Art of the Anthropocene: The Bakken

By Tom Yulsman | April 8, 2013 10:10 am

Part of the Bakken oil region is seen in this false color image from NASA’s Terra satellite, captured on April 2. The red tones are indicative of snow cover. A network of roads criss-crossing the region is visible — used by many thousands of trucks employed in servicing the oil fields.

The Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana has helped spark a “peak oil is dead” meme in the media and elsewhere. There are reasons to believe that this latest fad is as overblown as the peak oil frenzy was in the mid-2000s.

But one thing is clear: The Bakken is a big producer of oil. As of February, the formation was producing 673,015 barrels of black gold each and every day, making it one of the most productive oil regions in the United States.

And the official daily production may actually be underestimated. Some private estimates peg it at more than 800,000 barrels per day, with a million barrels coming in just a few years. Of course, that would just deplete the resource faster (and I haven’t even mentioned climate change). But I digress…

My point here is to show, with some help from a compelling graphic, that all that industrial activity is leaving its mark. It is, in fact, visible from space — at night. But I wanted to focus on something with greater aesthetic value.

A map of the Bakken formation. (Click to enlarge. Image: EERC)

The image at the top of this post shows a portion of the Bakken region in North Dakota, centered on the Missouri River. Captured by NASA’s Terra satellite on April 2, it’s in false color. (So relax, you’re not suffering a flashback.)  It looks to me like a canvas, and another example of unintended Anthropocene art. The red is indicative of snow and ice. The Missouri River is visible snaking across the middle of the frame. And the thing that looks like a salamander is Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir.

Look to the north of the river and you’ll see a cross-hatching pattern etched into the red. These are north-south and east-west roads.

According to a story by Chip Brown in the New York Times Magazine, “A decade ago  you could have spread a picnic blanket on a lot of back roads in western North Dakota and safely taken a nap.” Today if you tried that stunt you’d be flattened into a human pancake in no time. Every new well in the Bakken requires some 2,000 truck trips during its first year of operation. And by last count, there were 5,161 wells producing oil — up from just 193 ten years ago.

That’s a whole lot of trucks coursing up and down back roads.

The Bakken Formation is the largest continuous oil resource in the lower 48 states, according to the Energy and Environmental Research Center of the University of North Dakota. Given that, my guess is that concerns about climate change notwithstanding, we’re going to continue drilling the hell out of the Bakken. So don’t plan on picnicking on any North Dakota back roads this summer.

  • JonFrum

    “Of course, that would just deplete the resource faster..”

    So what’s the point? That we shouldn’t use it at all, so that we don’t deplete it? We have no responsibility as a civilization to keep oil in the ground. Let’s face it – it’s not like you want to use all the oil, but use it slower. Which makes the quoted statement disingenuous.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Sorry that you feel I am being disingenuous. I made a simple statement of fact. (And by the way, it was not a quote. I wrote it.) And that fact is that the Bakken, like all oil reservoirs, is a finite resource. Drill it slower, it will last longer. Drill it faster, it will be depleted faster. Do you disagree?

      I didn’t comment on the significance of that fact because it was not the point of my post. But if you pay attention to the context of this piece, mentioned at the very top — breathless and credulous coverage by many in the media of the alleged end of “peak oil” — you can infer my opinion, which I have no problem sharing.

      First, some journalists seem to take the frenzied pace of drilling as evidence of the end of peak oil. That’s nonsense, in that faster drilling means faster depletion, nothing more, nothing less. This is a point about journalists.

      Second, I think there are very good reasons not to drill until we’ve depleted every last drop. The “end of peak oil” rhetoric notwithstanding, oil is a finite resource and we should be doing better at planning a transition to renewable energy. Moreover, climate change should compel the same thing.

      You seem to do disagree. That’s fine. Let’s have a conversation about it. But I reject the notion implied here that just because you disagree with me I am therefore disingenuous. Quite to the contrary, I try hard to be transparent and honest. I sometimes miss the mark. But not here.

  • Lord

    Projections are this will peak in five years and decline just as rapidly, but it will be repeated across other formations so expect to see a lot more of this.

  • John Zulauf

    The emergent property of an overlapping rectangular tree fractal — very cool.

    • Tom Yulsman

      If only there were a “like” button here as there is on Facebook, I would hit it.

  • KJUU

    Well, you can picnic the same as always outside of the oil patch. I’d wait for the thaw, though.

  • carlp

    Peak Oil is irrelevant. We run out of dumping room for Carbon in the atmosphere at 350ppm or we are going to see severe climate change. New discoveries of oil and accelerated burning just reduce the time we have before catastrophic climate change. Or they increase the cost of the Carbon cleanup we have to do with Nuclear power once we get that going– assuming we don’t collapse as a culture first. Might as well get renewables and innovative nuclear going now and then no one will want expensive Bakken oil. Solar PV is already cheaper than electricity from diesel. Diesel is not competitive with natural gas truck fleets either.
    Drilling oil is fine if you don’t burn any of it. Make it all in to plastic and sequester the plastic– but not a landfill that will turn it to Methane!



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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