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Bright lights, black carbon

What happens in the Bakken apparently doesn’t stay in the Bakken

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Scientists looking to account for the source of black carbon in the Arctic believe they may have found their culprit in the flaring stacks of oil and gas fields in places like the Bakken of North Dakota and Canada’s Athabasca tar-sands fields.

The Bakken, an area that has seen rapid development of its shale gas deposits, had previously been identified as a source of black carbon in a paper* written by by Noaa scientists and published in September in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Some 40% of North American flaring takes place in the Bakken, where the amount of natural gas being pumped out of the ground exceeds producers’ capacity to process it, thus requiring that it be burned.

SEE RELATED: Clearing the air but losing the ice

It is this burning process that releases black carbon, also known as soot. Once aloft, black carbon eventually reaches the high latitudes over the Arctic. In the air, it absorbs solar energy, warming the air. Once it descends, it darkens ice and snow, which speeds the melting process.

In addition, black carbon is a health hazard.

The problem with identifying the Bakken as one of the sources of black carbon in the Arctic is that its emissions, about 1,400 tonnes annually, are just a small fraction of the total North American emissions, estimated to amount to 380,000 tonnes in 2000.

This would initially appear to free its flaring specifically of suspicion, but it does not free flaring entirely. Noting that just 10% of flaring takes place in North America, the Noaa study suggested that flaring in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere could account for more of the missing pollution sources.

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A second paper**, this one written by Nasa scientists and published this month in Atmospheric Environment, appears to confirm this. Their study looked at four oil and gas fields in the Northern Hemisphere, Bakken, Athabasca, the North Sea and western Siberia, which are all areas where flaring is prevalent.

The results from the North Sea proved inconclusive. And while previous estimates had suggested that flaring in Siberia might contribute as much as 30% of the unaccounted-for black carbon found at high latitudes, the study was unable to confirm that this was the case. The study may have been unable to account for all the Russian black carbon, the authors note, due the limited number of fields they looked at.

Both of these results may also have been influenced by their proximity to Europe and its emissions of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that also appears during flaring, and which the scientists were using as a tattle-tale signal of the presence of black carbon.

For the two other locations, the evidence provided a clearer link between flaring and the transport of black carbon to the Arctic. In both areas, nitrogen-oxide emissions have risen regularly since 2005, which the scientists took as an indicator that black carbon emissions have also risen since then.

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This suspicion was strengthened further by the results of models showing how the estimated amounts of black carbon produced by flaring would be spread. According to the study, the amount of black carbon that could be expected to be transported to high latitudes matched the measurements taken by ground stations and aircraft in the Arctic.

*Schwarz, Joshua P et al. Black Carbon Emissions from the Bakken Oil and Gas Development Region, Environmental Science & Technology Letters, September 2015

**Li, Can et al. Satellite observation of pollutant emissions from gas flaring activities near the Arctic, Atmospheric Environment, May 2016

Photo: Noaa