Faces Of The Boom: Geologist Excited For Bakken Potential

John Harju is the associate director for research at UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – When John Harju graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1986, it was a bad time to be a geologist in the state.

“It was an absolutely dismal time, there was no work,” Harju said.

But later in his career, Harju found himself in the right place at the right time.

Harju serves as associate director for research at the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota.

The Bakken oil boom has created a lot of opportunities for the center to partner with the oil industry.

Although technology has come a long way to make recovering oil from the Bakken possible, Harju estimates companies are only recovering 4 percent to 6 percent of the oil.

The EERC is working with oil companies on a project that aims to recover more oil while minimizing the footprint on the environment. How high the recovery rate could go is unknown, but even a small percentage increase would extend the life of Bakken wells significantly, Harju said.

“Right now, what we’re thinking is every 1 or 2 percent is a lot,” he said.

Harju and a representative from Continental Resources will speak about the research project this week at the North Dakota Petroleum Council’s annual meeting in Grand Forks.

The three-year project, which is just getting started, is funded with $8 million from the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Council and more than $100 million from industry, Harju said.

Much of the research will focus on reducing natural gas flaring, finding ways to reuse water and finding more environmental and economical ways to dispose of drill cuttings, Harju said.

The Bakken boom has meant more of the EERC’s oil and gas research is closer to home, but the center has worked on projects in 52 countries and all 50 states.

Last week, Harju traveled to Alberta to visit with one of the major oil sands producers about methods to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint using carbon capture.

Harju, whose oil and gas expertise is recognized nationally and internationally, was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Energy to the National Petroleum Council, an advisory council with about 200 members.

“I would have never guessed that I would be on something like that,” said Harju, the only North Dakotan on the council. “It’s something personally rewarding.”

Among his other appointments, Harju serves on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Unconventional Resources Technology Advisory Committee.

Harju has spent most of his career at the EERC, but also did other oil and gas work around the country.

Harju said he’s grateful to work on what he loves in North Dakota. One of the future advancements he’s excited about is the potential to enhance oil recovery in the Bakken through carbon dioxide injection.

“Because the resource is so unconventional, we’re really in sort of a very pioneering situation now,” Harju said.