When looking at images of the Earth at night captured by NASA, you expect to see more light in densely populated areas and less light in more rural areas. That's normal. Our cities aren't very good yet at keeping light pollution to a minimum, and a lot of light escapes skyward. But as NPR points out, you can also find a big cluster of lights in an area of what should be mostly empty Western plains. What's the deal?
The light blob on the top left of the image above is located in North-Dakota, near the Canadian border, and it is caused by the oil & gas industry there. It is a relatively recent development, and wouldn't have been visible 6 years ago.
What we have here is an immense and startlingly new oil and gas field — nighttime evidence of an oil boom created by a technology called fracking. Those lights are rigs, hundreds of them, lit at night, or fiery flares of natural gas. 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. (source)
A lot of this light is caused by natural gas flaring. Indeed, not all gas is captured for whatever reasons, and since this terribly wasteful practice of just burning the extra gas is legal there, around 1/3 of all gas extracted is flared.
The NRDC has the numbers, and they are scary:
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. (source)
It's already bad enough that we create a lot of carbon pollution by doing useful things like heating our homes and moving people and goods around, do we also have to burn gigantics amounts of fossil fuels for no reason? This flaring has to stop; it's a low-hanging fruit in the fight against climate change, and should be a priority for all policymakers with any vision and regard for the future of humanity (think of the children!).
Above is the beautiful video made with images from NASA. You can see more photos of the Earth at Night here.