Cities popping up in the middle of nowhere. Blackened landscapes of industrial runoff, including lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, like something from the moons of Saturn. Vast transportation systems snaking over previously empty hills and ranches, pulling not human passengers but tankers. This is the new geography of fracking.
Think, for example, of the brand new "city" now burning in the darkness of the Great Plains, seen in satellite images of the Dakotas.
If you "run your eye up that line of lights at the center of the country, look over to the upper left," NPR wrote last year, referring to the image, above: "There's a patch that looks like a big city—but there is no big city in that part of North Dakota. There's mostly grass. So what are those lights doing there? What is that?"
So, we're told, "here is the same map again; this time, the patch is marked with a circle. It turns out, yes, that's not a city. And those lights weren't there six years ago."
The lights—and the structures they indicate—are there as part of the immense extraction operations of fracking, breaking open the landscape from within and releasing huge hydrocarbon resources that were previously inaccessible by industrial means. Because of the regions where it occurs—in the middle of nowhere, often on farmland—fracking has resulted in whole new forms of settlement, with so-called "man camps" popping up like 21st-century Levittowns in row after row of portable trailers.
In a new book called The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, energy reporter Russell Gold tells the story of how fracking, a "once-obscure oil-field technique," has utterly transformed not only the American landscape but the entire national economy. Fracking, he writes, "requires turning whole counties into industrial zones, complete with fleets of trucks, air quality concerns, a disruption of nature, and fear that water aquifers will be poisoned."
However, what this buys is a complete reorganization of the nation's energy economy, and the promise of independence from imported fuels—in fact, the U.S. might very well become the world's largest oil producer before the end of this decade.
Gold's book is an early must-read for 2014: it is both a thorough and fascinating examination of the fracking economy and the technological innovations that have made these new riches accessible (including the often catastrophic damage done in the process of obtaining them).
He writes, for example, of early fracking attempts that, incredibly, used underground nuclear weapons in places like Colorado and Wyoming to (unsuccessfully) release subterranean hydrocarbons. Nuclear fracking was not only a failure, it was extraordinary overkill: the ultimate, successful technique still used today relies primarily on highly pressurized water—more than 200 times the pressure found in a car tire, Gold explains—mixed with proprietary blends of undisclosed chemicals.