American oil fields such as the Bakken are comparatively under-regulated on the environment. Why then do the Canadian oil sands get labeled as “dirty?”
THE “DIRTIEST” OIL IN NORTH
America doesn’t come from Alberta but from the Placerita oil field in the heart of Los Angeles County, California. It generates about twice the levels of upstream emissions per barrel as Alberta’s oil sands and is just one of more than a dozen fields in the state that crank out higher per-barrel volumes of greenhouse gases. And yet even though it’s located just a short drive from Hollywood, you won’t see any celebrities carrying protest placards along the adjacent Sierra Highway or on the canyon trails that border the field.
THAT MAY BE DUE IN PART TO THE
Placerita’s size. At just 30 million barrels in reserve, according to official estimates, the Placerita field is dwarfed by Alberta’s massive oil sands resource. But when considered alongside all the other U.S. oil fields that contribute more pollution perbarrel than Canadian oil blends, it raises the question of why we don’t know more about the emissions profiles of some of the most substantial – and, potentially, the most substantially dirty – fields in the U.S.
Take, for instance, the Bakken. While today Alberta is toughening up its environmental regulations in the oil sands – already one of the most highly monitored hydrocarbon deposits in the world – North Dakota is actually going the other way on regulatory. In October, the state walked back a program meant to prevent oil companies from wastefully flaring off natural gas at the wellhead. They decided instead to give credits to those companies that meet the goals – credits that can be cashed in to offset the times when they don’t – and ignore those companies that fall short.
It was the second time in a month that state regulators voted to relax rules aimed at curbing the amount of byproduct gas that Bakken oil companies have to flare off because of a lack of local pipelines and storage. In September, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, a three-member regulatory panel led by state governor Jack Dalrymple, extended by 10 months a deadline for oil companies to reduce flaring, now set for November 2016. Under the new target, producers will be called on to limit flaring to 15 per cent of all produced gas per well, as opposed to the previous target of 22 per cent. That’s a vast improvement over the state’s productionto-flaring ratio of just four years ago, when more than one-third of all natural gas was burned at the wellhead. Still,