America strikes oil

Our March issue has just hit the newsstands and our subscribers in all platforms. The cover story this month is an important one: The U.S. is experiencing a big boom in oil and natural gas due to new technologies to extract hard-to-reach oil. The new “gold rush” is affecting with special intensity northwest North Dakota, bringing new fortunes, transforming the prairie landscape and also causing environmental concerns while boosting the U.S. fuel supply.

Senior Graphics Editor and cartographer Virginia Mason produced a spectacular tour de force in researching, conceptualizing and designing the map, graphic and video in the story, shown here (click on the graphics for the hi-res version). In a few weeks I’ll make a longer post about the step by step process of this project, which involved research on the field, advanced GIS and 3D work and acquiring new animation skills.

The map shows wells in the heart of the new oil boom region of North Dakota. Over 3,000 wells (all existing wells, including inactive ones are plotted) dot the map, each of them extending underground in gigantic 1 or 2-mile long pipes (the gray lines) along an oil-rich layer of oil called the Bakken formation. The pipes are used for the highly specialized process or hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, perhaps one the most essential new words you are starting to hear about in the news.

The stark, simple presentation of the map with the rural landscape along the Missouri River overwhelmed by the massive pattern of black dots amplifies the shocking nature of this transformation. Overall, there are about 8,000 wells in North Dakota, a number that is projected to grow to about 50,000.

High Plains map

The graphic (below) shows how fracking works. It was produced by Virginia along with Joe Lertola from Bryan Christie Design studio. Fracking is a process by which previously inaccessible oil embedded in rock can be extracted by injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into a layer of shale. The fluid fractures the rock, releasing the oil, which flows back up the well to the surface along with it. The waste fluid from the process is then pumped back into the ground in disposal wells that are kept far from the groundwater layer, in theory preventing the contamination that has happened in other parts of the country.

The graphic shows a real well (Iverson 21-14 H) in the field, and every fracture (shown by the blue lines) along the 2-mile horizontal pipe was accurately plotted in three-dimensional space using seismic data.

High Plains graphic1

Finally, here is the video we produced for the iPad and iPhone edition, possibly the most ambitious undertaking in animation so far by our art department. We’ll do much more of it as we continue expanding our graphics and maps offering for the web and mobile platforms. I hope you think it was worth it after you watch and I’d be interesting in hearing your opinion. I’ll show you the step by step soon.

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7 thoughts on “America strikes oil

  1. Excellent Story!!!!
    Similar industry is beginning in Eastern Ohio with the Utica Shale Exploration. The Media has a way of hyping up the negative more than the positive but I am in it everyday and see how great the Shale boom is for any area. Drill Baby Drill – JOBS JOBS JOBS- No more Foreign Oil !!!

  2. North Dakota needs global warming and we need it now but as Laura Ingalls’s Pa said
    “The rich get ice in the summer and the poor get theirs in the winter”.

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