Bakken Comes to Terms With Maturity

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North Dakota’s oil and natural gas regulator expects flat investment and production growth in the Bakken Shale in the coming years as operators increasingly view the field as mature.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) Director Lynn Helms said most of the 10 operators he had spoken to the previous week had roughly a decade of drilling inventory left in the play.

“It does mean that we have flat to maybe 1% or 2% growth for the next 10 years,” Helms said. “But at that point, drilling drops off.”

‘Cash Cow’

Helms’ remarks come as a handful of Bakken operators including Continental Resources and ConocoPhillips have entered or beefed up existing positions in the Permian Basin in an effort to grow production.

While the Bakken is no longer viewed as a growth engine, its drilling productivity and favorable economics make it a “cash cow” for producers, Helms said.

“Every well that they generate or produce here produces a lot of cash and a lot of revenue,” he said. “So those are positives, but they're not reinvesting all of that revenue back in as [capital expenditures].”

For example, Hess said last month it would spend about $250 million more in the Bakken this year, but is using the cash generated from those operations to fund activity in deepwater hotspot Guyana.

ConocoPhillips, meanwhile, plans to add its first rig in the Bakken since 2020, but will focus the bulk of its upstream efforts on its Permian position.

Helms said representatives from ConocoPhillips had told him recently that the company’s commitment to the Bakken remains strong.

“The stacked shale benches in the best parts of the Permian offer huge growth potential even though the wells are probably half as productive, or a rig is about half as productive as in the Bakken,” he said. “So they assured us that they're very committed to the Bakken as a mature play, but that the growth opportunities are believed to be in the Permian.”

EOR Opportunity

However, production could get a boost if enhanced oil recovery (EOR) takes off in North Dakota. Helms said there are currently two active EOR tests in the state, while other operators are testing it in other plays and hope to apply it to the Bakken in the future.

“In that 10-year window, if we're going to hold production flat, we have to transition to enhanced recovery,” Helms said. “And so people feel pretty relaxed about that. They think that's far enough out that they're not really super excited about it. But they're all working on technology improvements to make that happen. They all recognize that 80%-85% of oil is still going to remain in the rock at the end of that 15-year window. So that's an enormous target.”

Helms added that there are “real concerns” about whether it would be physically possible to conduct EOR in the Bakken and Three Forks plays, noting there have been about seven pilot projects that were not successful. But the state is pushing for operators to get the EOR methods down since carbon dioxide injection would play a big role in achieving emissions reduction goals.

Production Snapshot

North Dakota oil production fell 2% from November to 1.138 million barrels per day in December, according to preliminary figures from the DMR, while natural gas production fell 3% month to month to 2.99 billion cubic feet per day.

Helms attributed the output decline to harsher-than-expected winter weather in the final week of December.

“After two very easy winters, people were not prepared for a real North Dakota winter,” he said.

The state's gas capture rate fell by one point month on month to 93%, but is still above the mandated 91%.

EOR, Corporate Strategy , Capital Spending, Independent E&Ps, Shale
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