What the shale oil craze looks like from space, and why it matters Add to ...


Shale boom at night
To get a true sense of the boom in shale oil production, take a look today at a stunning image from NASA.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has released a nighttime image of drilling, notably in North Dakota’s Bakken shale region, captured Nov. 12 by satellite with what’s known as the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, which, the agency says, gathers visible and infrared imagery, along with radiometric measurements of the earth being scanned.



“Northwestern North Dakota is one of the least-densely populated parts of the United States,” NASA says.

“Cities and people are scarce, but satellite imagery shows the area has been aglow at night in recent years,” it adds on its website.

“The reason: the area is home to the Bakken shale formation, a site where gas and oil production are booming … Most of the bright specks are lights associated with drilling equipment and temporary housing near drilling sites, though a few are evidence of gas flaring.”

(For the NASA imagery, see the accompanying infographic or click here.)

Shale development has been booming, and remaking America’s energy needs in the process.

Along with that, though, are huge environmental fears, including concerns over flaring the gas that's the byproduct of oil development.

According to The Financial Times, which reports on the NASA images, the U.S. producers behind the boom are flaring, or simply burning off, enough excess gas to provide power to all of the residences in Washington and Chicago.

Flaring in North Dakota, the news organization says, climbed some 50 per cent last year. This is not restricted to that state, however.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, production of natural gas has more than doubled in North Dakota since 2005, primarily because of the Bakken formation.

Indeed, average production surged to more than 485 million cubic feet a day by September of 20122 from the 160 million averaged in 2005.

“However, due to insufficient natural gas pipeline capacity and processing facilities in the Bakken shale region, over 35 per cent of North Dakota's natural gas production so far in 2011 has been flared or otherwise not marketed,” the IEA says on its website.

“(It is generally better to flare natural gas than to vent it into the atmosphere because natural gas – methane - is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide),” it adds.

Still, as The Financial Times notes, there are widespread concerns over flaring, not only because it wastes natural gas but also related to greenhouse gas and pollution.

“The percentage of flared gas in North Dakota is considerably higher than the national average; in 2009, less than 1 per cent of natural gas produced in the United States was vented or flared,” the IEA says.