UND: Space images of Oil Patch are ‘misleading’

Perhaps you’ve seen these satellite images of North Dakota in which the Bakken Oil Patch is illuminated by all of the gas flares from the wells.

It’s a misleading photograph, University of North Dakota researchers claim this week.

A report from UND’s Energy and Environmental Research center says the the photographs have been enhanced (by the wide range of wavelengths) to make it appear the gas flares are the source of huge amounts of light.

Many published images tout new types of satellite imaging used to examine gas flares but seldom explain how the images are derived. These images are misleading in that they give the uninformed public the idea that flares are literally lighting up many square miles of prairie countryside, creating visible light similar to large metro areas.

So does the sky in western North Dakota really light up like a million-person metropolis? A casual drive on any evening through counties of the Bakken oil play shows otherwise. So how are these satellite images being formulated?

Researchers from the University of North Dakota (UND) Energy & Environmental Research Center and the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Science’s Department of Earth System Science and Policy joined forces to get a better understanding of these bright satellite images.

The school’s researchers say they developed a more accurate method for processing the images.

To better characterize the Bakken oil play associated gas flares,UND researchers developed improved processing methods and a subpixel technique on data collected in nine spectral bands: one day–night band (DNB) and eight infrared bands of the NOAA VIIRS sensor.

Because a typical flare only occupies a 1/6000 fraction of a satellite pixel (800 m × 800 m), any contamination can easily skew the estimate of flares. To avoid possible contaminations, only VIIRS nighttime images that were cloud-free and only the middle portion of an image not affected by Earth curvature and geometric effects were used.

The daily VIIRS data collected were aggregated into monthly estimates and validated with ten specific active flares.

They came up with this before-and-after shot.

Figure 3b, in contrast, is the same area with a near-infrared spectral image showing faint, yet discernible, infrared heat signatures, more characteristic of what flares look like from space in the Bakken oil play region of western North Dakota.

For example, a highly sensitive camera taking separate pictures of a 75-watt incandescent bulb and a candle will show an incandescent bulb image that is saturated by light (all white), but the candle image will also show an “all white” saturation.

  • Erik Petersen

    I knew this intuitively, that there was no way they were throwing off that much light in the Bakken.

    The pertinent question you ought to be moved to ask then, what’s the purpose of some scientific / academic entity faking up these satellite photos? Well, it’s some sort of fossil fuel shaming.

    • The answer is in the report. They’re not “faked up” by an entity. They’re misleading by the imagery processing which includes “a wide range of wavelengths” that meter both light and heat.

      • Erik Petersen

        Such that the spectral photography is superficially misleading
        and the scientists / academicians understand that and yet seemed to intentionally allow it to be confused for typical photography, ‘faked up’ isn’t a terribly misused paraphrase.

        • I don’t know what the scientists/academicians understand and what they don’t w.r.t. this photography. The original photograph, I believe was from the ISS as a picture of earth. Others then spread it by I don’t know how many of those spreading it were the scientists and how many were just people who were unaware that it included heat signatures showing up as light.

          I saw most of that occur on social media, which is neither science nor academia from my experience.

          • Erik Petersen

            Ok, that’s fair, that rather it was more pedestrian obtuse, knee jerk minds on social media that seized on it. Not academicians. Still, it’s the fossil fuel shaming… And I’m not shamed and I don’t think anyone should be. Heat and eating and modernity are good.

          • Jerry

            Good thing there is an infinite supply of them and they have no ecological effects.

          • X.A. Smith

            Knee-jerk, you say?

          • Erik Petersen

            Yeah, I do.

            If that’s the etymology…. That a particular segment of social media jumped on this because it seemingly demonstrated their worldview on energy use / climate change….

            Then ‘knee jerk’ is a proper word choice here.

            You saying it’s not? Or do you just respond with blithe faux ironic bemusement / detachment typically, and in somewhat a ‘knee jerk’ fashion.

          • X.A. Smith

            In your first two posts you were looking for which scientists/academics to blame. That’s a knee-jerk reaction, and I thought it was funny.

            That’s all.

