BISMARCK — For nearly a decade, North Dakota has been the country's second leading oil producer, but new reports suggest the state could be in danger of losing its silver medal.
Recent numbers published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that New Mexico has already surged into the No. 2 spot in the national rankings with record production in the month of March, the latest numbers available for that state.
But those figures have a sizable discrepancy compared to data released directly from the two states' oil regulators. According to a comparison of recent reports out of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division and New Mexico Oil Conservation Administration, the southwestern state's March production still lagged 57,573 barrels a day behind North Dakota.
"New Mexico is coming on like gangbusters," said Lynn Helms, North Dakota's top oil regulator, during a monthly production report on Monday, June 14. "At best we're in a foot race."
Oil-rich Texas has long dominated the top of the national production rankings, but North Dakota has maintained its second-place position since 2012, when horizontal drilling developments in the Bakken and Three Forks formations powered the state past Alaska.
The recent competition is largely a result of big production gains in New Mexico, which has been pumping out more oil over the last few years and hit its largest monthly increase on record this March, according to the EIA. North Dakota's production has climbed back from pandemic lows more steadily this year.
North Dakota produced about 1.1 million barrels of oil a day in April, the state's latest numbers available, up about 1% from March, the month being compared with New Mexico.
"Of course, they don't have winter there. Not like we do," said Helms, who noted the production setbacks that North Dakota tends to face in cold months like March. But Helms noted that the state also recently lost a fracking crew, leaving eight active crews currently working in the state. If that number doesn't start trending up, Helms said New Mexico is likely to supplant North Dakota in the national rankings.
Justin Kringstad, the director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, said that EIA may rely on estimates for some state production figures, possibly accounting for the discrepancy with state-level estimates. Data coming straight from state regulators is likely the most accurate, he said. An EIA analyst did not respond Monday evening to a voicemail from The Forum requesting more specifics on the agency's data.
"Certainly not to take anything away from New Mexico," said Kringstad, who predicted that Bakken production would pick up again in the warmer months. "North Dakota, at least as far as I'm concerned, is still that number two oil producer in the nation."
New Mexico's recent surge has come in spite of a national moratorium on new drilling leases on federal lands put in place with the start of President Joe Biden's administration, a rule that affects a broad swath of the southwestern state. More than a third of New Mexico is federal land, compared to a little under 4% of North Dakota.
Helms added that the state-to-state oil production competition matters beyond simple bragging rights. Venture capital firms have historically favored investment in states trending at the top of the production rankings, and status as a top dog can also provide useful clout when the state "wants to flex its muscle a little bit on federal rules."
Helms also noted that North Dakota may be looking to apply some of that muscle soon, hinting that the state could be joining litigation against the federal government over the federal leasing moratorium in the coming weeks.
"We are inching towards upping the ante," he said.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.