USGS doubles estimate of recoverable oil from Williston Basin

WILLISTON, N.D. — The U.S. Geological Survey said Tuesday the Williston Basin has between 4.4 billion and 11.4 billion barrels of oil that is recoverable with today’s technology.

Although the figure is more than double what the survey said in 2008, geologists and industry leaders said Tuesday the estimate is conservative and will only get bigger as technology advances. The survey is the first by the USGS to include the Three Forks Formation as well as the Bakken Formation.

John Harju, associate director for research with the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, said he views the USGS figure as the lower limit of the amount of oil that will be recoverable from the Williston Basin.

“Like any of these USGS estimates, think of them as a milemarker that’s well behind you in the rearview mirror,” said Harju, a petroleum geologist.

Advancements, such as drilling deeper into the Three Forks Formation that is just beginning to be tapped or using carbon dioxide to enhance oil recovery, would substantially increase the USGS figure, Harju said.

“What this doesn’t even begin to recognize is the increase in technology that we’re going to see,” Harju said.

While it may be conservative, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said this new survey will give confidence to developers and others interested in investing in North Dakota.

“We need that private investment, private development along with our public investment for quality of life,” said Hoeven, who pushed for the updated assessment.

Officials with Continental Resources, the oil company that has pioneered exploration in the Three Forks, applauded the USGS update.

“This is probably America’s largest oilfield, and as with some of the other ones, it’s going to take multiple decades to develop,” said Rick Bott, president and chief operating officer of Continental Resources.

Geologist Kathy Neset, owner of Neset Consulting Services in Tioga, said the Williston Basin will be continue to be productive for 20 to 30 years, and the amount of oil that is recoverable will continue to evolve as technology improves.

Currently, estimates show producers are only recovering 3 percent to 10 percent of the total amount of oil in place, Neset said.

“If we increase that just to 11 percent of the oil, we now have that much more oil that we can then put into our reserves as domestic energy supply,” Neset said.


What the survey said

A 2008 USGS survey said the Williston Basin had between 3 billion and 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered and technically recoverable oil from the Bakken Formation, putting the average at 3.65 billion barrels.

At the time, little was known about the Three Forks Formation, which lies below the Bakken and contains the same light, sweet crude found in the upper and lower layers of the Bakken.

The USGS performed a new assessment to include the Three Forks as well as data from the more than 4,000 wells that have been drilled in the Williston Basin since 2008.

Using the new data, the USGS now estimates the Williston Basin likely has 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil, with a range between 4.4 billion and 11.4 billion.

The two formations are now estimated to contain 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 0.53 billion barrels of natural gas liquids that are recoverable, triple what the USGS said in 2008.

The figures represent resources that are undiscovered and recoverable using today’s technology but does not necessarily mean it would be cost-effective for an energy company.

Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, said in a statement Tuesday his office agrees with the range of numbers from the USGS and considers the high estimate of 11 billion barrels of oil to be a reasonable target.

The department’s informal estimate says the Williston Basin has between 11 billion and 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, said State Geologist Ed Murphy.

Julie LeFever with the North Dakota Geological Survey said the new figure from the USGS is impressive because it is in addition to the oil that already has been produced from the Bakken.

The Bakken has produced 673 million barrels and the Three Forks has produced 46 million barrels, according to the IHS Energy Group. North Dakota currently produces more than 775,000 barrels of oil per day and ranks behind Texas as the No. 2 oil-producing state.

The USGS assessment includes North Dakota, Montana and South Dakota, with more than 75 percent of the resource coming from North Dakota, more than 20 percent from Montana and less than 1 percent from South Dakota.


Why the number is low

The USGS said Tuesday its estimate included the entire Three Forks Formation.

However, data about deeper layers of the Three Forks is just becoming available.

The Three Forks Formation is on average about 270 feet thick and initial drilling focused on the upper 50 feet, Murphy said.

Now companies, namely Continental Resources, are exploring deeper in the formation.

“We’re seeing oil lower down in the Three Forks than we were anticipating three, four years ago,” Murphy said.

Continental announced in December the first successful test of the third bench of the Three Forks, which CEO Harold Hamm called at the time a “game changer.”

Harju said it’s unlikely that Continental’s recent advancements were taken into account in the new USGS estimate.

Bott, president of Continental Resources, said Tuesday the company is expanding its program to test the third and fourth benches of the Three Forks from 14 to 20 wells. Information about more recent tests is expected to become public in the next few weeks, Bott said.

Continental said in 2010 the Williston Basin has 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil equivalent from the Bakken and Three Forks formations.

If the deeper layers prove to be successful, that figure could increase to 32 billion or 45 billion barrels, Bott said Tuesday.

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