Taking the Flare Out of US Energy Production?

The Dakotas continue to be in the news for something other than Al Swearengen’s vocabulary, as the hydraulic fracturing boom continues the dramatic expansion of natural gas and oil production.   In fact, the natural gas production has driven domestic prices so low that almost a third of all natural gas is simply burned off, called “flaring,” as the marginal cost of capturing and sending it to market is evidently higher than the market price.  Yes, you read that correctly, almost a third of all natural gas production is literally set on fire rather than captured and sold to consumers. Consequently, the bright lights of North Dakota can now be seen from space.

One of the reasons natural gas production is so abundant is that it is a co-product with the far more valuable shale oil down there, and the Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates that the US will be the leading oil producer in the world by 2020, producing more than any single country in OPEC. That is hard to believe.

But back to the gas — doesn’t that seem rather silly, all that flaring?  Do economists really believe that this is the “efficient” use of a scarce resource.

Well, no, we don’t.

And one of the main reasons is that the “external” cost of the carbon dioxide remains unpriced.  Economist Ed Dolan discusses the basic economics of flaring and the potential effects of a carbon tax.  

Of course, my guess is that given the discrepancy between U.S. and world natural gas prices (or here), we should be seeing the opening up of more robust export markets some time in the future.  Or, one would expect that we would.

Another possibility is a move to natural gas in the transport sector.

Either way, the brown revolution is upon us.