With production and employment falling rapidly, North Dakota’s oil industry is enduring historically bleak times.
The number of drilling rigs in North Dakota — a harbinger for future oil production — is at a low not seen in the fracking era, said Lynn Helms, director of the state’s Mineral Resources Department, in a conference call with reporters Friday.
The rig count, which was in the 50s during the first three months of this year, fell to 35 in April and sits at 12 today — “a massive decline,” Helms said. It’s expected to drop below 10, he added.
Drilling new wells is a major source of employment in North Dakota’s oil industry, and so is fracking, the injection of torrents of water, sand and chemicals into those wells. There were 25 frac crews operating in North Dakota in March. Today, there is one.
“That is not a pretty picture,” Helms said.
Jobless claims in North Dakota’s oil patch have been disproportionately much higher than for the state as a whole.
As of the week of May 9, 7,633 workers in the petroleum and mining industry had filed for unemployment benefits — 36% of that sector’s average workforce in 2019, according to data from North Dakota Job Service.
Most oil and mining sector unemployment claims come from oil field workers. Petroleum job classification doesn’t include thousands more workers who depend on the oil and gas industry.
There were scraps of good news in the state’s monthly report Thursday, Helms said.
At 1.43 million barrels per day, North Dakota’s March oil production fell only 2% from February, even though the global oil cave-in started that month.
Helms also noted that with oil prices creeping up over the past week, he has heard reports that some operators may resume production at wells currently shut-in because of the crisis.
Still, with oil storage tanks brimming, there’s little place for new production to go without a significant hike in demand, which isn’t forecast anytime soon. Any semblance of a true recovery in North Dakota’s oil output is months away, Helms said.
The state is forecasting production in the “950,000 [barrels per day] range” in April, he said, a 33% decline from March and the lowest since 2016.
West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the benchmark U.S. oil price, was around $60 a barrel in early January but began plummeting in March and briefly fell below zero in late April. Oil has been crushed by a supply glut and a coronavirus-induced collapse in fuel demand.
On Friday, WTI was trading just below $30 a barrel, up $10 from the beginning of May. But that price is still well below break-even for oil producers.
North Dakota, home to the Bakken oil fields, is the nation’s largest petroleum-producing state after Texas. Oil and gas is one of its two bedrock industries, along with agriculture.
The petroleum business provides North Dakota with its largest pot of tax money. The industry was forecast to generate $4.9 billion from July 1 through June 30, 2021 — 57% of all revenue collected by the state.
Earlier this month, North Dakota created a “Bakken Restart Task Force,” made up of multiple government agencies. It aims to spur a recovery of the state’s oil and gas industry through regulatory and tax “relief,” low-cost financing and other measures.
“There is a lot of brainstorming going on,” Helms said.