Could this oil reserve become that reliable bridge to a sustainable energy future?
HOUSTON CHRONICLE Jan. 13, 2011, 8:10PM
The news may not rate with a No. 1 ranking in the college football polls, but residents of North Dakota have reason — make that 11 billion reasons — to have their own celebration in this new year.
Eleven billion barrels is the latest estimate of reserves in the state’s share of the Bakken Formation, which extends for some 25,000 square miles from Canada down into Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Increasingly, the Bakken is being viewed as a major oil resource in the United States.
Eleven billion barrels is double the previous estimate of reserves, and could eventually push North Dakota into second place among the states for oil production, leapfrogging over California and Alaska and trailing only Texas. We won’t know for sure for a couple of years, but this is considered likely by experts, according to an Associated Press story published in the Chronicle (“North Dakota oil patch larger than expected: If estimate is correct, state might soon pass all but Texas in production,” Page B1, Jan. 3).
Good for North Dakota – and better for the U.S. That state’s contribution to the nation’s oil production has risen from 1 percent to 6 percent in recent years, and that number figures to continue upward. Observers say daily production of 700,000 barrels is likely within the next four to seven years. That is significant.
The Bakken doesn’t yet rank with Spindletop in the annals of oil lore, but it has yielded its share of tall tales. Over the past few years, the precise size of the reserves in the formation has been the subject of intense speculation and debate. A mythology about the Bakken has even sprung up: Some have conjured that the total reserve may be several times greater than that of Saudi Arabia, home of the world’s largest reserves. Well, not quite – at least not yet. But the speculation hasn’t kept the conspiracy theorists from wondering why information about the true Bakken reserves has been withheld.
It hasn’t been. Over the past two decades, reliable estimates about the size of these reserves have grown as more exploration and drilling has occurred across the shale-based formation. Improvements in technology that have made the resource more economic have also spurred upward revisions of reserve estimates.
Taken together with greatly enhanced estimates of reserves of natural gas (made accessible by hydraulic fracturing technology in massive shale formations across the country), the Bakken reserves have the potential, it seems to us, to change the picture for the United States in dramatic ways. In just the past few years, our oil and gas outlook has shifted from one of ever-increasing reliance on foreign oil and gas sources to the possibility of greater reliance on domestic reserves.
The optimistic forecasts about reserves in the Bakken formation, located in relatively accessible areas in the heart of the North American continent, raise this question: Do these resources represent an alternative to drilling in higher-risk areas such as deep water in the Gulf of Mexico, or in politically sensitive areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska? It is no secret that restriction of drilling in less risky areas with great promise has been one large reason for going into ever deeper Gulf waters, where risks to human life and the environment are greater. Does the Bakken formation change that picture?
We believe this: The news about the enhanced estimates of reserves in North Dakota, coupled with the development of potentially enormous natural gas plays in Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York state, should be the driver for a revamped national energy policy that relies more heavily on these resources to build a bridge into a future based on renewable energy. This country does not need to be held hostage to oil coming from politically unstable areas. Increasingly, it seems, we have a choice. Let’s find out more.
President Obama has an opportunity to make this case – and we encourage him to do so in his State of the Union address, set for early February.