Flaring of gas waste on rise, Low prices blamed as Alberta companies flare or vent more gas

Flaring of gas waste on rise, Low prices blamed as Alberta companies flare or vent more gas by Dan Healing, September 28, 2012, Calgary Herald
Low natural gas prices and a boom in oil drilling in 2011 led to an additional five billion cubic feet of solution gas being burned or vented in Alberta, a report shows. The volume of wasted gas increased 22 per cent in 2011 to nearly 28 billion cubic feet from 23 billion in 2010, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board said in a yearly report released this week. An environmentalist said the report shows a flaw in Alberta regulations but an industry representative countered that the long-term trend suggests the rules are doing what they were designed to do. Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the environmental Pembina Institute, said conservation of solution gas increased from 92 per cent in 1996 to 96.3 per cent in 2005 mainly because the ERCB brought in an economic test that required producers to capture solution gas if they could do so in a cost-neutral or better way. “What we’re seeing now is more flaring because the economics of gas are low but the other reason we’re seeing more flaring is because the economics of oil are so good,” he said. “It’s kind of a perverse arrangement because a higher price for oil isn’t translating into more money being spent to control flaring and venting. In fact, it’s resulting in less.” He said the economic test should be applied more broadly to the entire operation, not just the gas side.

“The decline in conservation in 2011 of 0.9 percentage points can be directly attributed to new crude oil and crude bitumen production during the year and low gas prices, which made solution gas conservation economically challenging,” the ERCB said in its report. Flaring of gas at crude oil and oilsands batteries rose 42 per cent in 2011 over the previous year while venting increased only 4.5 per cent, the report notes. The Pembina Institute says flaring and venting is wasteful because the resource could heat thousands of homes if captured.

Severson-Baker said there are also possible new health issues arising because of the popularity of hydraulic fracture stimulating or “fracking” wells, where water or other liquids and substances are injected under high pressure to break up the tight formation underground and allow oil and gas to flow. He said he’s heard from landowners concerned that fracked wells may be emitting substances into the solution gas stream that are dangerous or prevent complete combustion in the flare stack.

The ERCB prefers flaring over venting because it has found it to be less hazardous. If the amount of solution gas justifies it, the product is normally transported by pipeline to a gathering system or a gas processing plant. There are other solutions but they have been slow to catch on. [Emphasis added]

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