Byproduct of a boom: gas flares visible from space

(AFP/Getty Images)

The hydraulic fracturing boom may have changed the outlook for U.S. energy and even raised the possibility of energy independence,  but it’s also a reminder that waste tends to go hand in hand with abundance. NASA recently released photos such as the one above showing natural gas flares in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale burning almost as brightly as the city lights of Minneapolis.

Oil companies in the region are burning off enough gas to power all the homes in Chicago and Washington combined, according to the Financial Times. Flared gas in North Dakota rose by 50 percent last year and permits for flaring in Texas last year were more than six times the number issued in 2010.

The World Bank now estimates that the U.S. is among the worst countries for flaring behind Russia, Nigeria Iran and Iraq. The flares raise concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. The FT found that greenhouse gases have risen about 20 percent in North Dakota.

The abundance of gas produced by fracking has created a glut, which has driven down prices. As a result, gas storage tanks are full, and the low prices means no one can justify the expense of building more storage or more pipelines to move the gas elsewhere.

Some companies have already taken steps to reduce flaring, and North Dakota is considering tax breaks to encourage greater reductions. But the NASA images are a reminder that at a time when the U.S. strives for to reduce dependence on foreign oil, it’s literally burning up the very fuel that may power the path to independence.

(I’ll be talking about the flaring issue more with FM92?s Dennis Spellman today at 11:30 a.m.)