It’s not just an oil boom, it’s an industrial revolution
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Bakken oil fields north and west of Belfield with Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council and Blaine Hoffman of the Whiting Oil and Gass Corporation. In the course of a long day we visited two oil rigs, a fracking operation at another site, a plant that collects the gasses that would otherwise have been flared at the well sites, and several Whiting properties in the Badlands that have been reclaimed after all oil extraction at the site has been concluded. It was an amazing, and amazingly generous, tour. I am immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to see the industrial profile of the oil boom through the eyes of such remarkable and dedicated professionals.
I want to pause first to worship human technology. At some point not many thousand years ago we were wandering around the African savannah plucking berries from shrubs, beating off intruders with clubs, and trying not to let the fire go out because it was so darned hard to get it started again. Today, a guy with a joystick can direct steel well pipe 12,000 feet into the earth, and then TURN a 90 degree corner (with stiff steel pipe), so that, with the same joystick, he can feel his way to a 3-15 foot vein of oil bearing shale thousands of feet away from the turn. Think about this for a moment. We can send down a straw more than two miles into the earth, through some very dense and unyielding formations, and then turn a corner and wander laterally until we reach an exceedingly narrow formation that the entire population of North Dakota could never reach with shovels if they did nothing else for the rest of their lives.
And that’s just the beginning. Then we send water and a sand-bearing goo down that endless pipe at incredibly high pressure to fracture the oil bearing shale (like a window fan blowing open the pages of a closed book). This releases the oil that is bound up in that shale.
Two quick conclusions. First, humans must really have an infinite thirst for oil—they go to such lengths and expense to get to it. Second, human ingenuity and creativity (plus the opposable thumb) are magnificent evolutionary tools. We can deposit a live man on the surface of the moon, clone a living goat, talk to someone at the other end of the planet on a device no larger than a cigarette pack, and journey to the center of the earth with a metal probe. After spending a day in the presence of any cutting edge technology, it is virtually impossible not to conclude that human ingenuity is a limitless resource that can solve virtually any problem, and that as long as the United States continues to train and turn loose the human creative spirit at current (Steve Jobs) levels, we will be the masters of the world. There would seem to be a techno-fix for absolutely everything, and yet, as Woody Allen might say, we still can’t balance the budget or get a good pastrami sandwich in Duluth.
The fracking technology is literally breathtaking. It is also very recent. It has allowed Ron Ness (and others) to project—using currently available technology—that it will be possible to recover 12-20 billion barrels of oil in western North Dakota. If that is true, the state of North Dakota alone has as much oil as the nations of Qatar or Angola, and a fifth (possibly a quarter) as much recoverable oil as the nations of Iraq and Kuwait. If we come to extract a million barrels a day, that’s three years to a billion barrels. That would seem to indicate somewhere between 20 and 60 years of steady oil extraction before the North Dakota fields play out. And this only represents currently available technology, in a field where the technology is becoming more sophisticated almost by the month.
It is going to require tens of thousands of fracking wells to get all that oil up out of the ground, not to mention storage and shipping facilities, pipelines, rail lines and spurs, refineries, plants to handle the derivatives, water storage and treatment facilities, much wider and more ruggedized roads, and a housing and amenities infrastructure that is going to stagger the imagination. Dickinson is probably going to be a city of 50,000 people (for decades), Williston more, and Watford City, Stanley, Killdeer, Belfield, and other formerly sleepy villages are going to be transformed into something never before seen on the plains of North Dakota.
You know the old Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times.” While he was hunting in 1789, French king Louis XVI was told of the fall of the Bastille in Paris. “So it is a rebellion?” he said. “No, sire,” replied the Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt "it is a revolution."
The first and most important thing you need to know about this oil boom is that it cannot and must not be compared to the previous booms in the 1950s and the 1980s. The volume is almost infinitely greater. The amount of industrial activity a fracking well requires, as opposed to a traditional well, is greater by magnitudes. It takes approximately 2,000 truck “events” to bring a single well to production. At this point there is virtually no geological gamble in fracking. We know where the oil bearing shale is. All we have to do is thread our way to it and fracture it, and voila: black gold. In the Bakken boom, it would be more accurate to say we are mining the oil than drilling here and there in hopes of finding a pool (as in previous booms). Because fracking is a more exact science, the wells can be lined up along drilling corridors, every X-thousand feet. This creates remarkable efficiencies in service roads and pipelines, and enables the industry to collect the gasses that have previously been burned off (flared) at the wellhead. Thanks to the real or perceived global scarcity of oil, this boom is very unlikely to collapse. Indeed, this time OPEC does not have sufficient production slack to conspire to undercut the world oil price and lure us back into Saudi oil addiction.
For all of its disturbances, dislocations, and growing pains, if we manage this right and protect our people and our landscape to the maximum extent possible under the circumstances, Bakken oil is going to be one of the greatest gifts that ever came to the people of North Dakota.
It’s not an oil boom. It’s an industrial revolution.
(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. Clay can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)