          • Nick K

            If you read the study (follow the link and click Project Summary), you’ll see that the images were originally posted online by the National Geographic magazine (as well as Space news and Midwest Energy news) . The author of that article likened the oil fields to large cities such as Chicago or New York. I leave it to better minds to decide what culpability NatGeo has in spreading this “misinformation” and whether they employ scientists who should know better.

          • I’m pretty sure the images were a “lift” from the NASA vid that I think was taken from the space station. The question I have — which hasn’t been answered anywhere that I’ve seen — is which of the images is more closely aligned with what astronauts see with the naked eye?

            Does Western NoDak really look as ‘bright” as Minneapolis?

    • Which is something we, as enlightened and responsible citizens, should be doing. We’ll never move away from fossil fuels until it becomes socially unacceptable to do so.

      • Paul

        Or cheaper. The reality is, fossil fuels are cheapest to produce at the present time.

        • Cheapness is relative. It is not cheaper considering the costs society bears for the myriad repercussions of burning fossil fuels. If we are mining fossil fuels with the intention of burning it, it is not cheap by any means. Which is exactly why other means of energy production need to be encouraged. Otherwise we are allowing ourselves to be lulled into a sense of security by using a fuel that has so many hidden expenses it’s prohibitive, in reality. And until more people are on board with renewables, they’ll stay expensive. Expand government subsidies for renewables to make them on par with what we give oil companies and we’ll be on the right track. Until then we’re just another third world nation without a conscience for what we’re doing to the future of society or the planet, in essence, a rogue nation. I’m not comfortable with that. We can do better.

          • Paul

            I referred to the production of fossil fuels, which it is absolutely the cheapest. The repercussions of using them are unfortunate, though, I like motor sports and aviation so it’s hard for me to not use them daily.

          • Erik Petersen

            …There are practical barriers besides the limits of our imaginations. I solidly understand this to be a perspective grounded in science in engineering.

            …An industry tailored depreciation allowance for mineral wxtraction isn’t actually a ‘subsidy’, and is worth far less monetarily than the grants these ‘renewables’ companies get.

          • Jerry

            If you honestly believe there are no alternatives to fossil fuels, our survival as a species doesn’t have much of a future.

          • Erik Petersen

            Is that what I said?

          • Jerry

            It’s how I interpreted your first statement

        • Jeff

          Cheaper, maybe but many of the costs are externalized. I don’t think shaming is the route to moving to alternative energy sources but at least level the playing field by recognizing the true costs of fossil fuels.

  • kevins

    Yes but it is always sunnier in western ND than in the east, at least until the frac sand blows and the translucent fume pyres rise from the waste ponds.

  • John

    I wonder why an artificially colored image was passed off in this way. We humans only see light from about 400-700 nm in wavelength (you physicists can convert that to frequency if you want – I like to work in wavelength). I don’t get why someone would include other wavelengths (like IR, which would be big given the heat those flares give off), convert them to visible, and then release a photo.

    I can definitely see the pixel problem, where an intense signal would bloom across multiple pixels on the detector (camera in this case). That is something that even a good microscope jockey can miss if they’re not careful.

    Slightly off topic, but related to the discussion y’all are having: As a thought exercise, think of the infinite number of ways oil impacts your life beyond energy – virtually all plastic comes from oil, so start from there. Coke bottles, diapers, headlight lenses, vinyl siding, air bags, tupperware, heart valves, glue, artificial limbs, eyeglass lenses, grey/black water cleanup, filter materials, – all things that are primarily derived from oil.

    It’s been said to me (don’t know if this is true) that if the oil companies were only selling gasoline, they’d have gone out of business decades ago. Running out of gasoline – that doesn’t scare me – there are other ways to power the world.

    Running out of plastic – I think that’s going to be a deal breaker for first world society. Sure, there are bioplastics coming along, but they don’t have the durability or virtually infinite life expectancy of polyethylene, at least not yet.

    • Jerry

      I’m not sure not having a virtually infininte life expectancy is particularly bad thing in most cases.

      • John

        true – short life expectancy is good for things like diapers and water treatment.

        Not as good for airbags or artificial heart valves (or plastic house plumbing).