The vistas from North Dakota’s highway 1804 are breathtaking. The road was named for the year the Lewis and Clark expedition came through. (In fact, the explorers spent more time in North Dakota than any other state during their famous journey.)
That was in 2005. Today, the most startling parts of the scenery are the oil drilling rigs, pumps and gas flares that dot the landscape. We stopped at one to take a photo. Three pumps bobbed up and down, orange in the early evening light and a shocking giant flame of burning natural gas. The flare was loud, too, even from a couple hundred yards away. The flame coming up from close to the ground blazed to a height well above the pumps.
North Dakota is part of the Keystone XL story because of the oil boom here. That boom has outstripped every kind of infrastructure development, from housing to roads to oil and natural gas pipelines. Oil producers who are paying stiff fees for truck or rail transport are eager to sell part of their bounty to the Keystone XL pipeline, if it is ever built.
The natural gas poses a tougher problem. Without being liquefied, it can’t be carried in trucks or rail cars. So while people push ahead with new oil wells, the natural gas that is usually found along with the oil is simply being burned off, or flared. Decades ago in the early days of the oil and gas business, that was common practice. And in places like Nigeria it still is. But in the United States it’s become extremely rare as companies prefer to capture and sell the gas, which until the recent shale gas boom fetched a good price. From an economic standpoint, flaring is a waste of a relatively clean fossil fuel. And from an environmental view, the flaring adds to greenhouse gas emissions.
The Associated Press on June 22 quoted North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources statistics as showing that 34 percent of the state’s record 650 million cubic feet a day of natural gas production was flared in April, an increase of 2 percent over March. The record high for gas flaring in the state was 36 percent in September 2011, the AP said.
Companies are rushing to lay down pipelines to capture the gas, but at night, at least for now, Highway 1804 is illuminated by the flares, like giant industrial campfires.