If ever there was a treasure map of North Dakota, a new one that details the known extent of the Bakken and Three Forks oil formations surely qualifies.
This is the second consecutive year the large, heavily illustrated map has been published as a joint project of the North Dakota Petroleum Council and Energy and Environmental Research Center.
It’s a gift, of sorts, to the 4,000 people and organizations who attended last month’s Williston Basin Petroleum Council.
It depicts a wealth of information, not to mention wealth of oil.
Colored dots represent every well drilled into the Bakken and Three Forks formations over the past two decades, which includes pre-horizontal drilling, pre-fracture treated times, though the vast majority were drilled in the past five years with the newer, very expensive technology.
All told, there are exactly 3,461 Bakken and Three Forks “dots” on the map, giving the oil patch the appearance of a pin cushion with far more pins than cushion. The information is current as of December. Since then, approximately 1,000 more wells have been drilled.
The dots are outsized, so they appear to have an exaggerated space in the oil patch landscape, said EERC researcher John Harju.
In truth, the typical spacing of 1,280 acres per well is a fairly generous two miles between well locations compared to places where well spacing is as few as 10 acres, Harju said.
One of the main values of the map, though, is that it illustrates the perimeter of the formations, their precise outline on the land.
“You can really see how the Bakken is framed up in that area,” said Ron Ness, director of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. “Geology, producing wells and rigs don’t lie.”
In particular, Ness said, the south and southeastern edges of the Bakken-Three Forks are defined on the map.
This is of particular interest to people living south of Interstate 94, who have been waiting and wondering if Bakken drilling will head their way.
Other than a cluster of Three Forks formation wells drilled south of Belfield in 2011, the primary range of the formations is where it has been the past several years — a roughly diamond-shaped range defined by rural Dickinson on the south, Stanley on the east, Crosby on the north and Williston on the west.
Harju said the obvious difference between this map and one a year ago is the concentration of new wells where heavy drilling hadn’t previously occurred, in Williams and McKenzie counties.
A new feature this year is a graphic that illustrates the growth in oil production.
“This shows astounding rate of production that we’re seeing from the formation, just how big it really is,” Harju said. The state produces 17 million barrels of oil a month, compared to 8 million barrels just two years ago.
Though the Bakken and Three Forks’ apparent no-show into counties south of Interstate 94 may disappoint some, Harju said the lateral extent of the play is phenomenal.
“We’re not looking for little anomalies. If you drill anywhere from Stanley, over to Crosby and north of Dickinson, your chances of finding oil are very good,” he said.
Ness said he expects next year’s map will show plenty of new “dots” in the Crosby region.
“That’s been an area where companies are pouring investment dollars. I think they’re beginning to figure out what they need to do up there,” Ness said. The formations are shallower and contain more water than is normal elsewhere.
The number of rigs drilling in the oil patch is settling in at around 210. Ness said drilling companies are gearing up with the new “walking” rigs that efficiently move small distances on a well pad from which multiple wells are drilled.
“Companies say 2012 has been a great year because they didn’t lose ground every month,” Ness said.
He expects the number of new wells for this year to come in at around 2,000 if that many rigs stay in play.
The map data is based on information compiled by the Department of Mineral Resources.
Both Ness and Harju said department’s transparency in publishing well results on its website enhances more oil development.
“Once a well is off confidential status, people can really learn a lot about the well. I think it shows in the productivity here,” Harju said.
For people who like science, the map also contains a colorful diagram of the geological strata, showing the Bakken and Three Forks as the very thin, very deep zones they are, for all their importance to the nation’s oil supply and the state’s economy.