This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.

n enduring image associated with the recent “fracking” boom in North Dakota’s Bakken region is a 2016 nighttime photograph of North America taken by NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite. In the image, an enormous swath of illumination as bright as major cities covers the sparsely populated northern Great Plains. The intense brightness comes not just from the region’s population clusters, which are generally small, but also from gas flaring and oilfield operations originating at thousands of square amd rectangular plots scattered across the topography of grassy hills and flat farmland. The plots form a vast complex of so-called pads. These are the platted sites where drilling and pumping occurs, and where the oil and gas industry gains access to the region’s massive subterranean resources. Pad drilling has emerged in tandem with the fracking boom of the 2000’s, serving as a key innovation that allows producers to install multiple wells on a compact plot of land (EIA 2012).

Given that the heroic rhetoric of frontier exploration has long been applied to space travel and resource exploration alike, the use of the term pad is apt. The pad is the site that concentrates human effort, ingenuity, and risk and from which expeditions are launched to tame new spaces. Yet unlike the huge emptiness of outer space, the oil and gas industry directs its work downward into Earth’s dense stratigraphy, puncturing holes into the lithosphere to seek out the source rock for hydrocarbons and gas. Once extracted, these substances eventually make their way by truck, train, and pipeline to power plants and refineries across North America. Hence, while pads have limited footprints—they are typically no larger than four acres in area—they serve as passageways between the surface and sub-surface, linking physical and social geographies that explode in every direction. In this sense, they remind one of Larkin’s characterization of infrastructures as “objects that create the grounds on which other objects operate, and when they do so they operate as systems” (2013: 329). Indeed, the ground of the pad is a locationally fixed surface index as well as key enabler of the vast Bakken petro-regime, a sprawling three-dimensional biophysical and socio-cultural system that coheres around volumes in the sub-surface strata.

Drilling has never been a haphazard undertaking, and a pad is never randomly placed. Its occurrence at a given geographical location is actualized through a string of actions shaped by the social, technical, and geological conditions of each oil and gas “play.” Taking the Bakken as an example, the pockmarking of the landscape with thousands of pads in recent years was preceded by geological survey work that began in the 1950s to confirm the presence of the gigantic Bakken oilfield, the world’s largest by area size. However, pools of extractable oil using conventional methods are relatively rare in the Bakken, the vast bulk of it being fixed into the formation’s sedimentary rock. Sustained, large-scale production thus needed to wait for higher per-barrel prices and improved horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques to reach and wrest open the shale rock, conditions that converged during the run-up in oil prices of the early 2000s.

The introduction of horizontal drilling meant that the placement of pads was no longer solely contingent on reservoirs of oil directly below, as in conventional plays. Rather, pads are positioned in exclusive production blocs, or “spacing units” – typically 640 acres, 1,280 acres, or 2,560 acres in size – that form a tapestry across the surface of the formation’s most resource-abundant areas. These spacing units for oil production are overlaid atop the region’s Public Land Survey System, a nineteenth-century legacy that produced a patchwork of nested, differently sized square-shaped land parcels across the entire state. Within the spacing unit, drillers often aim to complete numerous, evenly spaced, multi-stage fracking wells at different depths reaching to a 200-foot setback from the edge of the unit. The oil giant Continental Resources has trademarked this technique under the term “Eco-Pad.” As a wellbore descends from a pad and then cuts horizontally, it may traverse property lines at the surface and may slice across multiple mineral rights holdings in the strata below. Using geological survey and property maps, contracted “landmen” sift through titles kept at local records offices to piece together the puzzle of surface and sub-surface property ownership to negotiate production agreements. In so doing, they plot the three-dimensional coordinates of a coupled surface and sub-surface sovereignty regime, one whose impression of tidy completeness translates into property and money and obscures the broader effects of oil across surface spaces, the atmosphere, and time.

Once a site is surveyed and leasing contracts finalized, the pad erupts into a hive of industrial activity. From start to finish, the work of building a pad, bringing a drilling rig on site, delivering pipe and machinery, connecting to a water source, stocking specialty sand and chemicals, and finally installing pumping and storage equipment requires upward of 2,000 truck trips over several months. Workers and materials arrive at the pad from points far and wide: sand from Michigan and Wisconsin, lubricants from Kansas, drill rigs from Texas, pipe from Ohio, technicians from the U.S. and Canada. Once the wellbore is completed and capped, sensors are installed that relay flow and pressure data from the pad to field offices and corporate headquarters. After all this is done, a pad falls mostly silent, aside from the hum of pump motors and the steady noise of the gas flare, which burns off unrecoverable gas that rises with the oil. It is these flares that, collectively, can be seen in satellite imagery.

As fairly small industrial spaces with global significance, pads do their work by connecting volumes that are doubly obscured but that sit at the center of the politics of hydrocarbons. On the one hand, the oil-containing sub-surface is perpetually beyond view and notoriously difficult to bring under control. Doing so is the central purpose of the industry. On the other, the all-important royalties that facilitate production are paid by volume, yet the volumes of oil are rarely visible. They move through pipes, are measured by sensors, flow into storage tanks and transshipment points and stay almost entirely out of sight, even while they become the ubiquitous substances of everyday life.


Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2012. Pad drilling and rig mobility lead to more efficient drilling. Today in Energy. Available here (Accessed March 6, 2019).
Larkin, Brian. 2013. The politics and poetics of infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-43.