Seen from space at night, the thinly populated state of North Dakota could be mistaken for a major metropolis. But the bright lights aren’t the glow of streets and homes. They are flames from billions of litres of natural gas being burned, a by-product of the booming oil industry. Now, under pressure from regulators, technologies are emerging to help harness that wasted resource.
Economics drives the waste. Oil production from North Dakota’s Bakken shale quadrupled between 2010 and 2014. The volume of gas that belches up with the oil followed in step, faster than oil companies could build infrastructure to pipe it away. Too impure to generate power on site, and too light for train cars to haul a worthwhile amount to market, the gas presented oil companies with an unprofitable problem. So they burned it.