North Dakota is Burning -- And You Can See it from Space

by: Its the Supreme Court Stupid

Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 07:05:36 AM EST

On the NPR blog, Robert Krullwich noticed that pictures taken at night from space of the US show a recent phenomenon -- one of the brightest patches is in one of the least populated places in the US -- western North Dakota.

The reason, apparently, is the boom in oil drilling. In addition to the lighting that the drillers bring with them, the drilling makes extensive use of the practice of burning off natural gas.  Those flares have turned this relatively underpopulated area into an area as bright as major metropolitan areas, such as Minneapolis-St.Paul.

You can find the NPR article here.

Its the Supreme Court Stupid :: North Dakota is Burning -- And You Can See it from Space
North Dakota permits burning off the flares with out taxing the natural gas burned for the first year of drilling, but, as the piece notes:

On the other hand, says Peter Lehner, blogger for the Natural Resources Defense Council, every day drillers in North Dakota "burn off enough gas to heat half a million homes." North Dakota law says that flares are subject to taxes and royalties after one year, even if the gas isn't being sold. But critics suspect that the state keeps granting exceptions.

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Wow :(. (2.00 / 20)
I'm on the fence about the whole fracking business but this is pretty awful.  So, so wasteful...

On a technical level, is there a reason that they are unable to harness this energy?  Do you know?  I've got KOPB on my iPhone right now so I may yet find out if it airs this morning here.

well, according to the article (2.00 / 18)
When oil comes to the surface, it often brings natural gas with it, and according to North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources, 29 percent of the natural gas now extracted in North Dakota is flared off. Gas isn't as profitable as oil, and the energy companies don't always build the pipes or systems to carry it away

what an incredible waste.
get the oil and everything else be damned.

thanks for this diary, ITSCS. seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.

here in west Texas (2.00 / 18)
gas is routinely flared because transmission lines for gas have not been built. But then there are not enough transmission lines to carry the electricity produced in our many wind farms. At any given time only about half the windmills are producing. There have been many tax incentives for building wind farms but none for building the transmission lines so none of our wind farms are likely to meet their actual potential.  

There's nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.--Thornton Wilder

You could probably see the North Dakota flares (2.00 / 16)
from West Texas if you get on a ladder.


[ Parent ]
yes!! (2.00 / 16)
I did a TON of consulting re: wind farms (many in texas; know the big one on the callahan divide, west of abilene?  that was me).  t-lines remain an achilles heel.  i helped with two farms in colorado and one in kansas that were completely dead in the water over t-line issues.

nimby, nimby, nimby.

Earth is the best vacation place for advanced clowns. --Gary Busey

[ Parent ]
i should clarify (2.00 / 14)
the biggest problem overall WRT wind power transmission is related to infrastructure impovement and development costs, but nimby is almost always tied in too -- nimby bugs me most, because i think it's the hardest to work around.  other problems, difficult though they may be, are more easily solved.  anyhoo, that's why i banged on nimby thrice above.  residual frustration.  

Earth is the best vacation place for advanced clowns. --Gary Busey

[ Parent ]
I never understood (2.00 / 14)
nimby until it was my back yard. We live out here in large part for the dark night skies and wind farms wreck that. I came to terms with the idea that my preference hardly constituted general good and made peace but lots of people don't like to do that.

There's nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.--Thornton Wilder

[ Parent ]
yeah, that's why it's so often hard to deal with. (2.00 / 13)
there'splenty of nimby that's just unreasonable, but often it's legitimate stuff. people's sense of place is important.

Earth is the best vacation place for advanced clowns. --Gary Busey

[ Parent ]
There have been some studies related to the deleterious effects (2.00 / 12)
of wind turbines on people and livestock, particularly cows.

One family's noise problem

Not long after the wind turbines began to spin in March near Gerry Meyer's home, his son Robert, 13, and wife, Cheryl, complained of headaches.
They have trouble sleeping, and Cheryl Meyer, 55, sometimes feels a fluttering in her chest. Gerry is sometimes nauseated and hears crackling.

The culprit, they say, is the whooshing sound from the five industrial wind turbines near the 6-acre spread where they have lived for 37 years. "I don't think anyone should have to put up with this," says Gerry Meyer, who compares the sound to a helicopter or a jet taking off.

This video will give you an idea of what it would be like being next to one of these things:

That said, I use wind energy. I can pay extra on my electric bill and get a certain number of kw of power from renewable energy. I would have it all come from there but it is pricey. THAT is something that should be fixed. How about CHEAP renewable sources of energy.

Words have meaning. Our words will reflect what is in our souls.

