Bakken Shale Oil Play

The Bakken Shale ranks as one of the largest oil developments in the U.S. in the past 40 years. The play has single-handedly driven North Dakota’s oil production to levels four times higher than previous peaks in the 1980s. As of 2012, ND is second to Texas in terms of oil production and boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the country at ~3%.

The Bakken Shale Play is located in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota, as well as parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the Williston Basin. Oil was initially discovered in the Bakken play in 1951, but was not commercial on a large scale until the past ten years. The advent of modern horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing helps make Bakken oil production economic. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the Bakken Shale Formation could yield 4.3 billion barrels of oil and estimates from Continental Resources stretch as high as 40 billion barrels.

The name “Bakken” originates from a North Dakota farmer, Henry Bakken, who owned the land where the first well encountered the Bakken formation.

Bakken Shale Geology

Bakken Oil Sale Play in the Williston Basin of Eastern Montana and North Dakota

The Bakken Shale is a rock formation that was deposited in the late Devonian, early Mississippian age. The formation consists of three layers: an upper shale layer, middle dolomite, and a lower layer of shale. The shale layers are petroleum source rocks as well as seals for the layer known as the Three Forks (dolomite) or Sanish (sands) formations.

A 2008 USGS study pegged recoverable reserves at approximately 4 billion barrels and a 2010 NDIC study estimates the underlying Three Forks formation could yield an additional 2 billion barrels. Both estimates are likely conservative. The Bakken is estimated to hold as much as 400 billion barrels of oil equivalent in place. Four billion barrels only represents 1% of the oil estimated to be in place, while current recovery estimates range from 3-10%. Continental Resources has publicly expressed beliefs the Bakken will yield anywhere from 24-40 billion barrels. If you’d like to read more, visit our Bakken Geology page for additional information.

Bakken Shale Companies

While the Bakken experienced multiple small scale booms over the past 60 years, it was a horizontal well drilled in the Elm Coulee Field by a partnership between Lyco Energy and Halliburton that incited our modern boom. The Elm Coulee was proven economic in 2003 and operators began expanding into North Dakota after EOG’s Parshall discovery in 2006. The play was driven by innovations and small to mid size exploration and production companies.



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