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    This Spy Balloon Will Soon Float Over the Fracking Fields of North Dakota

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    If you work in the fracklands of North Dakota, keep an eye to the sky: A data-thirsty DIY balloon rig may soon be soaring over your head. 

    See, the great American fracking boom is underway. Oil and gas companies are in full-throttle drillmania, natural gas prices are plunging, and a whole lot of rural countryside is lit up like a Christmas tree. North Dakota's Bakken Shale is probably the best exemplar of the bonanza: Once an unpopulated wilderness expanse, now it's a giant industrial operation that's as visible from space as a major city.

    Why? Methane flaring, mostly. Sure, lights installed at the newfangled industrial operations are a factor, but it's the flaring that takes the cake. We know that an awful lot of gas is being released in these violent flarings, which occur when a surplus of ignited natural gas is released from plant equipment, but we don't have a whole lot of great data on the phenomenon. And that's why the independent watchdog group Skytruth wants to float a giant spy balloon over the fracking fields. 

    "For the past year, our satellite monitoring of infrared data from around the world has detected immense amounts of light and heat coming from natural gas flares in North Dakota's Bakken Shale," Skytruth explains in its mission statement. "A recent study concluded that 30% of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is being wasted by a process called flaring, and the CO2 emissions alone are equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,000,000 automobiles."

    Flaring is indeed a huge waste. Entire activist organizations are dedicated to eliminating the practice. Now, Skytruth wants to diagnose how bad the problem is by sending out an instrument-laden balloon to investigate. The group, best known for providing invaluable satellite analysis of the Gulf Oil Spill, is getting an assist from the Space for All team, and is using Indie GoGo to help crowd-fund the operation. 

    I reached out to SkyTruth chief Paul Woods for details on the next great balloon ride. 

    MOTHERBOARD: So why are you going to float a balloon over the tracking fields of North Dakota?

    We've been monitoring flaring from space for some time now using the VIIRS instrument operated by NOAA. It gives nightly coverage and detects in the infrared, so we can see bright hot things every night all over the planet. In places like the Bakken Shale, this means that we see lots of natural gas flaring. 

    So what we need to do next is to ground-truth these satellite-based detections to make sure that they really are flaring and not something else.  We can also measure intensity of the flaring on the ground and compare to what we see on the satellite. The problem with ground truthing of course is that some places are hard to get to, and things are pretty far apart in North Dakota, so we need to get up in the air to observe lots of sites in one go.

    Is this a first for Skytruth?

    We have experimented with tethered balloons and DIY camera rigs in the past, but this is the first high-altitude ballon launch we have ever done.  There is a bit of serendipity here because a few weeks about we met up with Spencer Gore of Space For All. He and his group have quite a bit of experience with these rigs, and he has been working at NASA Goddard designing stuff like this. He saw a writeup of us in the Washington Post and then stopped by our office.  

    We told him about our projects and mentioned that we were planning a trip to the Bakken to fly in a Cessna and document the flaring there. He suggested we do a balloon instead, and strap some additional instrumentation to try to measure methane and other hydrocarbons at different altitudes. And then, as it turned out, he is leaving Goddard to take a job at Tesla, and so is doing a cross-country drive next week. So we figured—why not meet up in North Dakota and launch a balloon or two?

    What information do you hope to get from this operation?

    The primary thing is to ground truth our space-based flaring detections.  Secondarily, we will see what we detect in terms of hydrocarbons in the atmosphere above the drilling fields. One balloon flight is not enough to say much conclusive about fugitive methane emissions, but that is a topic we are very interested in and we view this as a dry run for getting low cost detection hardware in the air over areas of interest like the Bakken.

    If it works, will you float more drone balloons across other oil and gas operations elsewhere?

    We're definitely thinking of repeating this if it works, and refining the sensor package that we can fly on it. Lots of interesting places where this might be a useful approach to monitoring environmental impacts from the air.

    Do you imagine the oil and gas companies will take kindly to a surveillance balloon floating above their extraction plants? What if they try to pop it? 

    I really don't know whether the guys working the rigs will care.  The balloon will go pretty high - we are thinking we will top out at 50-60K feet, and we could go as high as 100k. And once something that size is more than 1,000 feet up, colored white and not making any noise, we don't think anyone will notice it. With all that said, we're still planning to be discrete about our launch location and time :-)

    Good luck!