​A two-month composite of nighttime views from a NASA/NOAA satellite shows lights in the Bakken formation burning almost as brightly as those in Minneapolis and Chicago. Part of the light from the Bakken is from gas flares, though most is from electric lighting on drilling and fracking equipment. (Image courtesy NASA/NOAA, Ceres)

​A two-month composite of nighttime views from a NASA/NOAA satellite shows lights in the Bakken formation burning almost as brightly as those in Minneapolis and Chicago. Part of the light from the Bakken is from gas flares, though most is from electric lighting on drilling and fracking equipment. (Image courtesy NASA/NOAA, Ceres)

The drilling companies rushing to capture North Dakota’s rich oil reserves often wind up with unwanted natural gas. In other words, they literally have surplus energy to burn. So they do just that, torching vast amounts of the cheap gas — a practice that critics say is tremendously wasteful and a threat to the environment and public health.

Drillers in recent years have burned off, or flared, about one-third of the natural gas produced in North Dakota. In 2012 alone, the state’s flaring wasted $1 billion in fuel and produced emissions equivalent to adding 1 million cars to the road, according to a report last year by Ceres, a Boston-based environmental group.

The main reason: The oil is so much more lucrative than natural gas that the companies would rather invest in more wells than speed up construction of pipelines and other infrastructure to bring gas to market.

In the meantime, drillers are flaring the gas away. In the process, they are lighting up the nighttime skies around the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, and releasing toxic compounds such as benzene along with the greenhouse gas emissions.

“In many respects, this is an environmental travesty,” said Michael E. Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a waste of resources. It’s pollution, noise and aesthetic problems without any economic benefit” from the gas. “This is a bad news story in many ways.”

The toll was detailed in a recent report, The Flaring Boom, from the Western Organization of Resource Councils, or WORC, a nonprofit network including farmers and ranchers.

The report, distilled from an array of previously published studies, focused on flaring in North Dakota and five other energy-producing states: Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Texas and Wyoming.

Federal statistics show that three of those states, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, account for most of the gas flared or vented – released into the atmosphere without being burned – in the U.S. (Venting is more harmful to public health, but the volume of gas flared is thought to be much higher. The government combines its statistics for both.)

Rancher Donny Nelson. (Photo by John Smillie)

North Dakota rancher Donny Nelson. (Photo by John Smillie)

North Dakota, which despite its energy boom still is home to only about 723,000 people, is in a class by itself when it comes to flaring. In 2013, it accounted for two-fifths of the estimated 260.4 billion cubic feet of gas flared or vented nationally. The percentage of gas produced in North Dakota that was discharged that way was 29.7 percent last year, versus 1.7 percent for Wyoming and 0.9 percent for Texas.

For Donny Nelson, who operates an 8,000-acre ranch and farm in west-central North Dakota near the heart of the Bakken oil patch, flaring means a diminished quality of life. Nelson, who chairs the WORC campaign highlighting the hazards of flaring, said on any given night he can spot 30 or so flares blazing on or around his ranch.

“I always kind of enjoyed sitting out at night and looking at the stars and maybe throw a bonfire together or something. But you don’t need that anymore,” Nelson said. “You’ve pretty much got a permanent light that’s lit up, almost like daylight some nights.”

What galls Nelson, 51, the most is the reckless waste of fuel. He predicted that one day, “our kids or our grandkids … they’re going to go, ‘I can’t believe that they just burnt that into the air.’”

North Dakota regulators, hit by mounting criticism that they are soft on drilling companies, in July issued a new policy aiming to reduce flaring. The goal is to cut the percentage of gas that is flared to no more than 10 percent by 2020. Levels are already on a downward trend, with the figure falling to 28 percent in August and 24 percent in September.

As more wells are drilled, however, the overall volume of gas flared will stay high even as those percentages decline. What’s more, WORC complains that the 10 percent target for North Dakota far exceeds the current flaring rates of other energy-producing states.

The group calls for North Dakota and other states to move toward the example of Alaska, which since 1971 has banned flaring except for emergencies and system tests.

Industry officials say they are working hard to bring more pipelines into the area, to eliminate the need to flare, and they are unfairly being branded the bad guys.

“It’s not some type of nefarious plot by oil companies,” said Kathleen Sgamma, a vice president with the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas producers.

She said it would be “unrealistic” to hold other states to the standards of Alaska, where the necessary pipelines already are installed. “Alaska is a mature oil field. North Dakota is a new field booming, and that infrastructure is being put in place, but it takes time,” she said.

Moreover, Sgamma said, “this flexibility to enable the oil production to move forward and let the natural gas capture catch up to it” has yielded huge economic benefits for state residents.

North Dakota’s per capita income was $53,182 last year, the sixth-highest among the 50 states. That ranking was up from 40th in 2006, just before North Dakota’s income figures started zooming amid the energy boom.

Still, the wasted gas represents an economic loss to the property owners that lease mineral rights to drillers, even if they get receive royalties from oil production. Beyond that, “All of that flared gas in the atmosphere cannot be good,” said Mindi Schmitz of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, an advocacy organization based in Chicago. “Who wants to be known as the state that’s contributing immensely to global warming?”

The University of Texas’ Webber acknowledges that installing hundreds of miles of pipelines in North Dakota, where cold weather complicates construction, is difficult. Still, he said, tougher regulation could speed the work.

“I don’t get the impression that industry is in a real hurry to get this done because it’s a cheap product that’s on the market,” Webber said. “So the idea of spending billions and billions of dollars to build pipelines to [bring] gas to market that you’re going to sell at a loss is not a very exciting proposition for them.”

New technology, he said, might be part of an eventual solution to eliminate waste. Although the cost of the technology currently is high, good regulatory policies and investments could drive down those prices. And then flaring could be put to productive uses such as making electricity or treating water, or gases could be converted into chemicals.

“There’s a variety of things you can do,” Webber said. “Flaring is the worst option.”