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USGS Assesses Bakken Formation to Hold 3 to 4.3 Billion Barrels of Technically Recoverable Oil; 25 Times More Than 1995 Estimate

Map showing Williston Basin Province boundary (in red), Bakken-Lodgepole Total Petroleum System (TPS) (in blue), and major structural features in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Click to enlarge.

North Dakota and Montana have an estimated 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil in an area known as the Bakken Formation of the Williston Basin, according to a just-released assessment by the US Geological Survey (USGS). This latest assessment shows a 25-fold increase in the amount of oil that can be recovered compared to the agency’s 1995 estimate of 151 million barrels of oil.

The assessment also identified 1.85 trillion cubic feet of associated/dissolved natural gas, and 148 million barrels of natural gas liquids.

New geologic models applied to the Bakken Formation, advances in drilling and production technologies, and recent oil discoveries have resulted in these substantially larger technically recoverable oil volumes. About 105 million barrels of oil were produced from the Bakken Formation by the end of 2007.

Technically recoverable oil resources are those producible using currently available technology and industry practices. The USGS Bakken study was undertaken as part of a nationwide project assessing domestic petroleum basins using standardized methodology and protocol as required by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 2000.

The Bakken Formation estimate is larger than all other current USGS oil assessments of the lower 48 states and is the largest continuous oil accumulation ever assessed by the USGS. A continuous oil accumulation means that the oil resource is dispersed throughout a geologic formation rather than existing as discrete, localized occurrences. The next largest continuous oil accumulation in the US is in the Austin Chalk of Texas and Louisiana, with an undiscovered estimate of 1.0 billions of barrels of technically recoverable oil.

The USGS estimate of 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil has a mean value of 3.65 billion barrels. Scientists conducted detailed studies in stratigraphy and structural geology and the modeling of petroleum geochemistry. They also combined their findings with historical exploration and production analyses to determine the undiscovered, technically recoverable oil estimates.

USGS worked with the North Dakota Geological Survey, a number of petroleum industry companies and independents, universities and other experts to develop a geological understanding of the Bakken Formation. These groups provided critical information and feedback on geological and engineering concepts important to building the geologic and production models used in the assessment.

Five continuous assessment units (AU) were identified and assessed in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota and Montana: the Elm Coulee-Billings Nose AU, the Central Basin-Poplar Dome AU, the Nesson-Little Knife Structural AU, the Eastern Expulsion Threshold AU, and the Northwest Expulsion Threshold AU.

At the time of the assessment, a limited number of wells have produced oil from three of the assessments units in Central Basin-Poplar Dome, Eastern Expulsion Threshold, and Northwest Expulsion Threshold. The Elm Coulee oil field in Montana, discovered in 2000, has produced about 65 million barrels of the 105 million barrels of oil recovered from the Bakken Formation.




I noticed that that region ( Bakken formation )seem to extant in canada too.


When I wrote the surface mine comment, the article read "oil shale". This immediately brought to mind Kerogen which is conventionally mined. The article has since been corrected making my comment foolish. Apologies.

However, I must disagree with your view on oil addiction. Right now we do need oil to survive. Living on a finite planet means that it will not always be the case. Ultimately we must wean ourselves off of oil so why wait? The only way to reduce our depencence on oil is to force change to alternatives. Economic incentives are the best and only way to do this so high oil prices are needed to break the addiction. I say leave the oil in the ground as long as possible. Pump it out when we need it; not when we want more of our "precious" (think gollum). If we didn't waste most of the energy we produced, I would fully support drilling the crap out of the planet to survive. But this is not the case and we can do better.


Not to split hairs off topic, but to me addiction means dependent. Necessity means need. I have a necessity for air and water. I may be dependent on other things, because without them I am not happy.


Actually, when it comes to natural resources and sustainability we have to plan. You've been indoctrinated by all the pseudo-economists that have been spouting their drivel over the last 3 decades. Markets work for things you "want" not not things you "need".

There is no way that we are going to get on a sustainable energy course without planning. If you leave planning in the hands of Exxon, the world is going to hell in a hand basket.



What makes government more any more "enlightened" than private citizens? When the government picks winners, you get taxpayer-subsidized disasters like corn ethanol. It stops being about viable technology and instead becomes who can grease the most palms. Governments should do no more than basic R&D.

