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At Night, Giant Fields of Burning Natural Gas Make North Dakota Visibile From Space

Locals have a new nickname for their state. North Dakota: “Kuwait on the Prairie”

That bright little blob in the upper lefthand corner is North Dakota’s natural gas flares. (Suomi NPP Satellite/NASA Earth Observatory)

North Dakota may conjure images of vast open land, buffalo and rugged cowboys, but the state, which only six years ago was an inky swath of darkness on nighttime satellite maps, now lights up with an intensity rivaling cities such as New Orleans and Minneapolis. The light represents hundreds and hundreds of natural gas outlets, burning bright through the night. Robert Krulwich writes on NPR:

One hundred 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 … to a disturbing degree. Literally.

The government has known for years that oil deposits lay a couple miles beneath North Dakota farms, but it was only until fracking technologies recently developed that they finally had a means of tapping into those deposits. Fracking works by pumping water and chemicals under ground, fracturing rocks and releasing oil. As the oil rises to the surface, natural gas often comes with it. Today, 29 percent of the natural gas extracted in North Dakota is just burned away. This wasted amount represents enough gas to heat half a million homes.

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. Gas is burning. Drillers are drilling.

Locals have a new nickname for their state. North Dakota: “Kuwait on the Prairie.”

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