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Page added on April 27, 2011

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Kuwait on the Prairie

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North Dakota is booming. Its unemployment rate is the lowest in the country, 3.7 per cent, and so many people have moved there for jobs that last year local officials declared a housing crisis. The new workers have been drawn by the Williston Basin, in the western part of the state, which holds the largest accumulation of oil identified in North America since 1968. About a hundred new oil wells are blasted into the ground each month. One day a few months ago, half a dozen workers prepared to send enough explosives underground to dismantle an armored tank. The engineer in charge of the well, Russell Rankin, works for Brigham Exploration, in Austin, Texas, one of some hundred and fifty oil companies that have entered the basin since 2006. The rock is the Bakken formation, a layer of the basin that geologists believe holds a twenty-five-thousand-square-mile sea of oil. The head of the state’s department of mineral resources recently estimated that the region could contain eleven billion barrels of oil that can be obtained using current technology. That assessment has doubled since a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey study. A hundred and thirteen million barrels of crude oil were produced in North Dakota last year— more than five per cent of our domestic output. Geologists believe that Williston could be at the beginning of a twenty-year boom. Rankin’s new well was registered as the Abe, after Abe Owan, a local businessman. Brigham has acquired the rights to nearly four hundred thousand acres in the Williston “play,” and has a roster of more than a thousand new wells to drill between now and 2021. Describes the history of the state’s oil wells. Mentions Elwyn Robinson, Richard Findley, Leigh Price, Julie LeFever, Bud Brigham, and Robert Coskey. For Brigham Exploration, initial drilling had often been frustrating. At the time, the oil industry was combining two innovative techniques—hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—to extract oil from difficult sources like Bakken. Mentions horizontal-drilling expert Mitchel Brown and EOG Resources. Last year, Brigham’s wells had an average initial production rate of nearly three thousand barrels a day—the highest among its competitors. Yet fracking has become enormously controversial, and other plays throughout the country are being slowed by concerns that fracking accidents have contaminated drinking water. Since 2008, further estimates by the U.S.G.S. and other agencies have suggested potential reserves in the Bakken of as much as three hundred billion barrels. The new techniques employed there have led to seven or eight new oil plays, in Texas, Colorado, and elsewhere, said geologist Pete Stark. Taken together, the new reservoirs are expected to raise domestic production by as much as two million barrels a day. Mentions the Ellingson family.

The New Yorker



7 Comments on "Kuwait on the Prairie"

  1. James A. Hellams on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 5:58 am 

    The total reserves claimed in this article are 311 billion barrels; but, as in many articles like this, they do not mention the backside of the oil claim.

    They leave out the consumption rates to give the impression that there is nothing to worry about. There is a lot to worry about in this article.

    The annual oil consumption in the US is 8 billion barrels per year. The annual worldwide oil consumption is 30 billion barrels per year.

    The “glorious” amount of oil claimed in this article would last the US consumption for 37.5 years. Again, the “glorious” oil amount claimed in this article would last the worldwide oil consumption for 10.6 years.

  2. EOTWAWKI on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 8:26 am 

    “twenty-five-thousand-square-mile sea of oil”

    What a ridiculous thing to say. square miles is not a measure of volume! This is just designed to impress people because it “sounds like a lot”.

    “Sea of oil” is also incorrect as it implies the oil is loose in some huge underground cavern where in reality is is trapped in porous rock.

    If there is really all this oil there then why use these misleading phrases to describe it?

    I’ll see your 300 billion barrels and raise you a whole lot of hot air.

  3. CXGZ61 on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 9:09 am 

    There is something wrong with the message of people that denigrate this discovery. The history of oil discoveries is that recovery is always greater, often much much greater than predicted, but still 37 years ain’t bad. (There are deeper oil bearing rocks under the Bakken that cover the entire state and they are just now starting to talk about them.) But the seemingly endless supply of these discoveries aside, wouldn’t 37 yrs supply give more time for green energy to make it or break it? Wouldn’t that create more wealth for the country that is broke. wont these jobs keep people of the government dole which is at its highest percentage ever?

  4. DC on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 9:43 am 

    37 years of oil will NEVER be recovered from there. It will become prohibitvely expensive both in terms of money and energy long before they reach the 300 billion that is allegedly down there. Or in addition, the enviromental damage will reach a point even americans cant ignore. Whatever happens, the costs will become too high and at some point the whole effort will have to be abandoned.

  5. CXGZ61 on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 10:55 am 

    Im afraid you are expressing a personal opinion that has as much validity as people are willing to give it.

    There is more than 37 years there. There may be an infinite supply but 100 yrs is not an exaggeration.

    Those fields were first identified in the 1980’s during the seismic exploration boom. I was on the front lines. Now they are being developed. The upside is huge, so huge that the doom and gloom I read here is almost laughable, but I wouldnt laugh at you.

    The mainstream outlook here is valid but improbable. However it does keep expectations in line as many valid points are expressed and discussed.

  6. James A. Hellams on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 6:02 pm 

    You missed the more important of my remarks about this article. This is the worldwide oil consumption.

    As I understand it, we have a treaty agreement with other nations to share our oil reserves. So, the oil claimed in this article is NOT for our exclusive use.

    Therefore, the 10 years of oil supply is indeed applicable.

  7. MarkD on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 11:04 pm 

    The USGS has a history of being very optimistic with reserve estimates (i.e. every molecule of oil can be recovered) No where in this article does it say that the Bakken find will make oil cheap again. It’s worth developing, but I don’t think the “happy days” of the early oil age are back.

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