If Exxon won't do it, someone else will. And the oil companies will got up in a puff of smoke when their products are replaced by cheaper alternatives.


Cervus, Mike,

I'd like to say you're both right and you're both wrong. After all, the market often works as the most efficient allocator of resources. And governments have done marvellous things to defeat the destructive nature of markets (after all, markets assume that humans can go without food for months during depressions, which kinda ignores biology).

But the evidence is all with Mike here. Granted, ethanol is not the most efficient program in the world. But it's not a disaster, it's just overpaying for alternative fuel. But at least it's an alternative to the energy markets, which are not free markets at all. Why not?

1. Oligopolies with proven failure to serve: Between OPEC, Russia and Big Oil, all major energy providers are unmotivated to increase supply when supply is pinched. Exxon has publicly stated that they will not increase production because it might reduce prices. Proof enough that this is no free market. Perhaps if there were 10 major oil companies, but we let that go long ago.

2. Cost of alternatives versus risk of price swings. Due to the price collapse of the 80's-90's, the needed capital to create viable alternatives has not been available, due the risk of a repeat of the price collapse. And OPEC loves to threaten exactly that price threat, just to keep margins high. Government price management is needed to ensure a price above $50 for at least 10 years to guarantee substitutes or deeper investment in conservation.

3. Failure to cost in externalities. Pollution, the cost of roads, and the cost of our $700B military are all part of the cost of oil, but the producers don't pay for any of it. Remove these subsidies, and we would conserve and develop alternatives. As it is, the market is hugely distorted and government action is needed to remove the distortions.

For all those reasons, government is the key actor here. Cervus, government is the expression of the will of private citizens, acting together in ways that can cure the markets of their failures. I suggest you keep an open mind, because Exxon is not interested in helping us solve this problem.



The lack of planning and oversight is what got us into this mess in the first place. We will just let all the slackers do their own thing and see where that gets us...into a complete collapse....dude.

stas peterson

Whenever there is a shortage Man uses his brain, and finds substitutes. There used to be four basic markets for petroleum. Scarcity forced searches for substitutes. Substitutes were found for three of the four principal oil markets.

We don't burn oil any more to make electricity. That market shrank to next to nothing.

We don't burn oil to provide heat, except for old housing built prior to the 1970s. Slowly that housing stock is are being converted, or torn down and replaced. This oil market shrinks every year.

We use oil for less and less petrochemical feed stocks, the third market for oil. We substitute coal or gas whenever possible, as cost justified. Oil's portion of that market is static and shrinking slowly. Even as the demand for petrochemical feed stocks grows.

The last and biggest market is for Transport. Land, Sea and Air. Ever since the oil crisis of 1973, Man has accelerated his search for a suitable substitute. Until today there has been little found that is more than marginally satisfactory. Wringing efficiency out of transport engines and trying to use the oil we have in better fashions such as substituting marine shipping for ground transport has been used. Some telecommuting, eliminating physical movement, has been employed as well. Some conversion of rail to electric power has been done. Some hectoring for others to use less has, as usual, been done; and as usual, achieved next to nothing.

Meanwhile technological research has been intensive. We don't have a satisfactory substitute yet, but the outlines of that substitute is now visible. We readers follow GCC for that reason. But meantime demand for oil for Transport still grows.

It has almost come to the point where Oil has become a single customer product. If Transport doesn't need Oil, the Oil producers will starve. If Oil demand for Transport merely stabilizes, Oil prices will collapse.

Ground Transport represents almost three quarters of the total demand for Oil. Electrification of Ground Transport will drive a stake into the heart of the Oil vampires, extremely quickly.

It makes me chuckle that some people think a rather temporary, 35 year monopolistic, cartel scarcity, represents an eternal and immutable Law of Nature. In a whole lot less time than the 35 years we have struggled with cartelized Oil pricing, a lot less than 25, or 20, or even 15, and maybe even 10, the situation changes forever. Oil will become a commodity in surplus with Oil sheiks and Oil Commisars begging someone, anyone, to take it off their hands at any price at all.



I have two words for you: Government Failure.

Corn ethanol is a perfect example of this. 1) We have a distortionary tariff on imported ethanol. 2) Energy balance is a dubious 1.3:1. 3) In 2006, subsidies for corn ethanol totaled $7 billion ($1.45 per gallon produced that year). Which is another market distortion. 4) Using food crops for fuel is causing food riots. And 5) There are absolutely no GHG benefits at all. At least the Europeans have realized that first generation biofuels is a bad idea.

