BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Environmental and landowner advocates in North Dakota are criticizing the decision of North Dakota regulators to give the oil industry more flexibility to meet natural gas flaring regulations.
The Industrial Commission voted Tuesday to change the goals of the gas capture policy first adopted in 2014 to focus on increasing the volume of captured gas and thus reduce the percentage of flared gas. The group comprised of the governor, agriculture secretary and attorney general is emphasizing policies that encourage the industry to invest in gas capture infrastructure.
Oil companies have had plenty of time to find ways to reduce flaring, and the state is bowing to the wishes of industry rather than safeguarding the public interest, Sierra Club spokeswoman Wayde Schafer told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"There's just a lack of will on the industry's part, and the Industrial Commission is willing to let them get away with it," he said.
Natural gas not captured at oil wells is burned off, a practice known as flaring that can degrade air quality. North Dakota has struggled to build enough infrastructure to capture the gas.
North Dakota operators flared a record 457 million cubic feet per day of natural gas in September. The industry has fallen short of the state target of capturing 85 percent of natural gas for five straight months, and Tuesday's action by the Industrial Commission further expands the number of circumstances that allow a company to be in compliance with the gas capture policy even if the company's flaring rate exceeds the benchmark.
The Industrial Commission cited "the staggering pace of gas production" as the reason for revisiting the policy, saying the policy must be balanced with the infrastructure that's in place and how the industry is evolving. The commission also left in place a plan to raise the benchmark to 88 percent in November, despite a recommendation by state Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms to postpone the increase for two years.
State officials note the volume of natural gas captured in September also hit a record, at nearly 2.1 billion cubic feet per day. Gov. Doug Burgum also said the industry has invested nearly $5 billion in gas capture infrastructure since 2013.
"Additional capital is the only thing that's going to solve our challenges of capturing record amounts of gas," he said.
This is the third time the commission has voted to either extend the deadlines for gas capture or give the industry more flexibility.
"To me, it's too much of a nice-guy approach," Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who represents landowners and royalty owners, told The Bismarck Tribune . "I understand being business-friendly, but businesses respond to regulatory environments, too."
Shelly Ventsch, who lives near flaring oil wells near New Town, also expressed frustration.
"I can't even have a dark sky at all anymore because it is just a ring of fire around me," she said.