A Geologist To The Core

Kathy Neset has become a Bakken rockstar by working with multiple stakeholders ranging from community leaders to major exploration and production companies. Her story parallels the evolution of the play.
By Patrick C. Miller | May 13, 2015

Kathy Neset, owner of Neset Consulting Service in Tioga, North Dakota, speaks with clarity and conviction in describing how the combination of advancements in horizontal drilling and fracking have turned the Bakken into a world-class oil play and why it’s good for the region. But as a geologist, she can’t help but give Mother Nature proper credit for why those technologies have revolutionized oil and gas production in the Bakken.

“The geology of North Dakota is incredibly unique,” Neset explains. “It is so special as to how the Bakken formation is laid down and how it is separated from our water zones and how all the fracking down-hole technology takes place. The concept of horizontal drilling coupled with this geology works beautifully. And then you do fracking in a safe, efficient, effective way and we have success. It’s those three components, but being a geologist, I always go back to the rocks.”

Neset’s knowledge of the bowl-shaped Williston Basin’s layered rock formations and skill as a mud logger are what helped establish Neset Consulting’s 30-year relationship with Hess Corp. It also led to the company’s work with other Bakken producers such as Continental Resources Inc., Whiting Petroleum Corp., Statoil Oil and Gas LP, Sinclair Oil and Gas, Petro-Hunt LLC and Murex Petroleum Corp.

“My true love of this job and the passion is the geology itself,” she says. “With that, we’ve been able to refine the horizontal drilling and fracking to maximize the natural resource of the geology.”

Neset and her late husband Roy started an independent consulting business in Tioga in 1980. They had two sons who grew up in the business.

“The oilfield was a little different then,” Neset recalls. “I was able to bring the babies out to the rig with me. Our two boys grew up washing samples and learning the oil field firsthand.”

Her sons are part of the business today. RC Neset, a petroleum geologist, is in charge of researching and designing gas analyzers for the company’s gas detection division. Son Randy Neset is a petroleum engineer for Neset Consulting and vice president of operations for SHD Oil & Gas LLC.

Geosteering—the practice of keeping the drill bit located in the correct rock formation during drilling—and mud logging—the analysis of the drill cuttings, gas, oil and other fluids that come out of the ground with the drilling mud—are the areas in which Neset Consulting specializes and excels.

“We’re analyzing that material to geologically tell the story of what’s happening while a well is being drilled,” Neset says.

Because oil producers target a specific formation for their lateral bores, Neset stresses that it’s critical for the drill bit to hit the right spot when the curve is landed and keep it there.

“Right now, we’re talking the Bakken and Three Forks formations as the big kings of the energy industry here in North Dakota,” Neset says.

Drilling two miles down before curving the bore horizontally into the Middle Bakken—a rock formation that can be less than 10 feet thick—is the reason producers want to have a team of geologists and mud-loggers from Neset Consulting on site.

“We have to help the oil company see what the rock units are doing—waving or going up and down in the structure,” Neset says. “We land in the right unit and then keep the bit in that zone. Those are the key components of what today’s geo-steering geologist does.”

When drilling sideways at 300 feet an hour, even a small mistake can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Neset. The mud logger’s analysis of the rock, the liquids and the gases provide information on which key decisions are made to accurately steer the drill bit.

“If you don’t make those decisions incrementally as you go, you’re going to be in trouble, and you may run out of your zone or you may run into the Bakken shale, which we don’t want to do,” she explains. “We want to stay in the Middle Bakken between the two shales. If you get into the wrong lithofacies, that’s very expensive.”

When Neset first came to North Dakota in 1979 a year out of college, well bores were strictly vertical and only about one in three drilled produced oil. The first site she worked on was southeast of Bismarck.

“When you look at it now in the grand scheme of things, what a wildcat that was!” she laughs.

The combination of geology, horizontal drilling and fracking has changed all that.

“Nearly all of these wells are economically successful because this tight rock holds the oil,” Neset explains. “You may have a better area or a poorer area, but almost every single well is a successful well bore in North Dakota. Anybody who drills here is going to have some degree of success.”

When horizontal drilling started in the late 1990s, it was with one lateral completion and recovering as much oil as possible.

“The steps have evolved to today where we have multiple horizons that are targeted within the Middle Bakken,” Neset says. “So you have to stay within the right rock layer.”

The objective of horizontal drilling was to drill in a manner than enables more oil to drain out of the rock, but it wasn’t enough. The practice of fracking began in the early 2000s, and it’s taken time and a good deal of trial and error to realize its potential.

“I’ll never forget the work I did on one of the early wells,” Neset remembers. “I’m trying to look at the samples and steer this well precisely, exactly where the geologist had planned it. They finally said to me, ‘Kathy, lighten up a little bit. We don’t have to be quite that exact because we’re just going to frack the heck out of it anyway.’ And I said, ‘Oh. Ok.’ And they were right; they did.”

