I never fail to be awed when I see pictures of our planet’s lit-up nighttime surface from space. There’s something strangely beautiful about tracking the spread of modern civilization in those rays of light we shine into the dark void. (Of course, we could also be alerting hostile aliens to our presence, but I try to stay positive.) I enjoy trying to match the patterns of light to my personal history -- say, pinpointing the bright belt across the lower Atlantic states that represents the Raleigh-to-Atlanta interstate corridor, where I lived for several years.
NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich apparently enjoys the same sort of thing, and he’s highlighted a fascinating blob of light where you would never expect to see one -- a blob that wasn’t there six years ago. (I’ll skip ahead for anyone who might be getting a bit too excited: it’s not space invaders.) High on the Western plains, right near the Canadian border, it looks like someone built a brand-new city overnight.
There is a city there -- or more of a frontier town, really. It’s called Williston, North Dakota, and its population has indeed boomed in recent years. (If you read the New York Times, you learned earlier this week about how that hasn’t exactly been a good thing for at least one segment of the local populace: women.) But the lights shining into space aren’t Williston’s homes or street lamps. They’re lit-up oil rigs and natural gas flares from the immense Bakken Shale deposit.
In other words, we can see fracking from space.
Here’s what Keith Schneider wrote about Williston for our publication last year:
To understand the magnitude of the current oil and gas boom in North Dakota, you need only stand alongside U.S. Route 85 anywhere just north or south of Williston at night. The area’s 200 drilling rigs are lit up like carnival rides: towers of floodlights make up a luminous vertical cityscape amid the surrounding darkness. Semis hauling heavy equipment, pipe, water, fuel, oil, rigging, and any number of other loads roll past -- an unyielding train of oilfield supplies and products.
Over the last several years, OnEarth has reported, nearly 50,000 men have come to North Dakota to find work in an oilfield that now measures 18,000 square miles. Energy companies are drilling about 200 new wells each month in the western part of the state, over an area roughly the size of New Jersey. Last year, North Dakota passed Alaska to become the nation’s second-largest oil producing state, after Texas.
A boom like this doesn’t come without consequences. For one thing, natural gas isn’t as profitable as oil, so North Dakota allows the drilling companies to just burn it off (30 percent of the gas that comes out of the ground is “flared” away, according to state officials). There's no regard whatsoever for the climate impacts (the equivalent of 2.5 million cars, according to World Bank estimates) or the fact that, hey, maybe if we’re going to take that much fossil fuel out of the ground, we ought to at least find a way to use all of it. The Times says more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared this way every day. With that much fuel, you could heat half a million homes.
Of course, if the oil companies stopped flaring, North Dakota would go dark again. And then where would the aliens cast their gaze?
Truthfully, pretty much every dot of light on the planet’s surface that’s bright enough to be seen from space represents humanity’s unquenchable thirst for energy -- and our disregard for its collateral damage. I’m not nostalgic for the Dark Ages (far from it -- I miss my electricity a lot when it’s not around). But maybe looking at that bright glare on the Great Plains can serve as a reminder of how painfully far we’re willing to go to keep all those other lights shining.