct of drilling for oil went up in smoke. The amount of flaring is even higher on the Fort Berthold reservation, the swath of tribal land at the center of the Bakken oil boom, where infrastructure is even more lacking than elsewhere in the state.
It doesn’t help that North Dakota makes it easy for oil companies to flare. Under existing rules, oil companies can flare unrestricted – without paying taxes or royalties on that gas – for one year before they need to hook up to a pipeline. But they can continue flaring indefinitely if they demonstrate that capturing the gas is not economically feasible. (In comparison, Texas only allows flaring for 6 months, and in Alaska, producers must re-inject the gas into ground if they aren’t going to capture and sell it.)
Now, people are starting to push back against the practice. Last October, mineral rights owners in North Dakota sued 14 oil companies for millions in unpaid royalties on wasted natural gas. Industry groups, recognizing how bad flaring makes them look, are offering to self-regulate. In January, the North Dakota Petroleum Council’s proposed new rules to help reduce the amount of gas flared to 10 percent by 2020. State regulators will hold a hearing to take public comment on that proposal on April 22.
The Department of the Interior is also looking to crack down on flaring and venting (releasing pure methane into the air instead of burning it to convert it to CO2) of natural gas on Bureau of Land Management and Indian lands like Fort Berthold, and is holding hearings around the country this spring to get input on how best to do so. President Obama’s Climate Action Plan targets methane leaks because of concerns that the emissions could give natural gas a larger carbon footprint than coal. There are also growing concerns over lost revenue: In 2010 the Government Accountability Office found that the public loses up to $23 million annually in royalties from venting and flaring of natural gas.
In order to speed up pipeline construction to transport natural gas, three U.S. senators from Wyoming and North Dakota recently introduced a bill that would exempt the pipelines on federal and Indian lands from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The exemptions wouldn’t apply in protected areas like national parks or wilderness, and tribes and individual Indian land-owners would still have to give consent.
With their long, cold winters and twice the national average propane consumption, North Dakota residents could benefit a lot from regulations that help increase natural gas and propane production in their state. In addition to increased royalties and taxes, air quality should improve with less flaring, since fewer VOCs will be belched into the atmosphere. And the light from hundreds of dancing flames will no longer spoil the dark prairie nights.
So it’s ironic that the biggest barrier to building gas pipelines is securing landowner permission, according to the North Dakota Petroleum Council. “On the one hand the flaring is an impact to communities in terms of light pollution and air quality,” says Salmon, of Ceres, “but to tackle the problem (companies) have to install a pipeline where landowners might not want them to.”
For landowners sick of the growing footprint of the oil industry – many of whom do not own their mineral rates and therefore don’t benefit from the drilling – making the decision to allow yet another piece of oil infrastructure onto their land won’t be easy.
Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News. She tweets @guerinemily.