- Associated Press - Sunday, October 19, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - Methane emissions will likely be the next big environmental issue to face North Dakota’s booming oil industry according to a top official at the state’s Department of Health.

Dave Glatt, chief of the Department of Health’s environmental health section, said federal regulations could be on the horizon due to the increased attention to emissions of the greenhouse gas from the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups.

“It’s probably prudent to take a look at this and see what we can do voluntarily,” Glatt said.

The EPA says methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted from the U.S. and that the majority of those emissions come from natural gas and petroleum systems.

In February, Colorado became the first state to put methane emission regulations in place on the oil and gas industry.

While state regulations on methane emissions in North Dakota are unlikely, Glatt said, cutting emissions from the oil field is relatively easy and could save producers from trouble down the road.

“Just paying some attention to detail, make sure valves and hatches are closed and that combustors on flares are operating will reduce a lot of that on the operational end of it,” he said.

Glatt said the North Dakota Department of Health is in the process of acquiring infrared cameras, which can detect methane leaks. He said the department will begin monitoring oil sites for leaks, but this will be done largely in an “educational” role to help companies identify problems.

But while methane is an issue, Glatt said it is difficult to quantify.

“I think everybody knows leaks are occurring,” he said. “How big of a problem it is, I don’t think anybody really knows.”

In 2012 and again this spring, the environmental group Clean Air Task Force partnered with a Purdue University professor and others to record methane emissions from natural gas flares using low-flying planes.

Natural gas is a valuable byproduct of oil production. But without infrastructure in place to capture it, it is often burned off. Natural gas is primarily made up of methane.

“What research has shown is that when operating correctly, CO2 is the problem, not methane,” said David McCabe, senior atmospheric scientist with the Clean Air Task Force. But, he said, when flares are not operating properly, methane can be released into the atmosphere.

In the 2012 study of ten North Dakota wells, flaring was identified as useful in destroying methane in natural gas. But the flights also found methane plumes in the oil field that were not correlated to lit flames that “likely correspond to intentional vents or unintentional leaks from oil or natural gas facilities.”

McCabe said results from this year’s tests in North Dakota are yet to be released.

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