Twice as Big

By The Bakken magazine staff | May 24, 2013

The U.S. Geological Survey’s 2008 assessment of the Bakken Formation's recoverable oil potential has become one of the most downloaded publications ever issued by the USGS. That may soon change. In 2008, the USGS estimated the Bakken Formation held roughly 3.65 billion barrels of oil. Equipped with new geologic and production information not available five years ago, the USGS has reissued its assessment of the Bakken (and added the Three Forks Formation) for 2013. The new estimates, 7.4 billion barrels of oil in the combined formations, are unmatched, and double what they were in 2008. “This is the largest unconventional oil resource that the USGS has ever assessed,” said Brenda Pierce, energy resources program coordinator.

The assessment provides a mean undiscovered volume estimation for both the Three Forks and Bakken formations. For oil, the mean average is 7.4 billion barrels of oil, 6.7 trillion cubic feet of associated gas created during oil extraction and 0.53 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. The 7.4 billion barrels of oil number is the average of a high and low estimate created by the USGS, which estimates the two formations may contain 4.4 billion barrels to 11.4 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil. “However, there is no way to know how much oil is in the Bakken Formation or any formation until the area is actually drilled and produced,” according to the USGS.

The 2013 assessment is similar to the previous version, said Stephanie Gaswirth, Bakken assessment team lead, except for one difference. “The difference this time is that there is a substantial amount of new geologic information,” she said. Since 2008, roughly 4,000 wells have been drilled, giving the USGS a large volume of new information.

“We assess basins all the time,” said Pierce, “but the timing of reassessment depends on the availability of new data. The Bakken has gone through a revolution with new technological applications.”  Because of the technological advances, the assessment team realized new data was available, Pierce said.

In addition to a new assessment of the Bakken, the team added the Three Forks, something it didn’t do in 2008. “The Three Forks was generally considered nonproductive, there was no production data during the last assessment,” said Galwirth. Credit the North Dakota Geological Survey, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the Montana Board of Oil and Gas and several other industry groups or producers for the new supply of information, according to the USGS.

The USGS has not issued an official estimation on the time period it will take to recover the oil resources, but judges “it is likely to be many decades.”

The long-term prominence of the play has one decision maker in North Dakota committed to the development of the infrastructure needed to transport the resource from the well site to refineries across the U.S. “This assessment is yet another reminder that increased oil and gas development in North America requires critical infrastructure, like the Keystone XL pipeline,” said U.S. Sen. Heidi Hietkamp, D-N.D., adding that among many issues, “we need to ensure that there are adequate roads, housing units and schools in the Bakken communities to support long-term growth.”