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Location of Three Forks-Sanish formation

Report doubles North Dakota's recoverable oil

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There's a bigger pool of recoverable oil in the Williston Basin than previous estimates, according to a report released Thursday just ahead of the 18th Williston Basin Petroleum Conference and Expo opening Sunday in Bismarck.

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Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Industrial Commission's Oil and Gas Division, said the new study pegs the recoverable oil in the Three Forks formation, under the famed Bakken Formation, at up to 2 billion barrels of oil within North Dakota alone.

The formation, as with the entire Williston Basin, includes oil in Montana and Saskatchewan, too.

The timing was intentional.

"Yes, it was calculated," Helms said.

Much of the research has been banging around among academics and industry experts for a while. But it's a good way to kick off the biggest basin conference ever. The three-day event beginning Sunday has more than 2,000 registrants, from nearly every state and several other nations, including Norway, Helms said.

He did the same thing in 2008 -- the last time the conference was held in North Dakota. Every other year, it's held in Canada.

During the Minot conference, Helms released a new study of the Bakken Formation, also creating a buzz that dominated the event. It pegged the Bakken as having 3.6 billion barrels of oil recoverable at current technology, across the entire basin. North Dakota's share of the Bakken's recoverable oil is put at 2.1 billion barrels.

So, Thursday's report basically doubles the amount of oil considered recoverable in North Dakota, Helms said.

Last year, 80 million barrels of oil were pumped out of North Dakota's ground, a record well above the previous mark of 62.8 million in 2008.

While North Dakota now is fourth among states in oil production, the 2009 figure would take care of only about four days of U.S. petroleum use.

But the Bakken, and now the Three Forks, formations contain the largest potential pool of oil in the lower 48 states.

A federal energy official told The Associated Press this week that despite the new report released by the Industrial Commission, the new estimates aren't considered part of the nation's 19 billion barrels of "proven oil reserves" yet.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said there wasn't anything new in the report that hasn't been known by people in the industry for some time. He cautioned against overreacting to the state's findings.

Technology and oil prices are getting to the point now that the Three Forks oil is practical to go after, he told the AP.

And the study will help convince investors to put more money into the basin, Ness said.

Excitement high

The excitement is palpable, seen in hearings this week before the state's Oil and Gas Commission, over whether to permit new drilling.

"We are seeing one proposal after another that had either dual lateral wells, one in each formation, or side-by-side wells, one going into each formation," Helms said Thursday.

Until holes get punched in the ground, it's all estimates and guessing, says one scientist who knows the Bakken well

Julie LeFever, who works on UND's campus with the state's Geological Survey, will display and explain new core samples during the conference in Bismarck.

"The more data we get, the better off we are in understanding" how much oil might come from the Williston Basin, she said this week. "I think every company would have their own opinion as to where they think the oil is."

Experts have debated the Bakken's potential for years.

One well-thumbed study figured the Bakken contained up to 500 billion barrels of oil, with up to half of it ultimately recoverable. Others have estimated 10 billion to 100 billion barrels of reachable oil.

Already, drilling from the Bakken and the Three Forks/Sanish formations, combined makes up 95 percent of the new wells drilled, state officials say.

There are 110 drilling rigs working in the state, making it about as hot a "play" as any other single area in the nation. As of this week, there are 4,642 producing wells in the state, according to Helms.

Helms figures the new estimates of recoverable oil -- using today's technology -- in the Three Forks alone will add at least 14 years to the "play," in the Williston Basin.

"We think we will be producing about a billion barrels of oil every seven years," he said. "So, if we add 2 billion barrels to this, we are talking about it taking another 14 years."

That sort of long-term promise is a huge bull to the basin's prospects.

"Projections are very dangerous because oil prices can change and investments change," Helms said. "But the industry is just unbelievably interested in North Dakota right now."

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