A big flaring opportunity in North Dakota

Recently I wrote about how oil companies are flaring off $100 million worth of gas a month in the Bakken formation and what a huge waste or resources that represents.

Well, it didn’t take long for something to happen. A group of five law firms representing Bakken property owners sued 10 oil companies to end the practice. Their logic? It doesn’t involve environmental pollution or global warming. Instead, they’re arguing that the oil companies are depriving them of hundreds of millions in royalties by flaring off all that gas.

The case makes perfect sense. Gas is a valuable resource and the property owners are being deprived of huge amounts of money by wasting it. The case also avoids the complications that would come if the suit had been brought by the Sierra Club or Natural Resources Defense Council on environmental grounds. That would have involved all kinds of testimony about whether the flaring is really having an impact on the weather and what the level of damages might be. Instead, this is a straightforward case of dollars and cents. The property owners are being deprived of huge royalties. The oil companies have to compensate.

But beyond that, the lawsuit also offers a glittering opportunity to put methanol and its potential role in the transportation economy in the spotlight. So far, nobody’s talking about it much, but the conversion of natural gas into methanol could play a huge part in resolving this case.

The Bakken has developed so fast that the producers have not even been able to build oil pipelines into the area yet. Instead, the oil is being shipped by truck and rail. Burlington Northern has extended its lines into the region and most of the oil is now finding its way into major pipelines. As a result, Bakken production has leaped to 850,000 barrels a day, catapulting North Dakota into the number two position as an oil-producing state, behind Texas.

But the gas is a different thing. It can’t be stored in large quantities and pipelines are a long way from being extended and probably not worth it. Oil is now give times more valuable than gas at the wellhead, which gives drillers an enormous incentive to go after the oil and forget about the gas, hence the flaring. Thanks largely to North Dakota, we have moved into fifth place for flaring, behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq, and ahead of Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The amount of gas flared around the world equals 20% of U.S. consumption. When we’ve moved ahead of Hugo Chavez, it’s time to do something about it.

So far, the proposed solutions have involved compressing natural gas or synthesizing it into more complex liquids. “The industry is considering and adopting various plans to flare less gas, including using the gas as fuel for their rigs and compressing gas into tanks that can be transported by truck,” reports The New York Times. “A longer-range possibility would be the development of projects that could produce diesel out of gas at or near well sites.” Hess, which already has a network of pipelines in the area, is rushing to complete a processing plant at Tioga that will turn gas into diesel and other more complex fluids.

But a better solution would be portable, on-site processing plants that can convert methane to liquid methanol, a far simpler process. Gas Technologies, a Michigan company, has just developed a conversion device that sits on the back of a trailer and can be hauled from well to well. “We have a patented process that reduces capital costs up to 70%,” said CEO Walter Breidenstein. “If we’re using free flare gas, we can reduce the cost of producing methanol another 40-5%.” Other companies are working on similar technologies for converting natural gas to methanol on-site.

All this would help bring attention to the role that methanol could play in replacing oil in our transportation economy. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2000 and found drivers were extremely happy with them. Methanol also fits easily into our current infrastructure for gasoline. But California gave up on the project because gas supplies seemed to be dwindling and the price was too high. Now we are flaring off 25% of the nation’s consumption in one state and methanol could easily be produced for $1.50 a gallon. It’s time to re-evaluate.

Of course, Walter Breidenstein will probably find that flared gas will not be offered for free. Those Bakken property owners still want their royalties. But the North Dakota lawsuit proves a spur for on-site methanol conversion and great opportunity to highlight the role methanol could play in our transportation economy.

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