[ Parent ]
noise can be tricky (2.00 / 8)
i've overseen noise studies, designed mitigation plans for same.  the sounds can be weird and disorienting if your close enough (i've been under, on, and in them.  the folks in your link have 5 turbines in a six acre area, which may be fine, or too many, or too close, or too many too close -- all depends on a mosaic of contextual variables.  i never, ever had a turbine sited within 1.25 miles of a residence (and those were rare), and i've never had to deal with anyone claiming detrimental health effects, beyond 'it's annoying'.  the turbines can produce low frequencies that are below the human audible threshold, and there's not much science to correlate the low-freq output to the various potential health risks. in my experience, more people complain about visual asthetics than noise, and the noise related stuff was virtually always about annoyance.  none of this intends to discount their claims, of course, just giving my anecdotal experience.

having done environmental compliance work for a long time now, i'm glad you posted this because it raises an important point that i think many amatuer 'greenies' on the left miss: these things have impacts.  all renewables do.  there is no free lunch.  green energy projects (of any stripe) have environmental impacts, sometimes very serious, that have to be avoided and mitigated. and there's a trade off.  hydropower can be terrible for fish habitat (salmonids in the PNW), solar can have toxic waste issues, effects on habitats (endangered desert tortoises in southern california), wind (nnoise, bats, birds, etc.).  all just tip of the iceberg.  my specialty, cultural resources, are always getting trampled, mangled and destroyed.  there's a huge difference between the science of archaeology (often preservation minded) and the practice of cultural resource management (which is focused on conservation based on significance).

solving problems sometimes creates other problems.  eventually it's all an excercise in 'greater good' value judgments that try to peer into the future.

Earth is the best vacation place for advanced clowns. --Gary Busey

[ Parent ]
Exactly. When you create mass amounts of anything, including (2.00 / 9)
green energy, there is something impacted.

That link and video was from a two part article I wrote a couple of years ago looking at the pros and cons of renewable energy. I ported it to my personal blog but haven't had time to clean it up for republishing. I'll do that and share a link.

I think on the wind turbines, the takeaway might be: these things are uncomfortably noisy for some people ... can we make them better? The answer is not to say no wind but to say quieter turbines.

Words have meaning. Our words will reflect what is in our souls.

[ Parent ]
yes! (2.00 / 7)
Chief Investigator Associate Professor Con Doolan says that despite the attention paid to wind farm noise in recent years, there remain large question marks over the sources of noise, particularly in the low-frequency range which seems to be most significant.

"We have a fair amount of knowledge around the noise generation mechanisms but, particularly in the low-frequency ranges, we don't know a lot about how they combine together," says Associate Professor Doolan.

"This project is aimed at getting to the bottom of what is creating the noise that can cause disturbance. When we know what is contributing most to that noise - exactly what's causing it - then we can stop it."

The researchers, from the University's Flow and Noise Group in the School of Mechanical Engineering, will build a small-scale wind turbine in the University's wind tunnel. Around the wind turbine they will also build an anechoic chamber (a specialist acoustic test room).

"This will be the most sophisticated wind turbine noise experiment in the world," says Associate Professor Doolan. "We'll be recreating the environment of a wind farm in the laboratory, with all the different noise sources, and then use advanced measuring techniques - laser diagnostics to measure the aerodynamics and microphone arrays for the acoustics - to find out what the strongest noise source is and how we might control it.

Earth is the best vacation place for advanced clowns. --Gary Busey

[ Parent ]
Leading to... (2.00 / 5)
the replacement of wind turbines being installed today to mitigate problems discovered and remediated in future designs, thereby adding to costs.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Which is not to say we should not proceed with our intentions, just that we need to be more critical of ideas we like than of those we do not. Fiction is littered with Good Intention Gone Bad stories for a reason, because reality is littered with them too.

Electricity is the one major commodity which cannot be stored, for example. This makes wind and solar problematic, since to service demand we do not need to simply replace carbon sources with these on a one-to-one basis but on some additive or multiple basis to have enough online at a given time. And since we lose electricity through transmission, the further afield we source power from the more generation we need.

And so on.

I surmise that our good Lurker123 below may be able to pull a Good Will Hunting on the rest of us on some aspects of this topic. If Lurkers can also be authors, I would encourage ours here to go on at greater length on topic.

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

[ Parent ]
Problem is Power Output Scaling (2.00 / 8)
The power output from a wind turbine scales like the diameter squared, which is a pretty powerful incentive to go big (the disincentive is that the materials cost scales as the 2.3 power).  See the following from a pdf used in a U California Santa Cruz engineering class

Square-Cube law
- As a wind turbine rotor increases in size
- Its energy output increases as the rotor-swept area
- While the volume of material, and therefore its mass
and cost increases as the cube of the diameter (d3)
• By smart engineering (removing material or by
using material more efficiently), in recent years
blade mass has been scaling at roughly an
exponent of 2.3 instead of 3

[ Parent ]
Mooses loves geekses, (2.00 / 7)
too. :~)

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

[ Parent ]
This is a tough issue. (2.00 / 16)
A while back we had a discussion about coaland how we get off it. I did a bunch of math at the time and wasn't happy with the results (despite an error or two that made it look a bit worse). The net is that energy is a Big Deal and infrastructure timelines make it hard to turn on dimes.

