Thursday, January 24, 2013

A fracking glow!

Image above: An unusual glow in North Dakota. Not an UFO but fracking consequences.

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A picture tells a thousand geogstories

“…if you look at the centre, where the Eastern lights give way to the empty Western plains, there's a mysterious clump of light there that makes me wonder.”

A recent satellite image of the United States highlighted the power of remote sensing to expose layers of a geographical story for the geography classroom. Such a story would be a great basis for a case study (or a place based exemplar as the new expression is being popularised in the UK) with physical and human perspectives. The satellite image above of the US shows a significant glow in North Dakota. The interesting thing is that this area is a lowly populated area of the US with no big cities. As it turns out, this glow is fields of gas flares from the new oil fields in North Dakota made possible by the controversial process of fracking. As one begins to explore what all this means, layers of the geogstory are exposed. I do not intend this posting to be a comprehensive expose of fracking and US oil generation, rather a geographical examination of the glow, only able to be seen through remote sensing technology.

The remote sensing story
In the Suomi NPP Satellite/NASA Earth Observatory satellite photo of the Earth below, you can clearly see the Dakota fields blazing in the grasslands as North America rolls by. The glow in North Dakota, on some nights, is almost as bright as the aurora borealis. 

The change story
Six years ago, the region in North Dakota was close to empty. The few ranchers who lived there produced wheat, alfalfa, oats and corn. The U.S. Geological Survey knew there were oil deposits underground, but deep down, 2 miles below the surface. It wasn't till the 21st Century that the industry developed a way to pull that oil to the surface at a cost that made it practical. Fracking means pumping water and chemicals down pipes, fracturing the rock, releasing the oil. The technology is hugely controversial.

The Environment story
When oil comes to the surface, it often brings natural gas with it, and according to North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources, 29 percent of the natural gas now extracted in North Dakota is flared off. Gas isn't as profitable as oil, and the energy companies don't always build the pipes or systems to carry it away. For a year (with extensions), North Dakota allows drillers to burn gas, just let it flare. There are now so many gas wells burning fires in the North Dakota night, the fracking fields can be seen from deep space. What is so sad about that is that it probably used to be one of the best places in the world to look up and see the stars. There seems to be no end in sight to this energy "boom" mentality.

The geomorphological resource story
The Bakkenshale oil field is part of a huge formation covering approximately 200,000 square miles.  It covers the northwest corner of North Dakota, the northeast corner of Montana and a significant chunk of Saskatchewan, Canada, as the image beneath indicates.  
"In 1995, the U.S. Geological Survey surveyed the Bakken area in which they found roughly 151 million barrels of recoverable oil.  Since then, drilling technology has improved causing reserve estimates to spike up between 6-24 billion barrels of recoverable oil."  - 
So what is fracking? Contrary to what most people think, oil is not found in vast pools beneath the surface; it’s found in solid rock formations. In order for rock to yield economically produceable oil, it must have two qualities: porosity and permeability. Shale is one of the most common sedimentary rocks. Sometimes it contains an abundance of oil, but it’s not permeable, meaning oil and natural gas cannot easily flow through the rock for extraction. To extract oil and natural gas from shale, a well is drilled into a shale formation. Rather than drilling straight down, the well kicks off laterally. A high pressure pump is then used to break the rock (this is where ‘fracking’ gets its name, to hydraulically fracture the rocks is colloquially, ‘fracking’). The gaps in the rock created by the pressure allow the oil and gas to escape into the well bore.

The pollution story
In western North Dakota the light pollution is so bad that people get confused and think they are driving towards the sunrise in the early hours of the day. Environmentalists claim that fracking can contaminate the water table, that fracking fluid is harmful to water supplies and that fracking causes earthquakes. Such views are at the core of the pro/con fracking environmental debate.

The energy story
The lights are a startlingly new oil and gas field — night time evidence of an oil boom created by a technology called fracking. Those lights are rigs, hundreds of them, lit at night, or fiery flares of natural gas. One hundred and fifty oil companies, big ones, little ones, wildcatters, have flooded this region, drilling up to eight new wells every day on what is called the Bakken formation. Altogether, they are now producing 660,000 barrels a day — double the output two years ago — so that in no time at all, North Dakota is now the second-largest oil producing state in America. Only Texas produces more, and those lights are a sign that this region is now on fire. This oil rush is so sudden, so enormous. The Bakken fields are helping to improve energy security for the US. It is estimated that every day drillers in North Dakota "burn off enough gas to heat half a million homes."

The economic story
North Dakota now has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. More than 41,000 workers got jobs there between 2008 and 2012. Only seven years ago, the U.S. was importing 60 percent of its oil. Now imports are down to 42 percent. However many locals consider that as they sit on billion dollar surpluses year after year the government do nothing to build up the infrastructure or protect the environment. North Dakota law says that flares are subject to taxes and royalties after one year, even if the gas isn't being sold.

The social story
Much of the commentary indicates that state regulators seem less than energetic when farmers call to complain about poisons in the air and water. Many farmers in North Dakota can't prevent drillers from drilling — even if they'd like to. Decades ago, the rights to the minerals below those farms were separated from the rights to the land itself — which is why today, energy companies can move in, create drilling pads where they please, move in trucks and workers, without the farmers' consent. In some places, North Dakota feels like Texas in the early 20th century, when cattlemen fought the oil men. This time it's corn folks versus oil folks. Tempers are rising. The elementary schools have tripled in enrolment in the past two years. They don't want to stifle the money coming in from taxes because they need it to build up their infrastructure. However, allowing the companies to do as they please with little to no accountability will make it difficult to preserve some beautiful country in the priaries of North Dakota..

So, just one satellite image with an unusual glow can lead to such a rich place based exemplar (case study) for the geography classroom.  This is a great example of how remote sensing can create a geogstory with so many layers to unpeel.


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