The horizontal drilling and fracturing techniques that press’s favorite devil Halliburton pioneered to trigger the natural gas boom are the same technologies spurring a Canadian and U.S. oil drilling boom. The impact of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are migrating around the world, stabilizing and lowering not only North American gas prices but also international market prices for the liquefied natural gas now shipped across oceans from nations such as Qatar.

For Canada and the U.S. the oil boom is in the field called the Bakken, a widely spread oil reservoir with top quality oil trapped in a difficult rock right in the center of the North American continent.

Bakken Formation in the Williston Basin. Click image for the largest view.

Geologist JW Nordquist discovered the Bakken in 1953. He described it as an “Oreo cookie” arrangement of hard dolomite rock sandwiched between two darker shale layers.  For decades, petroleum geologists thought the Bakken shale was the source of the oil pools in the wider Williston Basin. But in 1999, Leigh Price, a geochemist working for the US Geological Survey (USGS), wrote a paper proposing that most of the oil from Bakken shale was still trapped in the Bakken Formation. He suggested the “cream” in the Nordquist Oreo cookie contained up to 500 billion barrels of crude, making it a prime exploration target. It is the dolomite “filling” that contains the oil causing all the excitement today, although that oil may have formed in the surrounding shale.  Mr. Price died in 2002, before his paper was published. The USGS was skeptical and for years refused to release the report and their review of it.

Meanwhile, an independent petroleum geologist, Richard Findley, reviewed drilling logs from abandoned Bakken wells and concluded that the operators missed the pay zone by drilling right through the hard oil bearing rock between the two shale layers. He interested Lyco Energy, based in Texas, in his theory.  Lyco brought in the services company Halliburton to try out what were then developing technologies: horizontal drilling; and hydraulic fracturing.

Findley, Lyco and Halliburton discovered and developed the Elm Coulee oilfield of eastern Montana in 1997.  The Elm Coulee oilfield now pumps about 50,000 barrels per day of light, sweet crude and is considered a small part of the larger Bakken field.

Non-USGS geochemist and geologist research has largely vindicated Mr. Price.  Non-government estimates of Bakken oil in place have ranged from 10 billion to 500 billion barrels. The most recent, built with sophisticated computer modeling, suggests 300 billion to 400 billion barrels could be realistic.  Every new well fills in the gaps making the later estimates stronger bases for more investments.

By 2008 in an effort to catch up, the USGS estimated that about 4 billion barrels of oil could theoretically be produced from the US part of the Bakken with current technology It represents enough oil to satisfy US consumers for about six months – hardly a game-changer.

Technology is advancing, so actual oil recovery could vastly exceed initial estimates and the Bakken is still a very young field with little development.

Canada’s Crescent Point Energy has tested a fracturing and water-flood recovery technique that boosts recovery from wells in Saskatchewan to 30 per cent of oil in place. “These mainly untapped resource pools provide Crescent Point with over 5,000 drilling locations and the potential to add over 500 million barrels of reserves,” Scott Saxberg, the company’s president and chief executive, told the Calgary Herald newspaper. “It’s unique that it’s light oil, and in our back yard, and it’s low cost,” he told Canada’s National Post.

Production form the Bakken is relatively economical as well. Costs for producing oil from the relatively shallow wells required to tap Bakken oil pools have fallen to about $5 per barrel, compared with tens of dollars per barrel for extracting tar-like bitumen from Canada’s oil sands and chemically converting it into synthetic light crude.  As a measure of the confidence major investments are underway the Canadian pipeline development company Enbridge is expanding their network to accommodate more oil from the Williston Basin.

The U.S. portion is described as the country’s largest oil deposit outside Alaska, and its biggest and most accessible part is in Canada. The Bakken could prove to be one of the largest oilfields in the world.  The American Association of Petroleum Geologists says it is the biggest continuous oil accumulation it has ever assessed.

In a reality check, since Drake’s first well over 150 years ago the hunt has been for wells the flow under their own pressure leading to the gushers then followed by pumping.  The hunt goes on today as seen in the BP blow out fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.

But most any oil basin is going to have oil formations that are not gushers, with huge amounts of more difficult to recover oil.  The list is just being looked at now.  The Bakken may be big, but it’s actually the first of what is likely to be more to come.


28 Comments so far

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  3. Al Fin on August 30, 2010 8:45 AM

    All of this is driving peak oil gurus and their disciples insane.

    The kicker is that much larger US deposits than this are likely to be buried under thick sediments and volcanic flows, as Earth’s active geology moved to cover up ancient oil fields over the past hundreds of millions to billions of years.

    Hubbert’s peak oil prediction for the US only came true because of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill, which brought on a regulatory environment discouraging new prospecting and drilling. The US has suffered under oppressive oil drilling regulations ever since and it is getting worse under Obama Pelosi.

    Obama’s EPA is actively trying to shut down shale gas fracing, so it is possible they will go after horizontal drilling for oil next.

    Political Peak Oil.

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  12. david burgess basin trucking & rental on January 2, 2011 2:12 PM

    I do have a question. I hear so many people and they’re estamites on just how long the drilling will indeed last. Some say a couple of years to 10 to 20. Does anyone really know? From all that I’ve seen in my research is that the bakken is very large and could possibly be much larger than original estimates and could possibly extend all the way to nebraska and as far east as minnesota. I know from a. Usgs report that there is oil on the pine ridge reservation in south dakota, is this too from the bakken or could it possibly be? And does anyone know if the rig in Faith, SD hit oil? And could that be bakken to?

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  26. Gerald B on October 27, 2014 1:27 PM

    Having been involved in the oil industry since just out of high school and on past my masters… O&G exploration is here to stay for a good long while.

    Hubbert couldn’t have adequately anticipated the amazing production enhancing technologies of the past decade+ let alone what’s around the corner.

    Marginal wells will be reactivated and more recoverables brought to market. Training and tools guys and girls. That’s what’s getting it done. Plain hard work and smarts.

    Now, if you’re a savvy student of history (like Peter Terzakian) you’ll know something will eventually come along and knock ole King Oil off his perch. But, until then, this IS the economy of the present and we (the U.S.) seem to be in a pretty nice position at the moment.

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