Once again, it took a number of years to learn more effective ways to frack a well. 

“Most of your frack goes to the heel of the well bore,” Neset says. “Out to the toe, the rock was not being treated. So even though you drilled out there and had all this rock exposed, most of the energy of the frack went into the first 500 or 800 or 1,000 feet of the well bore. You’ve actually drilled and not tapped into that out at the toe.”

And there was still more to learn.

“One well bore does not drain all the oil,” Neset notes. ”We’ve learned that. We have to put well bores closer together, side by side and we have to stack them on top of one another. So you penetrate a lateral into different portions of a spacing unit and that creates a very defined drainage pattern, which increases the amount that comes out of the rock.”

While oil producers are improving their engineering of wells, Neset Consulting focuses on the process of evaluation from the geology and geophysical side of the operation.

“The companies want the process to be absolutely the best, most high-tech-method so the mistakes are minimized and the good outcomes are maximized,” Neset says.

Her company owns six wheeled trailers that contain laboratories, living quarters, sleep quarters and a kitchenette. Small and highly mobile, the trailers can be moved quickly and easily by pickup. In addition, Neset says they take up little room on a drilling site where space is often at a premium.

Another technological advance that’s made today’s fracking and horizontal drilling possible is the speed with which information from the mud logs is transmitted, usually to a producer’s geologist far from western North Dakota. The rigs have Internet connections and satellite uplinks that enable everything to be sent in real-time to a producer’s data center.

“We staff a data center on a special pilot program with the Hess Corp.,” Neset says. “We are actually geosteering and helping to assist in uploading data, continuously communicating in real time because the decisions have to be made immediately. It doesn’t matter it if it’s two in the morning or two in the afternoon. There is a full crew on duty steering these wells, which most companies do.”

Neset is confident that despite low oil prices that have led to an industry slowdown, the Bakken and other untapped rock formations in the Williston Basin continue to offer enormous energy potential.

“The hardest part of any oil field is finding it,” she states. “We’ve found the Bakken. We’ve found the Three Forks. It’s all the Bakken oil system. Now it’s a matter of increasing the percent of recovery because we’re very low on that. We’re only 7 to 8 percent of the oil in place being recovered. We’d like to get that up to 12 percent, 18 percent or maybe 20 percent, but that will take a lot of work.”

Neset's Backstory
How Neset—who grew up with eight brothers in New Jersey and graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island—ended up in western North Dakota is a story that Hollywood couldn’t make up. She started her college career as a math major, but became interested in geology.

“I went from pure math and all these numbers and all this dry complicated stuff to going on a field trip with a group and a dynamic geology instructor. And I think, ‘Wait a second. You’re allowed to drink a beer on the bus on the way home?  I don’t have to go back to the science library and bury myself to study imaginary numbers?’ My decision was made. I fell in love with geology.”

That led to a job with Core Laboratories where she was trained as a mud logger.

“When I took the job, I really did not know what a mud logger was, but it sure sounded neat to me,” she smiles.

The job took her from east Texas to Wyoming and then to the well site near Bismarck where she first met Roy. When she moved to Tioga to work on a well there, Roy looked her up and the two were married. The oil boom of the '80s helped their consulting business take off, but it didn’t last.

“There were some pretty lean times here,” Neset says. “Farming was what kept us alive, and farming was also a struggle during the '80s and '90s. They were difficult days. We were one slip away from bankruptcy.”

Between substitute teaching and working on the farm, the family survived, and gained an appreciation for the land.

“I was very fortunate,” Neset says. My late husband Roy was really a very good teacher in the sense of sharing his farming knowledge. Our little boys and I learned how to farm along with him.”

On a sunny spring day on the edge of the Tioga Municipal Airport, Neset points out that from here she can see the Neset family farm, the Hess gas processing plant and the edge of Tioga, a town in the heart of the Bakken surrounded on all sides by oil and gas activity that calls itself the Oil Capital of North Dakota.

“I can’t in my wildest dreams think of myself anywhere else in the world,” Neset says. “I truly do say that this was a God-driven designed path because you couldn’t make this up. When I say I am the luckiest person in the world, I truly live that and believe it.”

And while some might question whether the oil and gas industry has been good for Tioga and other towns in western North Dakota, there’s no doubt in her mind that it has.

Neset tells about Bree Hanson, the daughter of a Neset Consulting employee, who last year had to be rushed to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a heart transplant in under four hours.

“Without this big resource of the Bakken and the oil industry, you wouldn’t have planes like that here in Tioga, readily available to help Bree,” she notes.

To Neset, it’s about finding the right balance between respecting the land and using natural resources to improve the quality of life.

“I think we have the responsibility to give back to our communities and share what we’ve learned so people can understand that there is a balance in this world and in this life,” she says. “You do have to balance the good of this industry with doing it correctly. That is the balance that we have to strive to maintain.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine
701-738-4923
pmiller@bbiinternational.com