I honestly try to keep an open mind, but when the government screws things up this badly I don't think we need is more government. They should get the hell out and let entrepreneurs find the solutions we need. If Exxon won't, then they'll be left behind.

I have very little faith in in the ability of a politically appointed bureaucrat to pick a winner. And bad regulations are worse than none at all.


This is great news. Oil in an area that the politicians will allow us to drill. We just need these types of discoveries to help keep our oil money here instead of overseas.

In a few year we will all start converting from gasoline use as an individuals primary means of transportation to electricity.

Cars like the gm-volt will start to become mainstream and then we can do away with most of our gasoline use.



Additionally. It seems that your Point 2 is corrected by Point 1. Point 1 guarantees that prices will remain above that $50 mark. They want prices that high? Fine. But they'll undermine themselves in the longer term, and will only push investment into companies like Tesla, PetroSun, Phoenix Motorcars, Venture Vehicles, and so forth with ever-increasing speed. Thus I don't see a price floor as necessary.

We must also consider that this is in fact peak oil, that they can't increase production because there are simply too many oil fields in decline. We would need a dozen finds like the Bakken each year brought online in a timely fashion in order to keep world production increasing, or at least maintain a plateau.

And I thought the externalities brought up in Point 3 were supposed to be borne by the consumer, not the producer? With prices so high, it's politically impossible to increase fuel taxes. They haven't been raised in years, and I can support doing so because we have more roads and bridges to support. And if I don't drive, I don't directly pay the tax.


I heard that tar sand mining and extraction emits 3 time more CO2 than conventional drilling. It would be good to see how much water, land and energy is needed to turn tar sands into oil.

At 20 million barrels per day, the U.S. uses over 6 billion barrels of oil each year. This 4 billion would help, but at what real cost. If we are going to make this 4 billion barrels go farther, we are going to need conservation and efficiency.

At 20 million barrels per day, the U.S. uses over 6 billion barrels of oil each year. This 4 billion would help, but at what real cost.
Over 7 billion/year, actually.

This is a point which should be made more often.  I bring this up to folks like my neighbors, but they rant and rave without any sign of listening to inconvenient facts like that.


Cervus writes: And I thought the externalities brought up in Point 3 were supposed to be borne by the consumer, not the producer? With prices so high, it's politically impossible to increase fuel taxes. They haven't been raised in years, and I can support doing so because we have more roads and bridges to support.

Cervus, I think you are missing the point of the problem of externalities. They are not priced into the market at all. That's the definition of externalities. An unregulated free market never pays for externalities. That's why unregulated free markets can't be the answer to everything. The only way to price the externalities into the market is with regulation, for example, taxing the product as you suggest. I don't believe there has ever been a serious proposal to tax oil for the costs of pollution or militarism. We can't even manage to maintain the damn transportation infrastructure as it is, but then infrastructure is not an externality. It's just a thing that we attempt to fund through fuel taxes.


When you count in health care costs, it begins to look a lot like the tobacco companies. The toxic chemicals that fossil fuels have put into food, water, land and air have a real effect on lives over decades. These are some of the externalities that get cost shifted to others.


Show us the cost efficient alternative to gasoline and we the consumer will gladly buy it....Our industrial age kicked in fast and hard.The imposing transition will be fast and hard.We have a major find within our country to ease this transition.

Show us the cost efficient alternative to gasoline and we the consumer will gladly buy it...
If you paid for the price of the Iraq war at the pump (instead of putting it on credit to be paid out of general revenues... if ever) you'd be screaming for electric cars YESTERDAY.  That's just one example of subsidies and shifted costs.

The lack of planning and oversight is what got us into this mess in the first place. We will just let all the slackers do their own thing and see where that gets us...into a complete collapse....dude.

Funny, isn't it, that it's always the centrally-planned economies that seem to collapse? I'm sure both the Soviets and the North Koreans had great plans for the future.


Glad to see this discussion of Bakken and its implications. Keep in mind that some geologists behind this field claim it to be greater than Saudi (though not all recoverable). And let's not forget the quietly whispered existence of "abiotic" oil.

