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The Eagle Ford Shale Boom from Space

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It can be difficult to comprehend just how big the current U.S. shale boom is. Here in Central Texas, we hear about the Eagle Ford Shale and how it’s transforming South Texas (in both positive and negative ways).

The shale, named for the town of Eagle Ford, TX, is a geologic remnant of the ancient ocean that covered present day Texas millions of years ago, when the remains of sea life (especially ancient plankton) died and deposited onto the seafloor, were buried by several hundred feet of sediment, eventually turning into the rich source of hydrocarbons we have today.

The shale was first tapped in 2008 and now has around 20 active fields good producing over 900 million cubic feet per day of natural gas. For perspective, the United States produced over 2 trillion cubic feet of gas in September 2012.

There is so much activity in the Eagle Ford Shale that you can see it from space.

This image is originally from NASA’s Earth at Night series that I’ve been following. The Eagle Ford Shale shows up as bands of lights below San Antonio, stretching from where the “Tex meets the Mex” to Interstate 10. What we’re seeing on the shale is not city or town lights that have sprung up because of the fracking activity. More than likely, we’re seeing well flares that are picked up by the imaging sensors aboard the Soumi NPP satellite, which detects both city lights and gas flares using a “day-night band”. You can also see flaring from offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, spreading out like silt from the Mississippi River, and some more flaring out in West Texas.

For perspective, here is a map (PDF) of the Eagle Ford Shale from the Energy Information Administration. The banding and well sites seem to match what we see from space.

And finally, if you zoom in and squint a bit, we can see South Texas circa 2000, pre Eagle Ford Shale. The major metro areas of Texas show up, but no banding along the Shale. Larger version here.


David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. CherryBombSim 7:08 pm 12/27/2012

    The map you linked to is not the type locality for the Eagle Ford. It’s named for a town that used to be halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, where it crops out. You can’t find that town on a map, because it doesn’t exist any more.

    Link to this
  2. 2. davidwogan 8:01 pm 12/27/2012

    Thanks. I removed the link. I was poking around on Google Maps and found a town in South Texas that looked to be on the shale – apparently too far south!

    Why doesn’t the town exist anymore?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Ron_Shimek 8:01 pm 12/27/2012

    A much better example of an “oil boom” “light show” is visible in North Dakota near the Montana border in the Bakken oil/gas field where the gas be burnt off creates a new light blob about 100 miles on a side easily visible visible on these new NASA imgaes. This huge and intense light patch is only 4 or 5 years old, and is easily the brightest light patch in the northern Great Plains.

    Link to this
  4. 4. davidwogan 8:54 pm 12/27/2012

    The Bakken Shale lights/flares are very impressive. I thought about including those. You can see them on the full NASA image here:

    Link to this
  5. 5. RDH 9:56 am 12/28/2012

    How high were the sea levels if South Texas was covered at one time? Was that due to global warming and if so, how much warmer was the globe then and what caused the cooling?

    900 million cf/d would amount to about 27 trillion cf for September. Is that the correct number or was the 2 trillion cf for September for the rest of the U.S.?

    Link to this
  6. 6. davidwogan 12:30 pm 12/28/2012


    The time period we’re talking about when Texas was covered by a shallow sea was millions of years ago, back during the Cretaceous. Quoting from one of my favorite books, “Roadside Geology of Texas” by Darwin Spearing:

    “The continents continued to pull apart in Cretaceous time. The Rocky Mountains underwent their major push (the Laramide orogeny) and shallow seas on the new continents’ margins advanced and retreated repeatedly. Some sea advances filled the trough in front of the Rocky Mountains, creating a connecting seaway all the way from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The shallow Cretaceous seas over Texas were filled with calcareous-shlled organisms, and thick deposits of limestone were laid down. On the sandy shorelines and mudflats of these seas dinosaurs roamed freely, leaving evidence of their passing in fantastic fossilized footprints and trackways all across Texas.”

    And from NOAA (, we know that the mid-Cretaceous period was a lot warmer today and also had higher CO2 concentrations than present day. I’m not sure if we can attribute the presence of shallow seas to just a warmer climate, because of the tectonic activity occurring around the same time period. It would not be outrageous to expect that some combination of tectonic activity and a warmer climate (perhaps with less polar ice) resulted in shallow seas.

    As for the production values, both values are correct. Eagle Ford for September would be 27 billion cfd, though – not 27 trillion cfd.

    Link to this
  7. 7. CherryBombSim 5:27 pm 12/28/2012

    David, the town of Eagle Ford just got swallowed up by larger suburbs around it. It used to be one of the places Bonnie and Clyde hung out.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Carlyle 4:01 am 12/29/2012

    Thanks for an interesting & balanced article David.

    Link to this
  9. 9. papa Joe 9:32 am 12/29/2012

    I do not believe that the lights visible from space to be caused by flaring of gas. Several wells were drilled here in the DFW area of Texas, even within the cities and never was there any gas flared. However, on the active drill rigs, which operated around the clock (time is money) they were lit up like a large Christmas trees as was the surrounding area and can be seen for miles in open country. Once all active drilling is completed the well site returns to the mostly dark area it was before drilling started. Here in the city the finished wells are surrounded by walls and landscaped to make them blend into the area as much as possible. I am not an oilman, nor do I have interest in any Texas oil or gas property.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Atichno 2:50 pm 01/2/2013

    Are you sure the 2000 map is Ok? I used to see old night maps and in the Argentine marine platform limit you can see the lights from innumerable asian and european fish boats (huge shrimp boats). In the new map they were there, in and old version from the NOAA (1997) I see them, but in your 2000 link I do not see them. Perhaps a filter? If it is the case perhaps they filter some lights from the shale plays? Anyway, you have to check if its not the light from the wellbore teams, they use stronger ilumination than the one caused by the gas flares.

    Link to this
  11. 11. davidwogan 3:30 pm 01/2/2013

    The 2000 image *should* be OK. I pulled it from an old NASA page. It’s likely a lot of detail is missing because the resolution is low, especially compared to current NASA images.

    Several people have also emailed about the wellhead vs flaring. The consensus seems to be that what we’re seeing is a combination of drilling rigs that are running during the night and flaring, which sounds right.

    Link to this
  12. 12. bucketofsquid 5:45 pm 01/3/2013

    It is interesting to me to be able to see the spread of industrialization by the lighted areas on the night image of the globe. Coastal areas tend to be move developed than inner areas except in Europe and North America. Funny how Japan and South Korea are well lit and North Korea is an obvious dark spot.

    Link to this
  13. 13. mbarnettScience 10:19 am 01/11/2013

    Interesting article I posted a very similar image on Twitter and Thinglink on Dec 11th.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Energy Industry Photos 9:02 am 02/1/2013

    Good article. Here’s a similar image with a map of current and permitted oil and gas wells overlaid with the satellite image. The correlation is almost exact with increased light activity.

    Link to this

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