NAGEEZI, N.M. — Along U.S. Highway 550 near Nageezi, a giant flame shot into the air during an afternoon in May. A few miles down the road, another flame shot above a hill.

The flames that burn night and day are a sign of increased oil and gas drilling in San Juan County that many hope will become a boom that boosts a sagging local economy.

"Flaring" is practiced by natural gas drilling companies, and it makes natural gas ready for transportation. The process reduces the amount of nitrogen to allow for transportation of natural gas in a pipeline.

"We try to minimize flaring whenever possible," said Doug Houck, spokesman for Enacana.

An oil drill is seen in operation, Thursday, May 22, 2014, near Nageezi.
An oil drill is seen in operation, Thursday, May 22, 2014, near Nageezi. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

Since the fracking process uses nitrogen to extract oil and gas, nitrogen is mixed in with the fluids in the initial flowback from the freshly drilled well. Because pipelines used to transport natural gas only allow for natural gas with minimal nitrogen content, companies usually use flaring as a method to lessen the nitrogen to natural gas ratio. The well eventually produces mostly oil and gas and flaring is no longer needed.

The process can take up to 30 days, Houck said.

Presenters at the Four Corners Oil and Gas Conference, said the initial mix can contain as much as 40 percent nitrogen.

"Flaring is a necessary part of our business," said Susan Alvillar, spokesperson for WPX Energy.

Both Houck and Alvillar said flaring could be reduced if "gathering" lines, pipelines designed to transport nitrogen-rich natural gas, were in place.

Alvillar said her company is starting to build pipelines in areas in the San Juan Basin that are producing.

Houch said natural gas pipelines have specifications that call for reducing the nitrogen content and when Encana flares, they are burning the methane as the nitrogen gas is emitted into the air.

As the Bureau of Land Management takes comments on proposed policies for oil drilling on BLM lands in the San Juan Basin, one of the areas of concern for new wells is flaring.

Mike Eisenfeld, a San Juan Citizen's Alliance staff organizer, said he hopes that the Bureau of Land Management will address flaring in their Resource Management Plan Amendments.

"The BLM and feds don't have proactive policies to deal with this aspect of oil drilling," he said.

The BLM plans to update the document to address issues related to horizontal drilling and newer oil and natural gas drilling and production practices, including flaring.

In addition, he wants to know more about the emissions that flaring is producing.

Horses are seen standing, May 22, 2014, near an storage facility near Nageezi.
Horses are seen standing, May 22, 2014, near an storage facility near Nageezi. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

Another aspect of flaring is the light produced which could effect Chaco Culture National Park.

"The big thing is, we would like to see Chaco and the preservation of the park considered ... with any development plans the BLM should come up with," said Tom Pittenger, spokesman for the Park Rangers for Our Parks organization based in Dolores, Colo.

He said the plan needs to include measures that protect the air quality of the area since the park has a nighttime observatory.

Burning methane is also wasteful Eisenfeld said.

"There is waste of natural gas," he said.

Houck said methane is mostly what is being burnt off during the flaring process, and adds that methane would be more harmful if the gas was vented straight into the air.

"This is exactly the kind of stuff we want addressed," Eisenfeld said.

Houck said his company is constantly looking for new methods to reduced flaring.

Even though a tall flame exists — WPX burns for about 20 days — Avlillar said the flaring is a tradeoff for using less water.

A well can use up to 5 million gallons of water. The water can be recycled, but because of the lack of water in the San Juan Basin, companies that frack use water mixed with nitrogen to create the necessary pressure to extract oil and gas from the rock formation.

"We use nitrogen to minimize the use of water," she said.

Although water conservation is important, Eisenfeld said the plan amendments should address all elements of the process and their impacts.

"It just seems like a very wasteful process," he said.

Houck said his company loses money when they flare, but couldn't specifically say how much natural gas is being lost in flaring.

He added that Encana will work within guidelines the BLM may release, but the will continue to explore new methods to separate nitrogen from natural gas because methane can be sold.

"It's in our best interest not to flare," he said.

Erny Zah is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4638 and ezah@daily-times.com. Follow him @ernyzah on Twitter.