Debate Over Flaring Fires Up

NATRIUM – As President Barack Obama aims to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, biology professor Ben Stout wishes someone would pay more attention to methane emissions from natural gas flaring.

One of the most visible flares is the one at the $500 million Dominion Resources processing plant in Natrium, which is in the midst of beginning its full operations. However, flaring is now taking place at multiple natural gas well sites throughout the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, in addition to the flaring at other processing plants.

“When you look at the flaring from all of the wells and from all of these plants, this is going to have the same cumulative effect as if someone opened a new coal-fired power plant,” said Stout, a Wheeling Jesuit University faculty member.

According to the National Geophysical Data Center, flaring is a widely used practice for the disposal of natural gas in areas where there is no infrastructure to make use of the gas. These officials believe the practice unloads unnecessary amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Stout said he believes the dry methane – as well as the wet propane, butane, ethane and pentane – being flared can be 20 times more harmful to the environment than the carbon dioxide emitted from coal-fired power plants.

“When you are not talking about just methane, but propane and butane, you are getting into some serious stuff,” Stout said.

Regarding the Dominion flaring at Natrium, company spokesman Dan Donovan said officials are working with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality to limit flaring emissions.

“The Natrium facility is in the start-up mode. The flare was designed to burn cleanly when needed. We are working on solutions so that it will work as designed,” Donovan said. “During start-up, the flare will be used occasionally. Once the plant is fully operational, it will seldom be used.”

DEP spokesman Thomas Aluise confirmed Dominion is trying to resolve the flaring problem, noting the company took the initiative to contact regulators about how to resolve the issue.

“The DAQ has been conducting inspections on a regular basis to determine whether any violations are occurring – and continues to evaluate whether enforcement action will be taken,” Aluise said.

At the Natrium plant, once the wet Marcellus and Utica shale gas travels to the plant, the ethane, butane, propane and other natural gas liquids will be separated from the dry methane gas so all the products can be marketed individually. The plant is now part of the $1.5 billion processing and transportation venture between Dominion and Caiman Energy known as Blue Racer Midstream.

Upon separation from the gas stream, the propane and butane will be kept in tanks on the Dominion site to be marketed. However, this cannot be done with ethane because of the product’s volatility.