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Our look at

Flaring a Gas Well

After a Marcellus Shale gas well was drilled and hydraulically fractured during the first decade of Marcellus Shale gas production, open flaring was widely used. Gas well pads were considered "minor sources" of air pollution so there was very little air quality regulation. In most instances, gas well pads are still exempt from air pollution regulations used when permitting larger "major source" midstream and downstream oil and gas facilities. Note: Laws can change, so it is necessary to check for the latest air regulations.

Midstream gas processing and compression facilities are permitted individually instead of cumulatively (aggregated) which is often referred to as "egg-slicer" air permitting since it does not look at the "big picture" of the overall cumulative emissions in an area. The vicinity surrounding the gas plant near Houston, Pa is one such example:


Even though open flaring has been permitted to varying degrees, companies can use 'green completions' to eliminate flaring (more below). In most cases, this creates additional profits for the production company, but usually require a gas gathering pipeline to the well pad to be in place first.


A large number of pollutants are released into the air during the flaring process, making it an undesirable practice. Included in these airborne pollutants are the chemicals used to frac the well, as well as any of 5-dozen other pollutants including the following: acetalhyde, acrolein, benzene, ethyl benzene, formaldehyde, hexane, naphthalene, propylene, toluene, and xylenes.

Drilling companies can use "green completions" to improve air quality and provide themselves and their shareholders with extra revenue. These are mentioned in a January 2009 report by Dr. Armendariz of SMU which can be found here:

"Green Completions" or
"The Green Flowback Process"

"Some recent reports of the effectiveness of green completions in the U.S. are available, including one by the U.S. EPA which estimated 70% capture of formerly released gases with green completions. If green completion procedures can capture 61% to 98% of the gases formerly released during well completions, the process would be a more environmentally friendly alternative to flaring of the gases, since flaring destroys a valuable commodity and prevents its beneficial use. Green completions would also certainly be more beneficial than venting of the gases, since this can release very large quantities of methane and VOCs to the atmosphere. Another factor in favor of capturing instead of flaring is that flaring can produce carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and particulate matter (soot) emissions."

Full Report (PDF)


Below: Four flares at Range Resources' Goettel site in Washington County, Pa
4 flares at a Marcellus Shale site



"More than 250 toxins have been identified as being produced and released during flaring, including benzene, naphthalene, styrene, toluene and xylene. Incomplete combustion during flaring, which can be identified by visible black smoke from a flare stack, yields hazardous pollutants. Health effects associated with these chemicals are wide ranging and can be severe, especially for those living near flare sites. Exposure to benzene is a well known cause of leukemia. Naphthalene can damage the membrane of red blood cells.

gas well flare reflected in a pond at night

Styrene is a skin and eye irritant. Toluene can affect the nervous system. Xylene can affect the central nervous system and stunt human development. Other known effects of exposure to these toxins include renal failure, cardiovascular failure, emphysema, bronchitis, endocrine and immune dysfunction, reproductive disorders, and autoimmune diseases. Animals (livestock, wildlife and pets), crops and vegetation are affected by the chemicals produced by flaring as well as people. Flaring can cause soil acidification, leading to depleted nutrients, lost fertility and reduced capacity for agricultural production."

Western Organization of Resource Councils

Full Report (PDF - 4.38MB offsite)


Gas well flares
This gas flare caught a plastic impoundment liner on fire at the Best Unit
The air hangs heavy with a thick, bowel-like putrid musk odor
Gas flare and wastewater tanker
Gas flare near Avella, Pennsylvania
Big gas flare in Chartiers Twp, Washington County, Pa
How to toast marshmallows from your
front porch in Hickory Pennsylvania
Triple flares at gas well site
Early August 2011
Triple flares at the Ward Unit in Canton Twp, Pa.
Marcellus shale flare
December 2011
Smoky flare at the Eleanor West Unit in SW Pennsylvania
Gas processing facility flares
Lowry Compressor Station flare next to Cross Creek Park:


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