Subterranean Lines

A fracking well at the surface. Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

A fracking well at the surface.
Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

The bulk of the fracking boom currently underway in the United States is not only in one of the least populated and remote states, North Dakota (population 724,000 – and it’s only that large because of the fracking boom and all the new workers there), but it also takes place mostly underground. Sure, there are the ominous towers of gas flames and the torn up ground at the extraction points, but the real action takes place so far beneath the topsoil layer as to render it abstract.

The gap between what fracking looks like from above, and what it looks like from below, reminds me of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s drawings in The Little Prince. What everyone initially takes to be a sketch of hat is actually a rendering of something completely different, namely, an elephant inside a snake.

From The Little Prince By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

From The Little Prince
By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

We humans are creatures of visual dependence. Or rather, what we can see tends to make the most conscious impression upon us, ahead of the more subtle senses of sound, taste, smell and touch.

And often, what is out of sight is truly out of mind. If we can’t see it, we have a hard time even thinking about it.

Well locations around New Town, N.D. Source: Fractracker

Well locations around New Town, N.D.
Source: Fractracker

These various maps and renderings of fracking in North Dakota attempt to make the underground activity more tangible, to show us the elephant inside the hat.

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota. Source: Mason Inman/Wired

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota.
Source: Mason Inman/Wired

According to Mason Inman over at Map Labs, who created the map above, “Each well travels down about two miles, then turns horizontally and snakes through the rock formation for another two miles. There were 8,406 of these Bakken wells, as of North Dakota’s latest count. If you lined them all up—including their vertical and horizontal parts—they’d loop all the way around the Earth.”

The New York Times took the added step of inverting the wells as if they were above ground, the long vertical drills standing like slender trunks one or two miles high, with only one or two branches of equal length suspended in the air, a high forest of activity.

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground
Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

 

Views: Below, Surface, Above

Bakken Formation Image: Bakken Decision Support System (BDSS)

Bakken Formation
Image: Bakken Decision Support System (BDSS)

The image above shows a schematic of the Bakken Formation,, which lies along the U.S.-Canadian border, beneath the prairies of North Dakota and Montana. It is considered to be the largest reserve of oil in the lower 48 U.S. states.

North Dakota separates property ownership of land surface from ‘bottomland’, what lies beneath the surface. This has become a lucrative form of land ownership over the past few years as new fracking projects have turned vast tracts of prairie and farmland into a new oil heartland, sometimes over the vehement objections of farmers who bought land without realizing they didn’t really own more than a plow’s depth of dirt.

Farmland above the Bakken Formation. Source: LandandFarm

Farmland above the Bakken Formation.
Source: LandandFarm

And now that heartland has its first major oil spill, which already counts as one of the largest onshore spills in U.S. history. 20,600 barrels – equivalent to 865,200 gallons (3.2 million liters) – were belatedly discovered bubbling up from a faulty ageing pipeline on an area the size of 7 football fields within a remote wheat farm.

The pipeline company, Tesoro Logistics, has thus far succeeded in cleaning up around 5% of the spill. The company claims that neither surface nor groundwater was affected in any way, nor will there be any adverse effect on the environment. In any case, according to the farmer who owns the land, the fields will be unusable as farmland for the foreseeable future.

An image of the Bakken Shale area, the large glow on the upper left, by night. The lights are from the fracking and oil extraction sites. Image: NASA via jad.blog

An image of the Bakken Shale area, the large glow on the upper left, by night.
The lights there are from fracking and oil extraction activites, while the other bright clusters are cities.
Image: NASA via jad.blog

More:

Excellent National Geographic article on the development of North Dakota oil and its impact on the economy, people and land – The New Oil Landscape by Edwin Dobb