ND oil patch is bigger than thought, new USGS report says

New oil well
One of thousands of oil wells pumping in western North Dakota, this one in Mountrail County in 2010.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The U.S. Geological Survey is significantly increasing its assessment of oil and gas reserves in the Williston basin of North Dakota.

In the past five years, more than 4,000 new wells in the Williston area have offered new information about the subsurface geology and the potential for oil and gas.

Read the USGS report

USGS Acting Director Suzette Kimball said in a news conference Tuesday morning that this information will help the Obama administration to use sound science making decisions about developing America's domestic energy sources.

"Together the Bakken and Three Forks formations contain an estimated mean of 7.4 billion barrel of undiscovered technically recoverable oil. This assessment is a two-fold increase from the 2008 assessment," Kimball said.

MAP: The Bakken and Three Forks Formations Image courtesy USGS

A 2008 report found there were 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil using existing technology.

The new report shows the two formations also contain an estimated 6.7 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, natural gas. That's three times more than the 2008 estimate.

USGS says the increase is primarily a result of adding the Three Forks formation to the Bakken. Technical advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing now make it possible to extract oil previously thought to be unrecoverable.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement that the study was great news for North Dakota and the nation.

"It will further serve to enhance our state's role as an energy powerhouse for the nation," Hoeven said.

Hoeven requested the new USGS study more than two years ago, he said, to generate a long-term outlook for production potential and needed government investment in the region's infrastructure.


A major player in the development of oil production in North Dakota believes there is much more oil in North Dakota than the USGS estimates. Harold Hamm is CEO of Continental Resources and a pioneer in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Hamm has estimated there are 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the Williston basin. That estimate is partially based on the expectation that technology will improve.

"There are many folks out in industry and communities that will make assessments of resource potential," Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said.

Jewell said the new USGS study, "represents sound science by USGS scientists using the best available data which includes data from industry and the states of North Dakota and Montana."

North Dakota is now producing more than 700,000 barrels of oil per day, and is second to Texas in domestic oil production.

Energy production is fueling a nearly $2 billion budget surplus in North Dakota. In addition, earmarked reserve funds generated from energy revenue are expected to grow to more than $5 billion in the next two years.

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