Gas, Fire and Illusion

April 14, 2016 Posted by: Mark Kaufman

Flaring around cavernGas, Fire and Illusion

At night, it looks like a city has sprung up around the Caverns

At night, the view from atop Carlsbad Caverns National Park is remarkable - hundreds of lights and torches glow amidst the dark. In appearance, it looks like a city has sprung up around Caverns.

But there is no civilization here.

Rather, the night lets us see the vivid orange of burning gas as it emerges from thousands of feet beneath the ground. When the sun rises, the illusion fades, and from the heights of the visitor center one can spy an infinite spread of (seemingly) barren desert.

These wide plains, known as the Delaware Basin, were once home to a shallow sea, back when present day New Mexico occupied the western edge of Earth's great supercontinent, Pangea. Today, this empty basin is known for the large oil deposits that lie deep beneath its desert scrub.

Great leaps in drilling technology have made oil extraction here an attractive and profitable endeavor. Where once drilling could only be achieved vertically, hydraulic fracking allows companies to move horizontally through rich oil deposits;with the immense power of highly pressurized water, subterranean rock is fractured apart to release a bounty of oil.

Many wells are recent additions to the land, having been drilled in the last five years. Unfortunately, new wells typically lack the infrastructure to capture and transport the gases that naturally come up with the oil. Until such infrastructure can be laid, the solution is to burn off the gas, rather than let toxic fumes settle upon the land.

“Sour gas” is of particular concern, as it contains hydrogen sulfide, which is poisonous, corrosive, flammable, and explosive – hence the need to burn it into less toxic compounds. Even useful gas, however, like methane, is flared when there is no capacity to trap it. Hence, the oil is reaped and the gas is wasted.

The luminosity created by gas flaring can be profound – the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota are visible from space. In fact, the Bakken flaring is so extreme that its radiance is comparable to that of sprawling Minneapolis. It is little surprise, then, that the nighttime plains around Carlsbad Caverns look like a civilization – the fire is bright and dots the landscape.

A local industry professional says that “Fracking will be the name of the game here for some time.” And it is a hugely productive game - these wells produce ten times the amount of oil as antiquated drilling systems.

The people most educated about fossil fuels are in consensus about the state of fuel availability. This year, the Chief Economist of global oil giant British Petroleum (BP) stated that “it is increasingly unlikely that the world’s reserves of oil will ever be exhausted.” And the CEO of the Planetary Society, Bill Nye, truly believes that “We’ll never run out of fossil fuels.”

So then, the flaring light in southeastern New Mexico should be an expected part of the night, if not forever, for quite some time.

(Interested in reducing your fossil fuel consumption? The EPA provides some information:

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Last updated: April 15, 2016

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