FiveThirtyEight Assessment a Bust While Bakken Continues to Boom

Anti-fracking activists have long been trying to convince the public that shale development is bound to go bust, and “likely” (they claim) in the very near future. It’s the 21st century incarnation of “Peak Oil” – and news outlets have been happy to publish their claims.

The latest outlet to join in the fray is FiveThirtyEight Economics, which recently published a piece claiming that North Dakota’s oil boom is “unsustainable.”  One of the reasons for this, the outlet claims, is that drilling efficiency (the amount of wells that can be drilled from a single rig) is flattening out.  From the article:

“There’s a practical limit to how long those gains can continue, however. Drilling efficiency — how many wells a rig can drill in a given period — has been essentially flat over the past year. The wells themselves, meanwhile, are getting better at least in part because companies are drilling longer ‘laterals,’ the sections of wells that run horizontally through the shale rock. In 2007, the average well in North Dakota was about 17,000 feet long (including both the vertical and horizontal portions); in 2013, the average well was nearly 20,000 feet long. But that rate of growth, too, is slowing as companies reach the technical and economic limit of how far they can drill.”

FiveThirtyEight goes on to conclude:

“Eventually, productivity growth won’t just slow but reverse. Companies prioritize drilling in the best parts of an oil field, then gradually shift their drilling to less productive areas. But because the Bakken is so new, no one really knows how those second-tier areas will perform. If they prove successful, Bakken production could enter a long plateau before a gradual decline. If they aren’t, production could decline precipitously. The boom, in other words, is bound to end eventually. Whether it will be followed by a bust remains uncertain.”

First of all, studies have shown that the technology in question (fracking, coupled with horizontal drilling) is not static, but rather continually improving – and production is surging because of it.  According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA):

“The productivity of oil and natural gas wells is steadily increasing in many basins across the United States because of the increasing precision and efficiency of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas extraction. Many resource-producing basins are experiencing an increasing yield over time in either oil (Bakken, Eagle Ford, Niobrara) or natural gas (Marcellus, Haynesville).”

Michael Reger, chief executive of Northern Oil & Gas of Wayzata, put it well when he explained,

“Technology has been outpacing the estimates for 10 years… The field just keeps getting bigger, and the technologies around the Bakken just keep getting better.”

In fact, due to technological advancements, there’s been a massive increase in the estimate of recoverable oil across the United States.  Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) doubled its assessment for technically recoverable oil in the Bakken and Three Forks formations.  That previous estimate was itself a 25-fold increased from USGS’s 1995 assessment.  As Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell put it:

“These world-class formations contain even more energy resource potential than previously understood, which is important information as we continue to reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil.”

Of note, North Dakota production just reached the one million barrel per day milestone, which means that the state is now in the top 17 percent of crude oil producers in the world.

According to many experts, that’s a trend set to continue. Just last week, North Dakota hosted the Bakken Rocks CookFest, where experts spoke about the Bakken’s “bright future.”  One of those experts was Lynn Helms of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, who explained that oil production will stay level through 2025, producing slightly above one million barrels per day.  As the Dickinson Press reported, quoting Helms, there are:

“[S]ix more oil-rich layers of rock exist below the Bakken shale, which is only now being tapped, Helms said. Tapping into these layers may drive development operations east from the state’s current oil-producing counties.

Even a 1 percent increase in the efficiency of extraction processes would produce at least one billion more barrels of oil, said oilfield geologist and speaker Kathy Neset.”

And it’s not just a boom in production that’s notable – there’s also boom in enthusiasm surrounding this newfound prosperity from oil and gas. Just as no one would have thought the Bakkan would hit a million barrels a day and counting, McKenzie County Commissioner Roger Chinn said about the high turnout at the Baken Rocks CookFest, “Who would have thought we’d be riding a shuttle bus through Dunn Center to go hear about oil?”

In a broad sense, FiveThirtyEight is correct when it writes that the boom is “bound to end eventually.” Since we’re dealing with finite resources, that statement is true regardless of whether there were ten barrels of oil or ten trillion barrels. But it’s important not to get trapped by assumptions of static technology, especially in an industry like oil and gas, where innovators have proved over and over – in fields from North Dakota to West Texas – that the recoverability of resources increases over time. It’s important to exercise caution, but that same healthy skepticism likely existed back when the USGS said in 1995 that the Bakken only had 151 million barrels of oil – which is about how much North Dakota has produced this year alone.

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