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By James Sorensen, principal geologist, and John Harju, vice president for strategic partnerships at the University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center

A Bakken play that is both economically and environmentally sustainable over the coming decades will require visionary, cooperative actions on the part of government, industry, and the research community.

The Bakken play continues to be one of the most prolific oil-producing plays in North America. Data from the Energy Information Agency (EIA) shows that during the low-price environment of 2015–2017, Bakken production hovered around one-million barrels per day (Mbpd). Those data also show that although prices have not fully recovered to their pre-2015 levels, Bakken production has steadily climbed back to the precrash level of 1.2 Mbpd. When those numbers are considered in the context of the overall size of the resource, estimated by the North Dakota Geological Survey to be between 200 and 300 billion barrels of oil in place (North Dakota-only portion of the Williston Basin), there is clearly reason to be optimistic about the future of the Bakken.

However, those bullish numbers are tempered by the fact that continued application of current drilling, completion, and operational practices will recover less than 10 percent of the resource, leaving billions of barrels, and potentially trillions of dollars in the ground. Those recovery factors need to be improved if the Bakken play is to be sustained beyond the next 15 to 20 years. The Bakken play has also been beset by challenges related to the management of associated gas, with state and federal policies calling for reductions in flaring and fugitive emissions. Management of pipelines to reduce and ultimately eliminate oil and saltwater spills and development of technologies to remediate the spills that have occurred are also high on the list of challenges facing Bakken producers. A Bakken play that is both economically and environmentally sustainable over the coming decades will require visionary, cooperative actions on the part of government, industry, and the research community.

For the past decade, the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota, has been at the heart of several research efforts designed to address challenges that have confronted development of the Bakken play. The EERC has used a consortium approach to tackle such diverse topics as improved reservoir characterization, enhanced oil recovery, alternative uses for associated rich gas, produced water management, and pipeline safety. The consortium approach includes partnerships with both the upstream and downstream sectors of the oil and gas industry, oilfield service companies, state agencies such as the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC), and the U.S. Department of Energy. Those efforts have yielded tangible results. A 2013 EERC analysis of data related to flaring formed the technical foundation for the development of flare reduction targets that were established by the NDIC and successfully implemented by industry. A legislatively directed comprehensive pipeline study conducted by the EERC in 2015 served as the basis for the development of common-sense approaches to liquids gathering pipeline construction, management, and regulation in North Dakota. The EERC, in partnership with several of the largest Bakken producers, conducted a state-of-the-art reservoir modeling exercise that was ultimately used by the NDIC as the basis for establishing new setback rules that reduced the potential for stranded oil between spacing units. Field-based projects conducted by the EERC have included real-world testing of produced water treatment and flare mitigation technologies that have enabled industry to identify viable technologies, and the state to develop prudent policies regarding the use of those technologies. The EERC has also led field-based efforts to develop technologies to improve oil recovery from the Bakken. Those efforts include a CO2injection test into a Bakken reservoir in 2017, and a multiwell Bakken and Three Forks pilot-scale rich gas injection test planned for 2018.

Looking to the future, the EERC will continue to serve energy stakeholders by taking a comprehensive scientific approach to confronting the challenges facing the continued development of not only Bakken oil and gas resources, but fossil fuel resources of all types. Sustainable development of the nation’s oil and gas resources can be achieved by recognizing the synergistic opportunities that lie within many of those challenges. Examples of such synergistic opportunities include the capture of CO2from coal-fired power plants and rich associated gas from Bakken wells for use as working fluids in enhanced oil recovery operations. The EERC will continue to provide industry and government with the information they need to make the capital investments and policy directives necessary to grow our economy and ensure that the healthy, vibrant society we all enjoy will be sustained for generations to come