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Why Is There A Large Burning Flare At A Well Site?

Jim Hill
A well operated by Synergy Resources Corporation, flaring in the early morning, June 13, 2014. The well site is on County Road 26 on the south side of Union Reservoir, outside of Longmont, Colo.

As the oil and gas boom in Northern Colorado brings more development closer to the urban core, sights that are common on the plains or in rural development areas like North Dakota’s Bakken may come as a surprise.

For example, a large pillar of fire burning at an oil and gas well site.

In this case, the flames were shooting out of a pad located on the south side of Union Reservoir outside of Longmont and owned by Synergy Resources Corporation, based in Platteville. According to the company, what can be seen is called flaring, a normal part of operations for a newly constructed pad. It's also a process that is governed by rules from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission [.pdf].

When a well is drilled, natural gas liquids such as ethane, pentane, and propane are released as part of the oil gathering process. When a pad is preparing to start production, flaring occurs to burn off NGL’s until a separate company, called a midstream company, can cap the well to collect the gas being released.

In the Denver-Julesburg Basin, Synergy Vice President Jon Kruljac said there are two key players.

“DCP Midstream and Anadarko Kerr-McGee Gathering are the two largest players in midstream,” Kuljac said. “They tie into our systems and collect the NGL’s.”

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
A flaring well site on the south side of Union Reservoir, in Weld County, Colo. The mountains of the Front Range are just barely visible as day breaks, June 13, 2014.

Typically, flaring only occurs for a short time before capping occurs, usually for 48 hours said Kruljac. But sometimes, as in the case of the Synergy pad by Union Reservoir, flaring can happen for days.

“We would like to stop flaring as soon as possible, not just from an environmental standpoint, but from a financial standpoint as well,” Kruljac said.

Flaring essentially destroys the majority of so-called volatile organic compounds and other pollutants before they are released into the air, it also burns a product which Synergy and midstream companies can profit from.

While flaring is considered a normal part of operations for oil and gas companies, is there a risk that it can be significantly harming the environment?

William Allison, Director of the Air Pollution Control Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, said that companies are required to use flares that meet 95 percent “destruction efficiency” requirements, meaning that 95 percent of volatile organic compounds like methane are destroyed.

“95 percent is the floor, but we expect operators to achieve better than that particularly with the newer flares,” said Allison. “Most can meet that level and go beyond that level.”

Allison said new methane rules require that companies meet 98 percent destruction efficiency requirements — which new state-of-the-art flares can meet.

“From a beneficial use of resources and reduction of [air] pollution perspective the best thing is to capture as much of the gas as possible,” said Allison. “Where that’s not possible, or for other reasons, the next best thing is flaring, or a similar type of control device. The worst thing would be to have these things vented without control. Flares are common and cost-effective air pollution control device.”

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