Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

You are here

» Bakken Oil Boom, North Dakota, USA

Even though oil is underground, Landsat images can reveal related land changes on the surface. The Bakken oil boom has made North Dakota the second leading oil producing state—behind only Texas. Evidence of this boom is apparent on the landscape.

The focus of this oil boom, which began around 2008, is on the Bakken formation of western North Dakota, northeastern Montana, and part of Canada. The Bakken formation constitutes one of the largest deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States. The Bakken is part of the larger Williston Basin, which, according to a 2013 USGS study, has 7.4 billion barrels of oil that is recoverable using today’s technology.

These Landsat images show the increasing number of oil platforms over just a few years, along with associated infrastructure changes. The overview images in this introductory section show the entire region that will be discussed in more detail in the following subsections.

The North Dakota oil industry took off in the 1950s. When oil prices dropped in the 1980s, that boom ended. Oil prices recovered by 1990, but the current boom didn’t hit until the technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, came along in the 2000s. By 2008, drilling in North Dakota surged like never before and oil production increased dramatically.

The oil and natural gas within the Bakken are locked in a rock formation. Fracking uses a mix of water, salt, chemicals, and sand to fracture the rock. The fractured rock allows the oil to flow to the well.

The price of oil crashed again in 2014, halting most of the drilling. But this was only after North Dakota’s oil industry reached the milestone of producing 1 million barrels per day. In mid-2017, oil prices recovered to around $50 a barrel, stabilizing the situation in North Dakota.

Map of the featured area.

Thousands of well pads are scattered across northwestern North Dakota. This series of images shows an example of a location with several of them. These rectangular shaped areas of land cover 4–7 acres each. The small bright shapes in the images are much smaller than agricultural fields. Cropland is larger blocks of land in varying shades of green or tan.

The parcel of land dedicated to oil pumping is cleared for setting up drilling equipment. Once drilling is completed at a location, it can then pump oil. Each pad seen in the images is a well pad with either drilling or pumping in progress.

In the entire Williston Basin, 12,990 hectares of land have been converted to well pads. The previous land cover of this area was almost entirely agriculture and prairie.

A new drilling technique called pad drilling reduces the overall footprint of land cover change caused by the industry. Several horizontal well bores are drilled from a single larger pad. Pad drilling became more widespread in 2010 and now accounts for about 75% of all new wells. While the number of wells drilled can increase, the land requirement for increased production is not as extensive. Furthermore, other infrastructure, such as roads and pipelines, are reduced overall.

Pad drilling also has the benefit of more wells being drilled in less time. A significant area of underground resources can be tapped with minimal impact on the surface. Even as the number of new drilling wells slows, production can continue to increase.

Located on the north side of a bend in the Missouri River, Williston is one of the larger cities in the center of the oil boom in North Dakota. The city’s population has more than doubled since the 2000 census.

Population of Williston






While pad drilling reduced the impact of necessary infrastructure, more roads are still needed when urban areas expand. A prominent four-lane highway now loops around Williston’s west side—Highway 85.

Just to the northwest of where that new highway curves, the agricultural is undergoing a major disturbance. Construction is underway at that site for a new, larger airport to meet the needs of the rapidly growing city.

Tioga is a small town in northwestern North Dakota that has also seen rapid growth. The visible changes in the image series are oil production infrastructure surrounding the town. Just east of the town is the Hess Corporation Tioga Gas Plant. Just west of Tioga is a rail facility for loading trains with oil.

Seven miles south of Tioga, the clearing that can be seen in the image series is the Energy Transfer Partners Facility, a pipeline transfer facility.

Population of Tioga






Tioga has also seen the same type of income and home value increases as other nearby towns.


Another growing community is Watford City, which built a new high school in 2016, just east of town. In terms of percent increase, Watford City’s growing population is impressive: a 345% increase from 2000 to 2016.

Population of Watford City






Watford City has also seen the same type of income and home value increases as other nearby towns.



Have a question or comment? Please contact us at