The burning glow over North Dakota's oil patch is slowly dimming as companies work to capture and sell natural gas instead of flaring it.
Though the flares atop the oil fields have lessened in recent months, it's still tough to stomach for those in North Dakota who question rising heating bills in the light of the huge hissing flames that burn natural gas as waste.
"I've heard comments here and there that it's too bad all that gas is going to waste," said Greg Armitage, who runs the Hilltop Home of Comfort nursing home in Killdeer, a western North Dakota town of about 700 in the heart of the state's oil fields.
A year ago, almost one-third of natural gas that came to the surface in North Dakota went up in smoke as an unmarketable byproduct of oil production. The 26 billion cubic feet of natural gas that billowed flames and smoke from scores of oil wells was about twice the annual gas consumption of the state.
More than $350 million in infrastructure improvements are either planned or under way in North Dakota to capture natural gas and move it to market, said Justin Kringstad, director of the state Pipeline Authority.
"It's being captured for economic reasons as well as for the environment," Kringstad said. "There are several things pushing these investments and each is equally important."
State and industry officials say the amount of gas flared has decreased from 25 percent of total production to 11 percent in the past few months as the capacity has increased at processing plants in the state and as pipelines are being built.
Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said any level of wasted energy is unacceptable.
"It was absolutely horrible," Schafer said of the amount of natural gas flared in 2008. "Now it's just terribly horrible.
"I think it's pretty hard to justify wasting a fuel source," Schafer said. "We're still getting the pollution without the benefit of the energy."
Flaring natural gas creates carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming.
Jim Semerad, manager of permitting and compliance for the state Health Department, said the flare emissions in the state's oil patch are within acceptable air quality guidelines. Still, he said, "just because they meet air quality standards doesn't mean we're happy with the wasted fuel."
Beyond air quality standards, there are no laws to discourage flaring in North Dakota, he said.
"The waste issue is off our regulatory ability," Semerad said. "We can't mandate it."
The U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration says less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide.
"The goal is to get North Dakota down to the national average, or lower," Kringstad said. He's not sure when that might happen.
"The challenge is keeping up with new wells coming on line," Kringstad said.
The problem of unwanted natural gas comes from the success of the state's oil patch, which government scientists say is home to the largest continuous crude accumulation they've assessed. Improved horizontal drilling technology in the rich Bakken shale and Three Forks-Sanish formations has led to record crude production in the state, elevating it to the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the nation, leapfrogging from ninth since 2006.
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a Bismarck-based group that represents about 160 companies, said record oil production meant the same for natural gas.
"It was more than our plants could handle," Ness said.
The gas is only valuable if it can be moved to market, he said.
"We're seen infrastructure being put in place as rapidly as possible," Ness said. "Nobody _ not the least of which the operator _ wants to flare it."
A rush to develop the North Dakota's rich oil patch amid record prices resulted in billions of cubic feet of wasted natural gas that could have heated every home in the notoriously frigid state through at least two winters.
"Haste makes waste," said the Sierra Club's Schafer, one of less than a handful of professional environmentalists in North Dakota. "We just go crazy and we don't do it right. We could be protecting ourselves and we should be."
North Dakota crude also continues to lack the pipelines needed to move it to market, but it is hauled by truck or rail rather than wasted.
The state is on track to set record oil and gas production this year and next, industry and state officials say.
Short of a crash in oil prices, an inordinate amount of gas flaring appears to be a reality in North Dakota until infrastructure can keep pace with oil production.
Said Kringstad: "As long as rigs stay in North Dakota, we're always going to be chasing that goal of reduced flaring."