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ND's No. 2 rank surprises Oil Patch

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GRAND FORKS -- The numbers and their increase are tantalizing and surprising, even to the experts in North Dakota's Oil Patch watching the crude flow day by day.

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Five years ago, when the Bakken boom began, the state's oil production was crawling along at 118,103 barrels per day, on average, in March 2007. Only a tenth of what Texas was producing, and a fifth of what Alaska and California pumped every day.

But the hydraulic fracturing perfected the use of high-pressure fluids to bust open the "tight" shale formation two miles below and allow the sweet crude to fill well pipes, opening up what is now the biggest, busiest petroleum play in North America.

On Monday, North Dakota's chief regulator of the oil industry announced the latest figures available showed that in March the state produced another record, 17.84 million barrels of crude oil -- 575,490 barrels each day -- pumped out of a record 6,636 wells.

That pushed North Dakota past Alaska into the No. 2 rank among oil-producing states. Alaska produced 567,381 barrels per day in March, in line with a long-term slide in output. Texas produced 1.7 million barrels per day in February, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, continuing steady growth over months.

If the growth continues at the same pace as the last year has seen, North Dakota will break the 1 million barrel-per-day line a year from now.

"It happened sooner than I anticipated, and obviously, it's exciting," Mayor Ward Koeser of Williston said of the new state ranking. "It's neat for North Dakota to be in that position. I think it shows the rest of the country really what a top player North Dakota is now in the oil industry."

And the ascendance of North Dakota into the No. 2 slot came quicker than even the bullish Harold Hamm expected. In January, Hamm, CEO and chairman of Continental Resources, said he figured it would be well into 2012 before North Dakota's production would match

Alaska's.

On Tuesday, Hamm preached caution in thinking North Dakota has eclipsed Alaska's crude production in any big way.

"It could be due to the winter that (Alaska's) production could have been hurt a little bit more," Hamm said. "But it's good for North Dakota."

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