New North Dakota Oil Find Could Be a Gusher

Published October 1, 2009

Dozens of very productive new wells near North Dakota’s Bakken oil field have state officials believing another massive new oil find may be at hand.

A newly discovered oil field in the Three Forks-Sanish formation is producing high yields, and some analysts believe it may surpass production in the huge Bakken oil field just above it. The Bakken oil is sandwiched between shale above and below, while the Three Forks-Sanish oil sits in porous rock and sand directly beneath the Bakken shale.

“Eventually it could equal the Bakken, which is remarkable, and that’s an understatement,” said Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, regarding the Three-Forks Sanish field, according to the Associated Press on July 14.

Field Has Huge Potential

The Bakken Formation could be the largest oil field remaining in the continental United States and among the largest in the world. It covers approximately 200,000 square miles under much of North Dakota and parts of adjacent states.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has estimated Bakken’s reserves at between 271 and 503 billion barrels of oil, with a mean estimate of 413 barrels. The low end estimate is slightly larger than Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves and 10 times larger than the current proven reserves of the United States.

Bakken oil is more difficult and expensive to retrieve than Saudi Arabian oil, however, which leads to widely varying estimates—from as little as 1 percent to as much as 50 percent—regarding just how much of the oil is economically feasible to recover in the foreseeable future.

Peak Oil in Doubt

The Bakken and Three Forks-Sanish oil fields, along with enormous oil shale deposits in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, are shredding assertions that the United States and the globe as a whole are facing a “peak oil” crisis.

Peak oil warnings have come and gone for well over a century, in fact. A 2003 National Center for Policy Analysis report by geologist David Deming noted the first prediction of peak oil and impending exhaustion occurred in 1855, before the first oil well was ever drilled.

Deming also notes seven oil shortage scares occurred prior to 1950. But proven reserves have increased faster than depletion because of new oil field discoveries and technological innovations that allow extraction of previously unrecoverable oil.

Technology Key to Bakken

Recently developed technology is one key to unleashing the Bakken’s promise. Unlike most such fields, the Bakken oil is not in large, discrete, deep pools but instead is squeezed horizontally between layers of shale. Until recently, the horizontal drilling and fracturing technologies necessary to exploit the formation more fully have been more expensive than the market price of the oil it would deliver per well.

For that reason, the USGS calculated only about 1 percent of the total reserve is recoverable, about 3.65 billion barrels. However, the late Leigh Price, Ph.D., formerly of the USGS, estimated technological improvements would allow as much as 50 percent of the Bakken oil to be used.

Production Factors

The oil price increases of recent years are helping make Price’s estimate come to fruition. In just one part of the formation, production grew approximately 15-fold between 2001 and 2005, reaching an amount more than double the production of the entire state of Montana.

However, other factors could limit increases in oil production in the Bakken and Three Forks fields, according to Gary Stone, vice president of engineering at Five States Energy Capital.

“Wells are very expensive—$3 million to $6 million per well, compared to $1.2 to $2.5 million per well in more traditional fields,” Stone said. “In addition, harsh operating conditions during North Dakota winters make it difficult to keep drilling fluids properly conditioned. Finally, the infrastructure for delivering either raw petroleum or refined products from the fields where they are developed to the consumers is severely limited. Few refineries or pipelines exist, and thus space in the pipeline and at the refineries is expensive, with multiple suppliers bidding for access.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.