Werkheiser, Hoeven

Acting Director of the U.S. Geological Survey William Werkheiser, left, and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., answer questions in August about the possibility of a new assessment of the Bakken oil formation by the federal agency at the National Energy Center of Excellence on the Campus of Bismarck State College. In the background, from the U.S. Geological Survery, are, from left, Walter Guidroz, Chris Schenk and Stephanie Gaswirth. 

U.S. Geological Survey is weighing whether or not to recalculate the amount of recoverable oil in the Bakken oil field, with a decision expected in the next week.

The potential analysis is coming at the behest of industry and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who hosted a meeting of industry, tribal and government officials in Bismarck on Friday.

When the USGS conducted its last update in 2013, it “leapfrogged capital investment” into the Bakken, said Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

It was in 2013 that USGS decided that the Three Forks crude oil formation was recoverable, bringing future resources to be tapped in the Williston Basin up from 3.7 billion barrels to 7.4 billion barrels of oil. Possible natural gas production also rose from 1.9 trillion cubic feet to 6.7 trillion cubic feet.

“Four years later, again, we need to show this is a long-term play so we can continue to attract investment,” said Hoeven, adding it also is important in putting the investments that have already been made in the state to further use.

For example,  the major investment made by BNSF Railway to support the transfer of oil by rail to refineries on the coasts could be used in other ways, according to Hoeven.

“We made the investment, we have the capacity, so we should be able to draw more,” he said of attracting diverse industries that might utilize rail.

As oil traffic makes the shift to pipeline transport, Hoeven said it frees rail up to carry other cargo. He would like that other cargo to include petroleum-based products refined within the state — adding value to the raw minerals the state produces. And he says the new USGS assessment is needed to ensure return on investment and encourage investors to build the petroleum processing plants that would make it possible.

USGS Acting Director Bill Werkheiser said reassessment of the Bakken had not been on the agency’s schedule and financial resources are slim, but the agency is willing to take it into consideration.

“There’s a ton of new information out there even than what we had in 2013,” he said.

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Particularly, a lot of new drilling has taken place using improved technologies. This would provide more production data and make the USGS projections more accurate.

Monte Besler, a Williston oilfield consultant known as the FRACN8R, said some of these new drilling practices and technologies include closer spacing between fractures when fracking a well. In 2008, he said the spacing was about 600 feet. By 2013, it was about 250 feet and now it is from 20 to 50 feet. He said there is also divider technology that makes sure all planned fractures are taking place.

“Every three to five years, the technology turns over,” he said.

And while the inclusion of the Three Forks boosted recoverable resource numbers last time, Hoeven said he is confident the numbers will go up again, even though no new areas of the formation are likely to be added to the calculations.

Walter Guidroz, program coordinator for the USGS Energy Resources Program, said USGS assessments only take into account “undiscovered technically recoverable resources,” which means previously produced oil and unrecoverable oil isn’t included in calculations. From 2008 when the first USGS survey took place to 2013 when it was reassessed, there was some increase in the Middle Bakken formation numbers, which meant more oil had become recoverable. Industry is hopeful a reassessment now would show similar results.

Besler said technologies have accelerated production, allowing companies to get to the resource faster. But he is confident some of those technologies also have contributed to better recovery, which will boost USGS numbers.

Guidroz said the group has a budget of $26 million annually to conduct, on average, from 10 to 15 assessments across a number of energy resources, including coal, wind, uranium and carbon storage.

It was 2011 when conversations about the 2013 assessment first started. Industry said it is hopeful that, should another reassessment be approved, it would take place before next May’s Williston Basin Petroleum Conference.

Werkheiser estimated that an assessment could be done by the first quarter of 2018, but that would require a slowdown in all of the office’s other assessments and a reassignment of personnel to the Bakken, making the May timeline difficult.

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Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com