So the annual spend on electricity is something like $340B.  As half of that is coal, that comes to $170B/year. If all coal could be replaced by natural gas (the cleanest alternative that a coal plant might be converted to) at current fuel costs that would add $340B to the national consumer spend, or about $1,000 per person per year ($3.4T over ten years, or three times Healthcare Reform, with no direct reduction in other costs).  Include the cost of plant upgrades and you get something higher.  If the demand drove natural gas prices higher (this would imply a 250% increase in US demand for natural gas, so that is reasonable) and that would have to be factored in as well.

Replacing coal with renewables would require a 1,400% increase in capacity, from 3.6% to 50% of renewable generation capacity. If the cost of electricity produced by those means was the same as coal, you just have to factor in the cost to build all that capacity and amortize that over the 20-30 years forecast by the DOE for these systems (wind at least, others may be better or worse).  

Coal produces about 150 Terrawatt/hours of electricity, and at least this link shows creation of wind energy sources at $4,800/Megawatt hour, so to replace all coal with wind would have a capital cost of maybe $720B ($4,800/MWHour * 150,000,000 MWHours).  Colorado added 700 MWHours of wind power between 2006 and 2007, so assuming that all 50 states had the same capacity for wind power they would each have to add 429 times that much new capacity per year for ten years to replace coal.

A more recent graphic on electricity use by type can be generated at the Energy Information Administration's Electricity Data Browser:

Coal power has come down while natural gas has gone up since I wrote the above in 2010. But replacing coal with zero-emmission fuel (wind, solar) still has a gulf to cross of staggering size.

How we manage to create and use energy without causing other problems is an issue we will be working to resolve far beyond my lifetime.  

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

some thoughts... (2.00 / 8)
720B is a lot of money up front, but divided by 10 is a small part of the federal budget.  Maybe that's money we have to come up with.  The annual DoD R&D budget is about that for example.

Also, you can't really do that computation in a vacuum.  Certainly the practical side of cost is a huge issue, and we need to know what those costs are.  But there are other costs.

While the timeline for climate change carries a lot of uncertainty, the cost of continuing to burn coal, oil, and gas is going to be in the astronomical to HFS range.  

turning on a dime is one thing.  continuing to diddle around because the problem looks too hard is another.  Either we find some ways to solve this sucker, or it's gonna get solved without us.  That won't be pretty.

[ Parent ]
There you go. (2.00 / 9)
My pointillism is that the devil is in the details. While I think the conversation is moving past the emotive desire to do something, there is still a lack of understanding of the scale of the issues involved.

As the nimby thread above touches on, each component issue can be both very large and very complex. Running transmission lines for gas or electricity runs into nimby, costs heaps and is associated with decision chains across the spectrum.

The numbers I tossed around above are no doubt a significant underestimate of the finances involved in actually making these changes, probably by orders of magnitude.

This video is longer than anyone (with a life) probably wants to watch, but the bit starting at 4:00 talks about interdependencies across infrastructures. At the ICS-ISAC we think about these things all the time, and there are very few aspects of modern infrastructure that are straight forward.

We need as many people thinking about all of these issues as much as possible. At the same time, we need as many of them aware of the complexities involved so we don't spend a lot of resources yelling at each other.

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

[ Parent ]
Yup. Solved "without us" means our species dies off and the planet cleanses itself (2.00 / 8)
in a couple million years.

Doing The Math from Madison WI: "I kind of wanted to live my life":

In 15 years, enough of that fossil fuel will have been burned to destroy the livability of our planet. And it will not just be waking up one morning, 15 years from now, and saying "Wow, our planet is now unlivable!!". It will be Hurricane Katrinas and Superstorm Sandys and Midwest Droughts of the Century Decade Past Week ... and tornadoes, floods, unbearable heat, unbearable cold, food shortages ... leading up to "our planet is now unlivable".

Words have meaning. Our words will reflect what is in our souls.

[ Parent ]
Without us, all life is desiccated off the earth in due course, (2.00 / 5)
as nature dictates.

While we very well may follow the Path to Perdition predicted in the linked 'rise up and stop them. seminar attended by author, I challenge the math on base principle.

Such math has to assume a given means of consuming fossil fuels with a corrolary environmental impact. That assumption has to be based on past experience, which may or may not indicate future usage.

