The Bakken formation, located in western North Dakota, northeast Montana and part of Canada, along with a layer of shale rock beneath it called Three Forks, is considered to be one of the United States largest oil and gas basins. North Dakota’s first oil discovery occurred in July of 1951 on the farmlands of a man named Henry Bakken. Oil production flowed easily from the Bakken property due to a natural fracture in the rock, thousands of feet beneath the surface.
The advent of new rock fracturing technology (fracking) has caused a recent boom of oil production in the area. According to a recent USGS survey, the Bakken and Three Forks formations hold an estimated 7.38 billion barrels of potentially recoverable crude oil. This estimate nearly doubles previous assumptions of the Bakken formation, with this new information about the Three Forks layer.
Since 2008, more than 4,000 new wells have been drilled in the formation. Daily oil production in the region is now over 700,000 barrels. One barrel (bbls) is equivalent to 42 US gallons of crude oil. Most of the oil recovery occurs in the first 2-3 years after drilling a new well and then daily production drops sharply. Therefore, it is necessary to drill more rigs more often, which leaves a massive footprint on the landscape and requires millions of gallons of fresh water.
The Bakken/Three Forks shale formations have a large supply of natural gas. That gas is currently burned in a process called flaring so that the more valuable oil product can be accessed. Flaring is a major contributor to the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, and accounts for more than 1% of all the CO2 that human activity releases into the atmosphere. About 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was flared or vented worldwide in 2011. This huge amount of wasted energy is roughly equal to a quarter of all natural gas consumed in the US annually. A Ceres report released on July 29th, 2013 found that North Dakota oil drillers are now flaring $100 million of natural gas each month -- double the volume from just two years ago. The flaring, visible from outer space, is emitting GHGs equivalent to one million cars.
Watch this EcoFlight virtual tour to learn more about the Bakken oil boom.
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