New Rules on Gas Flaring: Health Benefits, Energy Savings – and Controversy

January 23, 2017
by Jerry Oster

BISMARCK, N.D. — The Bureau of Land Management issued some new rules that are irking the oil and gas industry, but the agency says they were proposed for their health and environmental benefits. The regulations are expected to reduce the amount of gas flared or released from oil wells.

During the production of crude oil, excess natural gas and methane is sometimes burned or is simply released into the air. The new rules dictate that developers will have to do more to contain it.

Nicole Donaghy, oil and gas field organizer with the Dakota Resource Council, said the gases contain some dangerous materials – including BTEX, a mix of four chemicals commonly found in crude oil.

“We can see BTEX, which contains some carcinogenic material,” Donaghy said. “There’s Volatile Organic Compounds that burn off and go into the air as part of, like, particulate matter.”

Studies show that people living near well sites, such as those on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, suffer more respiratory issues, along with clusters of cancers, and low birth-weight babies, Donaghy said.

The oil and gas industry has fought to reverse the new regulations, claiming the BLM doesn’t have the authority to regulate air quality, and that the industry is already plugging leaks voluntarily.

The states of North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming also oppose the new rules. But a district court judge ruled against opponents last week, saying the BLM has the authority to prevent the wasting of publicly owned resources.

Donaghy pointed out that allowing methane gas to escape wastes public money.

“Any gas that is flared, vented or leaked would have to be paid for by the oil industry or the development company,” she said. “And so, that revenue will go to the tribes, and it will go to the state.”

President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Interior Department, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., hasn’t taken a stand on the issue. Donaghy said the BLM rules are still new enough that they could be sidelined by Congress.

“You could take this rule and have Congress kill it,” she said. “And in order to reinstate any rule such as this, the Congress would have to act to reinstate those rules.”

A 2013 report from the Clean Air Task Force showed that over 103 million cubic feet of gas was flared in North Dakota – more than 21 million cubic feet of that on the Fort Berthold reservation.

Information on gas recapture is available here.

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