Updated: Williston Basin (Bakken Formation) Oil Might Be An Election Changer


Oil development facility, Bakken formation, North Dakota. Image credit:USGS slide show.

With oil prices going up faster than the cheers in Tahrir Square and the 2012 US election campaign underway, I was sure we'd soon hear Republicans pushing their usual ANWR and deepwater Gulf drilling shticks. (Rinse spill and repeat.) Scratch that nonsense. North Dakota and a corner of Montana are where the oil action will be.

Consider this USGS report headline from 2008: "3 to 4.3 Billion Barrels of Technically Recoverable Oil Assessed in North Dakota and Montana's Bakken Formation...": The referenced USGS study was done at the request of retiring Democratic Senator from North Dakota, Byron Dorgan. Based on my reading of the USGS FAQ sheet from 2008, billions of barrels of "technically recoverable" oil - oil that is extractable using techniques very similar to those which have proved useful for producing natural gas from Marcellus Shale - are going to upend the standby business and political models. More below...

My favorite USGS FAQ on the Bakken formation potential is this:

Why isn't this information concerning the Bakken Formation on front page news?

In April 2008, when the USGS released the assessment of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources of the Bakken Formation, there was a press release http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=1911 which was distributed to the media. The individual media organizations make the decision about what stories to publish. When the USGS assessment was released, news articles were done in several news avenues including the New York Times, the Associated Press, and Oil and Gas Journal.
My hunches about why the Bakken potential report received then, and is getting now, so much less attention than it deserves:

  • The Bakken formation potential had taken on a kind of urban legend status up until 2008, as before that time no authoritative source had done such an optimistic, yet comprehensive and credible assessment.

  • Water consumption, water pollution, and wildlife conservation issues are potentially significant obstacles, though not necessarily drill killers.

  • Access to the formation on private land and clean up of operations would be regulated mainly by States, not EPA . National coverage was sparse, then, as political sparring in Washington could only be marginally relevant. (Not the case in ANWR and offshore.)

  • The corporate names are unfamiliar. Instead of your BP and your ExxonMobil and your Shell, you got your Humble and your Rose and your EOG Resources, and your Whiting Petroleum, and so on.

Here are some of the potential long-term transformational effects I see for the Bakken formation.

  • Most of Alaska's state revenue stream is from oil production; but who's going to invest in more production in Alaska when Bakken reserves are accessible in the lower 48, where the weather is better, the pipes are better maintained, and you don't have to listen to Sara Palin?
  • Bakken oil requires much much less energy per barrel to extract that Alberta Tar Sands oil: guess where the money is headed?
  • Should the Obama Administration put some political and budgetary muscle to get production going, they could easily drown out the expected "drill here,...drill now" and "we're broke" nonsense.
  • The area around Kenmare ND ("Home of the Honkers") is poised for a boom in housing, water use, wind farm development, and possibly Bakken oil formation development.
I sure hope the North Dakota 'oil boomers' keep enough clean water around for the geese and ducks over at Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge.
Des Lacs NWR encompasses more than 19,500 acres along the Des Lacs River from the Canadian border to a point eight miles south of Kenmare, North Dakota. A mix of natural lakes and managed wetlands in the valley provide a haven for migrating and nesting waterfowl and marsh birds.

Spring visitors can enjoy the courtship dance of western grebes. Four other species of grebes also nest on the Refuge. During summer, American white pelicans are easy to spot as they feed on small fish. Broods of ducklings of various ages paddle through the marshes. Giant Canada geese commonly nest on the Refuge, producing between 150 and 200 young annually.



Google maps image of Kenare ND and Des Lacs Refuge segment to the north.

View of Pool 5 on Des Lacs Refuge Image credit: Flickr, USFWS, Jennifer Jewett

Conservation is as important as oil development. Redheads are beautiful and they taste good too.

Redhead male. Image credit:Wikipedia.
Updates.
It is correct that using the upper bound yield estimate the Bakken, if intensively exploited, could satisfy a year to a year and a half's worth of US oil consumption. So, we still need to cut back consumption drastically. (I'm not addressing the possibility that the Bakken oil would simply be sold to the highest bidder, which right now could be Chinese or maybe European refiners.)

The main point of this article is that, for near term, as a bridge to more electric vehicles in the fleet and greater energy conservation, this is a more benign source of oil relative to what Republicans call for exploiting. The Obama Administration can use the Bakken as a lever to change the discourse - if it so chose.

We need to consider the possibility of a scenario in which the Middle East continues to destabilize and oil becomes extremely precious - in which case the Bakken will be viewed as a national emergency reserve. (Analogy: prior to 2008, no experts were willing to admit there even was a housing bubble, then POP it went.)