National Geographic Bakken Shale Cover Story

The March 2013 issue of National Geographic proclaims: “America Strikes Oil: The Promise and Risk of Fracking.”

201303 National GeographicInside is a 32-page story entitled “The New Oil Landscape” by Edwin Dobb, with photographs by Eugene Richards. You can read the story online and view an album of the photos.

In his introductory column, editor-in-chief Chris Johns framed the stakes this way:

Flip a coin. Heads or tails? The odds are fifty-fifty either way. Make a bet and take your chances. A gamble is just that–a decision that has risk attached to it. Someone wins. But someone loses. When it comes to fracking–the process of extracting otherwise unreachable oil and natural gas by driving fresh water mixed with other substances, some toxic, into layers of rock–the bets become less mathematically clear…

As with other unconventional formations, such as the Barnett, Haynesville and Marcellus, extracting hydrocarbons from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation depends on a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. What’s different about the Bakken Formation is that it produces shale oil. (Though considerable natural gas is also produced, it is often flared).

[A]dvances in drilling and extraction technology bave made it possible to remove oil from deep, widely dispersed deposits. Since early 2006, production from what’s known as the Bakken formation has increased nearly 150-fold, to more than 660,000 barrels a day, moving North Dakota into second place among domestic suppliers, behind Texas and ahead of Alaska.

But clearly more than technology, geology and economics are at stake. Early in the article, Dobb asks:

[C]an the inestimable values of the prairie–silence, solitude, serenity–be preserved in the face of full-throttle, regionwide development, of extracting as much oil as possible as fast as possible?

After reviewing the evidence firsthand, by the end of the article, Dobb concludes:

To believe the old lifestyle will survive intact is to ignore the wrenching changes that have already reshaped this corner of the prairie.

Note: In August 2010, National Geographic published a package of stories — “The Great Shale Gas Rush” — on the Marcellus Formation.

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