Remember all of the rosy projections about the amount of oil and gas that we could get from shale in the Dakotas when the Bakken Field first came into focus? Energy producers predicted that the find would push us toward energy independence, as long as government didn’t get in the way. The oil alone would last for decades, and the natural gas might change the way America generates power altogether.
Well, I hate to tell you, but all of those sunny optimists were wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. They weren’t optimistic enough:
The federal government is doubling its estimate of how much oil might be discovered and harvested in the booming area of the Dakotas and Montana, a region that’s already helping to drive the United States’ dramatic shift into a role as the world’s leading oil producer.
“These world-class formations contain even more energy resource potential than previously understood, which is important information as we continue to reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday in a conference call.
The surge comes primarily because of the Three Forks shale formation, which lies mostly in North Dakota and crosses into South Dakota and Montana. It was considered to have little potential for productive drilling the last time federal geologists launched an estimate of the area, four years ago. But advances in drilling techniques and growing activity by oil companies caused the U.S. Geological Survey to take a closer look.
The USGS now thinks the Three Forks formation contains 3.73 billion barrels of undiscovered and technically recoverable oil. Combined with a similar figure for the neighboring Bakken formation, it represents double the oil and nearly triple the natural gas that geologists thought the region held four years ago.
“Recoverable” is a term of art, of course, but the development of fracking and of horizontal drilling has vastly improved the ability to recover known reserves. CNBC asked a University of Houston researcher about the estimates and recoverability, and he replied that the estimates may still low-ball the actual recoverable oil and gas:
“We agree with the range of numbers and think the high estimate of 11 billion barrels is a reasonable target as technology and exploration of the Three Forks continues,” said Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, referring to the upper end of the USGS estimate.
Dr. Don Van Nieuwenhuise, head of the geosciences program at University of Houston, said the USGS numbers are conservative as they are based on looking at “sweet spots” within the formation.
“There are chances there are sweet spots they don’t know about. The prospects of finding additional sweet spots in an area this size is relatively high,” he said. “I’m pretty sure every drop they say you’re going to find, you’ll find.”
New drilling technologies like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have turned the Bakken Formation and Three Forks into one of the nation’s most important sources of domestic crude.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released a study of the effects of shale production on jobs and wages in North Dakota. And IHS has forecast that shale exploration and production could add 870,000 jobs to the national economy by 2015. However, if shale discoveries continue at the present pace, the new data and forecasts could be out of date already, and the shale boom could be more than extraordinary.
It could be — as long as government doesn’t slow down or obstruct altogether the exploration and extraction process. So far, the operation in the Dakotas and Montana have managed to keep from running afoul of federal regulators, which is why the Dakotas have a low unemployment rate and are experiencing a construction boom. Construction for a new refinery will break ground next week in Makoti, and more may follow.
Just imagine what we might find off both American coasts, and of all the jobs we might create, if we just allowed ourselves to look.