N.D. crude oil gurgles toward 1 million barrels per day

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2013 - 7:01 AM

After a sluggish increase in September, October’s daily barrel production sets another record.

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Excess natural gas is burned off at well sites, as seen at a well east of Williston, ND, in the heart of the Bakken oil region. It is hoped that the installation of pipelines will ultimately allow the gas to be contained and utilized

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North Dakota’s oil production has set another record and is getting closer to the 1 million barrels per day mark.

Crude oil output in October hit 941,637 barrels per day, the latest in a string of monthly records, but up just 1 percent over September, according to a report Friday by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. That’s about 5 percent of U.S. oil consumption.

Oil analysts have been predicting that North Dakota would soon surpass 1 million barrels per day — a symbolic industry benchmark. In the United States, only two other places — Texas and the separately counted Gulf of Mexico — exceed 1 million barrels per day in output.

“I think it is going to be a big deal,” said department Director Lynn Helms, who predicts the state will top the 1 million mark next year, perhaps a month or so later than first thought because of October’s weak uptick.

Helms, speaking at a webcast news conference, said that drilling has picked up significantly in December and drillers are getting more oil by injecting 25 to 50 percent more sand during hydraulic fracturing, the technique used to prepare shale formations for extraction.

If that practice grows, it could increase demand for frac sand mined in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. “That will be a positive, obviously, for the sand industry,” Helms said.

Natural gas production also set yet another record for the state at 1.07 billion cubic feet per day in October. About 28 percent of the gas still is being flared because of limited pipelines, the department said.

North Dakota, now the No. 2 oil-producing state behind Texas, has seen oil production leap sevenfold over five years. Texas still outproduces North Dakota by 2.7 times, and the Lone Star State’s oil output also is increasing thanks to its Eagle Ford and Permian shale-oil regions.

As North Dakota’s oil production has expanded, its pipelines haven’t kept up. In October, 69 percent of the oil was shipped to market by train, the equivalent of 11 to 12 daily trains of 100 tankers each, said Justin Kringstad, director of the state Pipeline Authority.

Higher shipping costs on rail mean North Dakota oil already sells at a discount to other light crude. One risk facing North Dakota and other oil regions is that higher output can depress the price of crude oil, especially if production from Iran and Libya re-enters the world markets.

“That is the bummer downside of the story,” said James Williams, an economist with WTRG Economics in London, Ark., who predicts that higher drilling costs in shale plays could force operators to scale back new drilling if prices drop. “There are risks to more production. For our energy security, it’s a good thing, but if in fact it lowers oil prices, then the rate of growth is bound to slump.”

The U.S. Geological Survey in July estimated that the Bakken region, which also includes part of eastern Montana, has 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

“The current boom is basically a technology-driven boom,” said John Bluemle, who worked for four decades with the North Dakota Geological Survey, including 14 years as its director until he retired in 2004. “We’ve know the oil has been in the Bakken for a long time. We had a short spurt in the late 1980s in which there was some production, but it just didn’t work until we got a combination of horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing.”

Bluemle, in an interview, said production should grow for years, and where it will end “I won’t even attempt to answer.” But he said fluctuating prices have been a big factor in North Dakota’s 60-year up-and-down history with crude oil.

Glen Johnson, business manager of Local 49 of the Operating Engineers, representing heavy equipment operators in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, said the oil boom has meant work building roads, pipelines and other projects.

“It’s definitely a positive for us,” said Johnson, who estimated that about 3,000 of the union’s 13,000 active members have worked on oil-related projects. “This created opportunities for people to go out and work the oil patch,” he said.

 

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 • @ShafferStrib

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