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Federal geologists working to update oil, gas estimates for Williston Basin

Pumping units are pictured near Williston, N.D., on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Forum News Service

BISMARCK - North Dakota oil industry leaders urged federal geologists Wednesday, April 24, to consider new technology that has dramatically boosted oil production as they update an estimate of oil and gas resources in the Williston Basin.

The U.S. Geological Survey is in the initial stages of evaluating the oil and gas that can be recovered in the Williston Basin, updating an assessment from 2013.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the previous estimate was based on 2011 technology and considered the Bakken and Three Forks formations but excluded other oil-producing zones.

“You have to focus on the entire resource, all the formations,” said Hoeven, who hosted a roundtable discussion with the USGS on Wednesday at Bismarck State College.

Walter Guidroz, energy resources program coordinator for the USGS, said a team in Denver is working on a new assessment, with a target of completing it by the end of the year.

An accurate estimate of the oil and gas resource is important not only for producers, but also for attracting investment to build infrastructure, housing, roads and related industries, said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

The first USGS estimate of the Bakken, released in 2008, “was kind of the awakening of the significance of the Bakken,” Ness said.

At that time, the USGS estimated the Bakken likely had about 3.7 billion barrels of oil and 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas that could be recovered with existing technology.

In 2013, the USGS more than doubled its estimate for the Bakken oil resource after considering technology advancements and the Three Forks formation. That year, the survey said the Bakken and Three Forks likely had 7.4 billion barrels of oil and 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that were technically recoverable.

In 2013, industry leaders said that estimate was conservative.

Since that time, oil producers have been drilling deeper into the Three Forks formation, the zone below the Bakken.

“There’s quite a bit of data now that did not exist at that time,” said Director of Mineral Resources Lynn Helms.

Technology advancements with hydraulic fracturing and well completions have been “mind boggling,” boosting the productivity of wells by nearly 50% just in the past year, Helms said.

Companies also are refracturing older wells using the latest technology and seeing significant increases in oil production, Helms said.

North Dakota, the country’s No. 2 oil producer after Texas, produced a record 1.4 million barrels of oil per day in January. Natural gas volumes continue to set records, most recently at 2.6 billion cubic feet per day.

Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, said an accurate assessment of the natural gas resource is critical for planning infrastructure projects.

Industry leaders also encouraged the USGS to consider technology that will enhance oil recovery by injecting carbon dioxide in oil-producing formations.

Tony Moss, exploration manager for Continental Resources, emphasized that companies are still relatively early in the development of the Bakken. The state has more than 15,000 wells, but Continental Resources estimates the state will eventually have 65,000 wells.

“We’re really just getting to the point where we feel like we're starting to optimize development,” Moss said.

Continental Resources estimates the recoverable oil from the Bakken and Three Forks formations to be between 30 billion and 40 billion barrels of oil, Moss said. That estimate is based on recovering 15% to 20% of the oil in those formations, and does not include the potential for enhanced oil recovery, Moss said.

The North Dakota Geological Survey has identified 17 formations outside of the Bakken and Three Forks that have “significant potential,” Helms said.

The USGS, which committed to updating the estimate in 2017, will include those additional formations in the assessment, Guidroz said.

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