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A North Dakota oil primer

Will the oil gushing from the Bakken Formation in western North Dakota someday free the United States from dependence on foreign oil? Just how much oil is out there? Does the Bakken contain more oil than Saudi Arabia? Many of the answers to these...

Workers trip pipe on a rig near Stanley, N.D. in June of 2010. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

Will the oil gushing from the Bakken Formation in western North Dakota someday free the United States from dependence on foreign oil?

Just how much oil is out there? Does the Bakken contain more oil than Saudi Arabia?

Many of the answers to these and other "frequently asked questions" posted on a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) website are hedged, dodged and qualified as much as questions about the future of Medicare, but they do provide a helpful primer for people wanting to know what's happening today in the booming Williston Basin.

Well, will the Bakken oil free the United States from depending on foreign oil?

The answer: We don't know.


"The USGS does not make forecasts about the future potential of a particular resource to resolve national energy needs," according to the USGS site. "It is difficult to determine if oil from the Bakken Formation, or any of the formations we have done assessments on, could offset other sources of oil. A number of logistical and economic factors affect current and future production, and oil deposits are typically produced for many decades."

The USGS offers a similar shoulder shrug when asked where North Dakota oil goes.

"The USGS has no information concerning where oil from the Bakken Formation may be used. You would need to contact the various drilling companies to learn where they send their oil."

What environmental issues are affected by drilling in the Bakken Formation?

"Environmental issues include surface disturbance, the amount of water initially required to hydrofacture the well and the quality of water produced with oil. In many cases, particularly on private land, it is the state government that regulates the extraction of oil and the remediation of sites after production is no longer economic."

Another question concerns problems associated with drilling in the Bakken.

"Traditional oil fields produce from rocks with relatively high porosity and permeability, so oil flows out fairly easily," the USGS says. "In contrast, the Bakken Formation is a relatively tight formation consisting of low porosity and permeability rock, from which oil flows only with difficulty.

"To overcome this problem, wells are drilled horizontally, at depth, into the Bakken and then water and other materials (like sand) are pumped downhole at high pressure (called hydrofracturing) to create open fractures, creating artificial permeability in these tight rocks. The oil can then flow more easily out of these fractures and tight pores."


A new study

One frequently asked question -- will the U.S. Geological Survey update its 2008 estimate that the Bakken contains between 3 billion and 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil -- was answered earlier this month by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Both of North Dakota's U.S. senators, Democrat Kent Conrad and Republican John Hoeven, had pressed for a new assessment because it could spur further development of the industry and the infrastructure needed to support it, such as housing for workers.

The 2008 estimate was a whopping 25-fold increase over the agency's 1995 estimate of 195 million barrels, but Salazar cited "significant new geological information" obtained during the current drilling boom and "ever-advancing production technologies" to justify a new assessment, which will begin in October and take one to two years.

How much oil are we talking about? How much does the Bakken produce, and how does that compare with U.S. consumption?

The USGS refers this one to the states. Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, wrote in his May 11 "director's cut" report that the Bakken produced 359,589 barrels a day from 5,439 producing wells in March, both all-time records. Production is likely to continue to grow; the 178 drilling rigs operating in the state now also represent an all-time high.

But the U.S., which produces 5.36 million barrels of crude oil a day (2009 figures), imports just more than 9 million barrels a day and consumes nearly 18.8 million barrels of crude and other petroleum products a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

So do we have more oil than Saudi Arabia?


Apparently not by a long shot, though the USGS answer isn't exactly straightforward.

The current estimate for the Bakken, remember, is 3 to 4.3 billion barrels. In 2000, the USGS put "undiscovered technically recoverable oil and gas in Saudi Arabia" at 87 billion barrels.

"There is no certain method to determine the exact volume of oil that is contained in the Bakken Formation or any formation," the answer site says. "The Bakken Formation oil resource is much different than the oil resources of Saudi Arabia. The Bakken oil resource is what we refer to as a 'continuous' or unconventional resource, whereas the oil resources being produced in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries are conventional resources. 'Continuous' or unconventional resources require more technical drilling and recovery methods that are much more costly and the oil recoveries per well are commonly much lower than in a conventional resource accumulation.

"However, the estimate of technically recoverable oil in the Bakken Formation is larger than all other current USGS oil assessments of the lower 48 states and is the largest 'continuous' oil accumulation ever assessed by the USGS."

Some other Internet sites with information on North Dakota's booming Oil Patch:

- Home page of North Dakota Industrial Commission's Oil and Gas Division: https://www.dmr.nd.gov/oilgas .

- North Dakota Geological Survey: https://www.dmr.nd.gov/ndgs .

- The Bakken Blog: http://www.bakkenblog.com .


- An industry jobs site: http://www.ndoiljobs.com .

- An industry video explaining hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking": http://www.northernoil.com/drilling.php .

- The Herald's 2010 award-winning eight-day series on oil in North Dakota: http://www.runningwithoil.com .

- An explanation of the geology of the Bakken Formation: http://geology.com/articles/bakken-formation.html .

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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