When I visited North Dakota recently, activists were starting to raise a stir over safety flaring–the practice of burning dangerous natural gas that comes out of the ground during oil drilling. Having studied the history of the oil industry extensively, I have a great appreciation for safety flaring; before it existed, many oil workers died from natural gas explosions.
But instead of being grateful for this practice, a group of North Dakotans has decided to sue the oil companies that have brought their state unprecedented prosperity. Why? Because, they claim, that natural gas shouldn’t be flared–it should be captured and sold.
The lawsuits against 10 oil companies in the Bakken oilfields seek class-action status to represent other western North Dakota mineral rights owners. The lawsuits argue the mineral owners have lost millions of dollars in royalties because oil drilling companies burn off large amounts of gas instead of capturing and selling it.
True, thanks to the ingenuity of the oil industry, it’s often possible to capture and sell natural gas. Whether and when that can happen depends on a) the existence of gas pipelines and b) adequate demand for natural gas. Right now in much of North Dakota, neither of these exist. Which means that the natural gas is not a resource–it’s worthless. Actually, without safety flaring, it’s dangerous. And without the ingenuity of the oil industry, the rock that is now flowing with billions of dollars of life-giving oil would be worthless, as well.
The resource-creators of the oil industry deserve to be celebrated, not sued, for safely producing oil. If anyone thinks they should be selling their natural gas instead of flaring it, there is one simple solution: offer to buy it.