The towering flares that turn night into day in the Marcellus Shale gaslands are becoming an increasingly rare sight.
Natural gas producers are turning to new techniques to capture the gas emitted during the well-completion process. In the past, a well's initial production was typically vented or burned off to allow impurities to clear before the well was tied into a pipeline.
Now, more operators are employing reduced-emission completions - a "green completion" - a process in which impurities such as sand, drilling debris, and fluids from hydraulic fracturing are filtered out and the gas is sold, not wasted.
The five gas wells that EQT Corp. completed in October at this remote site in Washington Township, Pa., are typical. Compared to a gas flare, which roars like a jet engine and licks the sky with flame like a giant welder's torch, green completion is dull and quiet.
EQT is not the only drilling company that has embraced green completions. The equipment for separating the gas from the "flowback" has been perfected in the past decade, and in the next three years, using it will become standard practice across the nation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved new rules this year requiring green completions nationwide by 2015, except for exploratory wells unconnected to pipelines. As of Oct. 15, drillers can no longer vent the gas into the atmosphere without burning.
The EPA says green completions will save drillers up to $19 million a year by capturing natural gas that would be wasted.
The advent of green completions is an example of the rapid development of shale-gas technology, which has revived a flagging domestic energy sector in just a few years.
"What was true yesterday is no longer true today," said Andrew Place, director of public policy research at EQT, based in Pittsburgh. "Systems are evolving."
Much of the new technology has been driven to address fears about drilling, including hydraulic fracturing, the extraction technique that has turned impermeable shale into a bonanza of oil and gas.
"Public concerns have pushed the engineers to come up with solutions," Place said.
Activists and regulators are paying more attention to air emissions from shale-gas development, including toxins emitted during drilling and production. Much of the focus has been on releases of methane, the main component of natural gas as well as a potent greenhouse gas, though there is substantial disagreement over studies attempting to measure the methane leaks.
In devising the new rules, the EPA said it was acting under its Clean Air Act mandate to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds and pollutants such as benzene, which can cause cancer. The agency said the new rules were expected to eliminate 95 percent of the smog-forming volatile organic compounds emitted from more than 13,000 new gas wells each year.
The EPA said a "co-benefit" of green completions was a reduction in methane emissions by 1 million to 1.7 million tons a year.
The government delayed full implementation of the rule until 2015 to allow the industry to build enough equipment to handle the workload.
The American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups are challenging the new rules in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. So are environmental groups.
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