The Juice

Fuel Intentions

American industry wastes insane amounts of gas by burning it off. It doesn’t have to.

Williston, North Dakota
Natural gas flares are seen at an oil pump site outside of Williston, North Dakota, on March 11, 2013.

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

What if we just stopped wasting, pissing away, burning, and flushing precious resources? Wouldn’t that contribute significantly to sustainability? The early returns from California’s belated response to its water crisis show that great leaps in conservation are possible with comparatively little upfront investment—and without killing the economy or immiserating residents unduly. In July, city-dwelling Californians used 31 percent less water than they did in July 2013, exceeding the 25 percent reduction target the state had set.

Now what if we were to adapt the same mentality toward another domestic resource?

While not quite as cheap and plentiful as water, gas is sufficiently cheap and plentiful that American industry squanders it on a regular basis. Various forms of gas are byproducts of a host of industrial processes: Oil production spurs the creation of natural gas; decomposing garbage in landfills produces methane; wastewater treatment plants produce biogas. And we routinely waste it.

With some frequency, this gas is flared off—burnt, essentially. That’s insane for environmental reasons—you get all the downsides of burning fossil fuels with none of the upsides, like creating energy to generate electricity, heat buildings, or move vehicles. But it’s not always insane for economic reasons. Natural gas is very cheap. And in the absence of a carbon tax or emissions tax, it doesn’t always make sense for oil field operators to install equipment that collects, gathers, stores, and moves gas. That’s especially true in the oil fields of North Dakota. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the amount of natural gas vented and flared in the U.S. nearly tripled over the past decade, from 98.1 billion cubic feet in 2003 to 260.4 billion cubic feet in 2013. In 2013, North Dakota accounted for 45 percent of the nation’s natural gas venting and flaring. Generally speaking, in recent years about one-third of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is simply wasted.

Wastewater plants and landfills also produce gas as a byproduct of their core activity. And, as is the case in oil fields, the path of least resistance has been to flare it off. That’s bad, because, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfill gas generally “consists of about 50 percent methane (the primary component of natural gas), about 50 percent carbon dioxide, and a small amount of non-methane organic compounds (known as NMOCs).” And as the New York Times recently noted, methane “is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat, although it persists in the atmosphere for far less time than carbon dioxide does.”

Luckily people are increasingly realizing that burning the gas is dumb and wasteful. (North Dakota, for example, is trying to reduce the percentage of natural gas it wastes to about 10 percent by 2020.) With a little investment they can start producing a home-brewed transportation fuel that is cleaner—and cheaper—than gasoline or diesel.

NGT News, which covers the slow-motion development of natural-gas fueling infrastructure and vehicles in great detail, this week reported on a city that stopped flaring unnecessarily. Until recently, Grand Junction, Colorado’s Persigo Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is just off I-70 and a stone’s throw from the Colorado River, was flaring off about 100,000 cubic feet of biogas every day. “The gas, a natural byproduct of the plant’s digester system that broke down solid waste, was 64% methane,” NGT News reports. While some of the gas was harnessed to heat the building, “the rest (the Btu equivalent to 142,000 gallons of gasoline annually) was literally going up in smoke.” 

Like many cities, Grand Junction had also been purchasing a fleet of a few dozen vehicles—garbage trucks, buses, utility vans—that run on compressed natural gas and had opened its own CNG filling station to keep them running. And one day, the city woke up and realized that is was burning off fuel that it could just as easily put into the tanks of its trucks.

The town hired BioCNG, a company in Wisconsin that has built several projects at landfills and wastewater plants that turn previously wasted gas into transportation fuel, to install the equipment necessary to capture and process the biogas. Then it built a pipeline to get the gas from the plant to its refueling station. Since April, NGT News reports, “instead of burning 100,000 cubic feet of gas every day, it now produces 400 to 500 gallons of CNG, enough to power Grand Junction’s entire fleet.” By using the unwanted gas as fuel, the town will also slash its annual carbon dioxide emissions by 3 million pounds.

Of course, there’s an upfront cost associated with reducing wasteful flaring. But Dan Tonello, the wastewater service manager for Grand Junction, told NGT News, “Now that we’re up and running, we’re looking at a seven-year payback.” That’s pretty good.

This is a very small-scale example. But it highlights an important truth about the energy economy. To fight climate change, reduce emissions, and shift to a lower-carbon economy, we need new standards, regulations, and technological breakthroughs. And, yes, a carbon tax and other policies would be helpful. And because few of these seem to be forthcoming imminently, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the prospect for change. Our systems, in many ways, remain dumb.

And yet they’re also getting much smarter—even in the absence of coordinated action. Whether the resource in question is water in California, or biogas in Colorado, or manure in farms in Pennsylvania, every day we see evidence that using existing technology that offers a favorable financial return can actually help us make significantly better and smarter use of scarce resources. We’re living in a world in which one person’s trash is another man’s fuel.