Driving through Detroit over the holidays I discussed the various smokestacks going by with my son Damien. The conversation was along the lines that in my youth these vertical pipes simply lifted the outgassing of industrial production above the surrounding landscape, but have since in many cases have been associated with electrostatic precipitators and other mechanisms for reducing harmful emissions. And that, for his generation, an engineering challenge will be to continue this trend to the point that the output of every industrial process is used as feedstock in another.

Already in my lifetime a wide array of industrial wastes have become industrial products, captured and sold to others. There is no guarantee that fossil fuel usage will not at some point become zero-emission itself.

Seminars like the one linked are a good thing, inasmuch as they begin the education of more individuals. But as they lead to Earth First!ian conclusions that mankind is a cancer on the earth which will be shaken off so Gaea can Heal Herself, they are worse than nothing.

Life is a fleeting phenomenon in the universe, doomed from birth by more  and greater natural forces than humankind can imagine. Life seems quite likely to occur frequently in the Universe, and as frequently to be snuffed out by the vagaries of stellar and planetary mechanics. All life on this planet hangs from moment to moment by the same thread that - suddenly cut - can extinguish it as surely as any nascent life on Mars or Venus would have been if it existed in those planets' past.

If humankind cannot figure out how to manage what life we know to exist on this planet then all of it will follow the same fate. We would not assure the survival of life by our demise, we would seal its fate.

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

[ Parent ]
"That won't be pretty." (2.00 / 7)
Venus is beautiful, just not hospitable.

Earth is the best vacation place for advanced clowns. --Gary Busey

[ Parent ]
beauty is in the eye of the beholder (2.00 / 7)
venus looks great from here.  From on the surface... maybe not so much.  The earth will continue to look beautiful from space while the last hundred thousand of us are grunting and clicking and chasing each other about with empty AK-47s and plastic big gulp cups.

[ Parent ]
Bah. Humbug. ;~) (2.00 / 7)
I don't see that happening.

Rather than debate it at the moment (there will be time, oh yes there will :~), for now I bet you a favorite dinner that if we are both here in twenty years I will be able to demonstrably indicate the lack of progress towards that dystopian future.

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

[ Parent ]
Well, I hope at least we have banned plastic big gulp cups by then. :) (2.00 / 6)

Words have meaning. Our words will reflect what is in our souls.

[ Parent ]
They will if Michael Bloomberg has anything to say about it! :~} (2.00 / 6)

I am for the individual over government, government over big business and the environment over all. -- William O. Douglas

[ Parent ]
Not a big fan of the ban, (2.00 / 4)
of pretty well anything. Like the moderation exercise we hold here, my preference is for cognizant influence rather than force.

Both political camps resort to support for the ban hammer on different topics. From the left we hear mostly support for bans on things, from the right, bans on folks. In any event, from my perspective, resorting to bans marks failures of social structures.

Is an abortion a good thing? Is a 94-oz cup of sugar water? Abuse of drugs? Obsession with guns?

I would say no to all of the above, and see the application reason to reduce the occurrence of them as not only preferable but ultimately more effective.

This tendency to resort to reason is one of the things that defines America for me among its peers. It keeps me on the political fence, because I see the logic of it applied to issues both sides support and oppose.

To the Left: I agree that people are smart enough to choose what to do with their bodies. I disagree that they have to be forced to do the right thing for the environment.

To the Right: I agree that people are smart enough to choose what to do with their money, I disagree they have to be forced to do the right things with their bodies.

While the positions taken by the Right more often run contrary to my own, the intrinsic thread of individual responsibility and capacity that underlies their basic ideology is my strongest political and sociological belief. If they did not hold so many positions that run counter to their own most fundamental ideology I would probably register as a Republican.

While the positions taken by the Left more often align with my own, the intrinsic thread of societal enforcement that underlies their basic ideology is my political position of last resort. If the good intentions of so many positions they hold did not align so well with my own I would much less often vote Democrat.

Just as with moderation here on the Moose, I believe that reason has limits and force must be reserved as an option. However, again just as with moderation here on the Moose, I believe that reason must be the foremost tool for societal management and only abandoned with utmost hesitation.

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

[ Parent ]
...I have a friend... (2.00 / 3)
...who inherited his grandfather's "worthless" wheat farm land in North Dakota.  Well they found oil.  He now has two wells on the land that give him a nice $12,000 in income each month...

Ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant.  The rest of us must suffer the consequences.

Bet it's on the bright side over Prudhoe Bay as well--would like to see a shot (0.00 / 0)
showing that area sometime.

North Dakota, however, may be slowing activity in Alaska right now, because costs of resource extraction are so much higher in Alaska.

So, as an Alaskan, I'm grateful.

Folks in North Dakota, however, not sure what they think.


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