The U.S. Is Poised to Hit a New Oil Gusher
Oil drillers have their eye on a vast oil field in and around North Dakota, which promises a steady flow of domestic crude for years.
By Jim Ostroff, Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter
March 17, 2008
* Marathon Oil
* EOG Resources
* Brigham Exploration
* Crescent Point Energy Trust
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A new black gold rush is under way, this time in North Dakota. The potential payoff is huge -- up to 100 billion barrels of oil. That’s twice the size of Alaska’s reserves and potentially enough to meet all U.S. oil needs for two decades.
Until now, the obstacles to production seemed overwhelming. The crude oil is locked away in rocks that are buried miles underground in the Bakken Play, a field that stretches into Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada.
But times have changed. High oil prices and new technology make it worth the effort. Computer analysis and remote sensing systems, plus smart drills that can probe horizontally or snake left and right, vastly improve the odds of locating new pools and putting them into production. And though oil is unlikely to remain priced at current stratospheric levels, prices won’t drop to much lower levels, which happened several times since the 1970s, and cause new exploration to dry up. Even if prices fell by half, many barrels of oil could still be produced -- profitably -- from the region.
An official government survey of the Bakken region's oil treasure trove is due out next month. The report is expected to play it very conservatively, because it will confine estimates to the amount of oil that likely can be produced profitably based on last year’s oil prices. It will also not take into account any further technological advances that might make it even easier to extract more oil.
"The Bakken is much like the enormous natural gas field that sat for many years under and around Dallas until people figured out the geology and how to drill it out economically," says Lucian Pugliaresi, president of the Energy Policy Research Foundation.
There's at least a smell of the "Old West" as petroleum companies rush to stake their claims in the Bakken Play. Marathon Oil recently acquired about 200,000 acres in the area and will drill about 300 oil wells within five years. Brigham Exploration and Crescent Point Energy Trust are also interested in some of the action. EOG Resources alone figures it can produce 80 million barrels of oil from its Bakken field.
Figure on at least five years before the oil starts flowing in large volumes. A lot of work will need to be done first. In addition to installing drilling gear, firms must build supporting infrastructure, including roads, pipelines as well as new water, sewage and sanitation systems to meet the needs of workers and other area residents.
Note that the Bakken Play region is not an environmentally sensitive area similar to Alaskan tundra that has stymied much oil field development because of concerns about damage to the fragile environment. Still, some environmental protests are sure to emerge and may gum up development for a while, but they’re unlikely to stop oil production from the Bakken fields.