Satellite Images Reveal How the U.S. Oil Boom Is Creating New Cities

Illustration for article titled Satellite Images Reveal How the U.S. Oil Boom Is Creating New Cities

This image from NASA reveals a massive cluster of lights in what was — until recently — desolate prairie. This is the Bakken Shale, an oil-rich rock formation stretching across parts of North Dakota, Montana and Canada. The lights are from the illuminated derricks, local boomtowns and gas flares of the oil fields.


As this close-up image shows (below), the illuminated oil fields are more diffuse than a city like Minneapolis or Denver, but seen from space they're just as bright.

Illustration for article titled Satellite Images Reveal How the U.S. Oil Boom Is Creating New Cities

One of the biggest oil discoveries in recent history, the Bakken Shale has fueled a domestic oil boom. In the spring of 2014, North Dakota pumped out more than a million barrels of oil per day, more than any other U.S. state besides Texas. Shale exploration has transformed the natural landscape and led to the emergence of oil boomtowns where rents sometimes exceed those in Manhattan.

But those brightly lit gas flares also come with a cost to the environment. As Climate Central reports:

The natural gas, mostly methane produced with the crude oil extracted from the Bakken, has to be flared because there are few pipelines or infrastructure there that can bring that natural gas to market.

Energy companies flare as much as a third of the excess gas they produce. Flaring in North Dakota produced 4.5 million metric tons of CO2 in 2012 alone, roughly the equivalent of adding 1 million new cars to U.S. highways

New regulations are aiming to change that, possibly reducing the flaring to 10 percent of all natural gas produced by 2020, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report released Monday.

In 2013, more than 35 percent of the excess natural gas produced with Bakken crude oil was flared into the atmosphere. North Dakota's new emissions reduction targets have already reduced flared natural gas to 26 percent, and the goal is to reduce it to 15 percent by the end of the decade, according to the EIA.

Cutting back on flaring is a huge challenge…. Part of the reason is that the Bakken produces very little natural gas compared to other crude oil fields in the U.S. — so little that it isn't profitable for energy companies to invest in pipelines that would bring that gas to processing plants and then to market, especially during a time of low natural gas prices, EIA industrial economist Mike Ford said.

Despite low natural gas prices, several new pipelines and natural gas processing plants are expected to begin operating soon to help reduce the amount of natural gas that has to be flared. The amount of natural gas that can be processed from North Dakota's oil fields is expected to more than double by 2017, according to the EIA.

That will still leave about 10 percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota flaring into the atmosphere, showing that the region will have to make a lot of progress if it wants to dim the lights over the Bakken Shale oil fields.


Zippy Zanderhoff

This is why I can't hear the phrase "clean natural gas" and keep a straight face at the same time.