What’s the Bakken? Did you know these things?

Oil production can be a controversial topic. Nevertheless, it’s a present North Dakota industry tipping the balance of world energy politics. The world knows about North Dakota and the Bakken oil play. 

A rig works in McKenzie County, west of Watford City.

A rig works in McKenzie County, west of Watford City.

Where is it?first-nd-oil-well-map-aoghs

It’s not hard to imagine a Saudi oil prince who had never heard of North Dakota, now knows about the state and the Bakken,  with its primary counties: McKenzie, Mountrail, Dunn, Ward, and Williams Counties.  The heart of the Bakken extends roughly from Watford City east to Mandaree, up to New Town back south to Killdeer It is a region that put OPEC on notice that the U.S. was cutting its dependency on Middle Eastern oil.

Take a drive through the region to see the “dipping donkeys.”

two oil pumps

Dipping donkeys or oil pumps are placed a few yards apart so their footprint is minuscule compared to the wells of 30 years ago.

They won’t be there for long. For every active well that you pass, you also drive past hundreds of capped wells no longer apparent. You may get to spot an oil rig. There are about 40 working in the beginning of 2017.  Four years ago, there were about 200.  A well is not permanent.  Technology is so advanced that the wells’ greatest production is in the first five years.


Did you know?

When a well costs more to operate than it produces it is cut off three or four feet below the surface. The pipe below ground is encased in at least three layers of concrete.

The same topsoil and subsoil that was removed for the well pad is replaced and the terrain is reshaped.  Vegetation is restored.  Nearly 9,000 wells in the region have been capped and are invisible to everyone except petroleum engineers.

Nearly 9,000 wells in the region have been capped and are invisible to everyone except petroleum engineers.



The Bakken is a geological layer a couple miles or 10,000 feet below the surface.  The target area at that 2-mile depth is a layer about 5-feet wide . Its name has been applied to the surface region where drilling activity is most apparent. It is 200,000 square miles of the subsurface of the Williston Basin, covering parts of Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan.  It’s estimated up to 500 billion barrels of oil are in the Bakken.  About one-million barrels a day are produced.

Multiple wells are on one pad. Current oil production uses less than 10% of space compared to oil production 30 years ago.

Multiple wells are on one pad. Current oil production uses less than 10% of space compared to oil production 30 years ago.

The world-class oil play could last up to 50 years at some level, but probably not as busy as it was 2011 to 2014.  Thousands of jobs have been created.  One form of taxes on the wells, extraction taxes produce as much as $3-billion a year. Billions more are collected in income, sales and corporate taxes.

History of North Dakota Oil Production

 North Dakota has provided oil to the nation for more than 65 years.  The earliest permit issued for oil exploration in North Dakota came from the state geologist in 1923. The spark that ignited North Dakota’s oil boom of 1951 was discovery of oil by Hess Petroleum Corporation on the Clarence Iverson farm, 8 miles south of Tioga. The oil field which grew up around this original site is a small part of the oil-bearing region called the Williston Basin, which extends from South Dakota to western Canada, and from central North Dakota to central Montana. The Bakken is within the Williston Basin.

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How to get there

three-oil-derricks

The drilling rigs associated with oil activity are in place for only a few weeks. Then, the “dipping donkeys” or pumps are installed. Even the pumps are temporary because when the oil has been removed from the tiny area two miles down, the pumps are shut down and removed.

 From Watford City, head east on Highway 23 toward New Town.  15 miles down the road, at Johnson Corner continue straight on Highway 73 toward Mandaree. Another 15 miles and you’ll stop at the intersection with Highway 22. Head north about 17 miles and you’ll once again connect with Highway 23.  Here, you can turn east toward New Town or turn west back to Watford City.  (Technology has improved the process so much that a well today occupies only about 10% of the ground that a similar well occupied in 1980.)

 A late-day drive through the region will help you spot oil drills as the sun sets. Floodlights shine on the skyscraper structures and the little village at the base of each drill. That’s where workers stay as they service the 24/7 drilling operation. Each well will drill down about 2 miles, and curve horizontally to tap a five-foot wide section of geology called the Middle Bakken. Once drilled, wells are installed to lift oil from 2-miles below the surface.  An onsite system of tanks and separators hold the oil until it can be delivered to a refinery.

Cattle are king. Wells being drilled nearby do not upset grazing beef cattle.

Cattle are king. Wells being drilled nearby do not upset grazing beef cattle.

The vehicle you are driving could be burning fuel that was once two miles below the road on which you are driving.

Late in the day, you’ll also see large flames from tall pipes on the well pad.  When oil comes up, natural gas comes with it. At current market prices of 3-cents a million cubic feet, it costs far more to collect, move and distribute than the current price. So, it is burned off, or “flared.”

Excess natural gas is burned off in a process called "flaring." North Dakota's rate of flaring is far below national standards.

Excess natural gas is burned off in a process called “flaring.” North Dakota’s rate of flaring is far below national standards.

The Bakken leads the world in capturing natural gas and reducing the amount of natural gas that is flared.  North Dakota’s flaring rate is well below national regulations and world standards.

Recommendation

This is history unfolding around us.  If you haven’t driven through the region in the last few years, you missed the excitement of “The Boom.”  That historic moment is gone.

You can still see just what it is that the world is talking about. The boom of several years ago has passed, but oil production continues.  At the time of this writing, there is an uptick in oil production and a national call for workers, but it is nothing compared to 2012-2014.  Infrastructure, roads, services have caught up to demand which makes now a good time to drive through the region to see for yourself what it is that people are talking about.

Though the boom of several years ago has passed, but oil production continues.  At the time of this writing, there is an uptick in oil production and a national call for workers, but it is nothing compared to 2012-2014.  

  • Infrastructure, roads, services have caught up to demand in many places. and the work to catch up continues. That makes now a good time to drive through the region to see for yourself what it is that people are talking about.  
  • Truck bypasses have taken the load off city streets and provided fast routes around towns such as Killdeer,
  • Watford City and New Town.  Nearly all of the city Main Streets have been reworked to accommodate visitors.  
  • Familes are filling homes for long-term if not permanent work.

 

 

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