In my estimation Bakken represents leverage to drive forward our transition to alternative energy. This field has been evaluated at up to $9 trillion (with a T @ $120/bbl)if fully recovered. US and Canadian oil interests MUST get this oil out of the ground before electrification of transport drops consumption by 50% over 20 years. To speed our transition to electrification WE (alt proponents) must support expansion of independent biofuels and infrastructure (no, NOT corn ethanol - a tired argument now).

Cellulosic, and waste syn-gasification like Range Fuels' Georgia pilot plant can, with encouragement, rapidly increase ethanol/butanol and distribution. As this fuel moves toward its $1.00/gallon production cost, combined with rapid expansion of PHEV sales, it puts downward pressure on OPEC and oil pricing. Bakken is expensive - requiring horizontal drilling at depths of two miles with very expensive equipment. As downward pressure drives oil back toward $70 bbl, Bakken looks far less attractive. In fact, it becomes unprofitable.

Therefor the interesting play is to step up expansion of waste/cellulosic>syngas>ethanol and algal non-food based biodiesel pressuring oil prices downward which takes the gleam off of Bakken. Bakken then remains in the ground as emergency reserves, while we transition via biofuels to electrification.

The introduction of Volt, Volt clones and next gen PHEVs will be extraordinarily persuasive. Count on human material and economic envy to drive that market rapidly as neighbors commute on plug-in energy and cut stops at ethanol pumps to once every two weeks. Greens MUST support transitional biofuels to:

1) Speed electrification of transport.

2) Counter continued oil consumption due to "windfall" domestic fields like Bakken.


Funny, isn't it, that it's always the centrally-planned economies that seem to collapse? I'm sure both the Soviets and the North Koreans had great plans for the future.

Hey,I see you've pointedly missed out China from your list. Or the fact that after trying to shift to free markets, the Soviet Union, after their failure there, they are shifting back.

No economy, even the US, is 100% market and no economy is 100% state controlled. They both have positives and negatives. The black and white idealism that seems to go with this question is universal because of consistant old antagonisms.

Companies are centrally planned. As the system gets larger, it naturally becomes harder to control and the costs for it go up and the inefficiencies get larger. That was the point to leveraged buy outs. But you can't do that to the gov't without breaking their ability to oversee things or act in an effective manner.


Show us the cost efficient alternative to gasoline

A mid-size sedan needs 13 cents of gas per mile (3.25/gal divided by 25 mpg). The same sized PHEV needs about a penny of wind electricity per mile. Of course you also need to add in a few cents per mile of battery depreciation, but it's still a lot cheaper.

Here's another way to run the numbers. In mass production, PHEVs will cost about $5000 more than equivalent gasoline cars. It takes 1 kW of well-sited wind turbine, costing about $1500, to fuel each PHEV. It would thus cost $80 billion to upgrade all 16 million cars sold in the USA each year to PHEVs, plus $24 billion to build the windmills to fuel them. That's a bit over $100 billion per year. The USA now spends $500 billion per year importing oil plus more than $100 billion on mideast military adventures. Switching to wind-powered PHEVs can thus save $500 billion per year. That's $5000 per household, per year.


That is about what every household pays now for just interest on a $9.4 trillion dollar debt.



"But you can't do that to the gov't without breaking their ability to oversee things or act in an effective manner."

"Government," like companies, suffers from the internal creep of corruption. However, unlike companies, government has no market competitors, and oversight subject only to lobbyists and political intrigue. The failure of State systems is the failure of the people to see them as no different than corporate systems. They are one and the same. Gov't is, inevitably larger.

Thus, the ideal of checks and balances is gov't checked by market and market regulated by gov't. Can this be achieved? Yes. Provided both the State and market understand their mutual need of transparent "quid pro quo."

richard schumacher

North Dakota is also the capital of wind power potential in the US. Far better to build 10,000 2MW turbines there and manufacture artificial fuels from that energy than to drill for oil.


Most of the posters on this board need to go back to school. Oil is not a finite resourse. So, the Earth made all of the oil a long time ago and then decided that it had made enough? It is cleaner than everything else except wind, hydro, and nuclear. I don't see our cars going down the road with sails, water turbines or nuclear reactors attached to them. Good grief, we are a nation that stretches over 3,000 miles east to west and more than 2,000 miles north to south. Are we planning to go back to the days of horse and buggy? I don't think so.

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