North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources director said Monday that he believes people walking in the state 100 years from now won’t even notice signs of today’s oil development.

“I’m convinced that if we apply the best science that we have to date, it will be possible to erase the footprint of 100 years of oil and gas production in North Dakota,” Helms said. “The goal is to make well sites that are plugged and reclaimed disappear. We’ve done it 8,400 times. Not completely perfectly in North Dakota, but we are getting better and better at it.”

Helms made his comments in front of about 120 people at the second North Dakota Reclamation Conference, which concludes today at the Astoria Hotel & Suites in Dickinson.

The keynote speaker for the conference, Helms’ talk touched on reclamation subjects from drilling cuttings waste pits to pipelines, among other topics. He also held a brief question-and-answer session.

“With 15,000 square miles of North Dakota, the Bakken play is the biggest oil field in the world,” Helms said. “There are a lot of oil fields in the world and a lot of oil-producing areas in the world, but there is no continuous oil field of that size anywhere else in the world.”

Stating that the science is always expanding for mineral recovery and the reclamation of surface lands where that recovery takes place, Helms detailed plans for a Bakken he said will be several generations in the making from when drilling began several years ago.

Beginning with “pre-discovery,” the Department of Mineral Resources uses a five-phase scope of oil and gas development to illustrate production predictions for the Bakken, though advances in technology and recovery methods could change those forecasts.

“What I want to impress on you is that our current rig count of 190 will take an entire generation to drill all those wells,” Helms said. “For the millennials in the room, by the time we’re done drilling those wells, your children, my grandchildren, will be working in the oil business. It’s pretty mind-boggling. From what we call discovery to the end of phase three is really a three-generation process. I can’t even imagine what we’re going to learn in that amount of time.”

Though he said drilling techniques do have a certain amount of environmental impact, Helms said the future of oil recovery clearly resides within horizontal drilling on multi-well drilling pads.

Helms detailed a Marathon Oil Corp. site in western North Dakota on a seven-mile stretch of road where, he said, about 140 surface acres will likely eventually provide access to nearly 18,000 mineral acres.

“That’s a footprint of eight-tenths of 1 percent,” Helms said. “In the oil business, that is incredibly small. That really hasn’t ever happened anywhere else in the world in the oil and gas business. That’s a significant impact, but the typical historical oil field footprint was 10 percent. From 1901 through 2001, we were looking at 10 percent. It is a 20-year process to develop those multi-well pads.”

Helms said that the oil industry is “working hard” on enhanced recovery.

The North Dakota portion of the Bakken is estimated to hold somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 billion barrels of oil and Helms said the industry currently hopes to recover between eight and 14 billion barrels from the Peace Garden State.

“Enhanced oil recovery holds the hope of recovering twice as much oil or three times as much without having any increase, really, in the landscape,” Helms said. “Every 1 percent increase represents three billion barrels of oil. Another formation that is just getting underway, and is in its discovery phase, is the Tyler formation. The first two wells have been drilled, but have not been completed yet. There’s a lot of different theories about what the aerial extent of the Tyler will be, but time will tell.”

Helms said the state’s current level of 190 active rigs is not expected to change much over the course of the next two decades.

“I had the chance to visit recently with most of the major companies that are drilling in the Bakken and Three Forks formations in North Dakota,” Helms said. “The shortest drilling inventory I heard about was seven years, but most were in the 17- to 27-year range of drilling inventory based on the number of leaseholds that have.

“Nobody wants to push the rig count back up to the 218 rigs that we had in May of 2012 or the way life was in Williston or Dickinson during that time.”

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