The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Bakken Bonanza: More Oil and Natural Gas – Thanks to Drilling Innovation

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted April 30, 2013

The U.S. Geological Survey has new estimates for oil and natural gas in the Williston Basin shale area that simply blows the doors off previous estimates:

  • 3.65 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil for the Bakken Formation.
  • 3.73 billion barrels for the Three Forks Formation.
  • The total, 7.38 billion barrels, is a two-fold increase over USGS’ 2008 estimate, which included only the Bakken Formation because Three Forks wasn’t thought to be productive.

The chart below shows how resource estimates have skyrocketed since 2008 and 1995, when the assessment totaled only in the millions of barrels:

USGS Bakken Assessment

The main reason for the dramatic increase is drilling innovation – advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling over just the past five years. USGS:

Since the 2008 USGS assessment, more than 4,000 wells have been drilled in the Williston Basin, providing updated subsurface geologic data. Previously, very little data existed on the Three Forks Formation and it was generally thought to be unproductive. However, new drilling resulted in a new understanding of the reservoir and its resource potential.

In other words, when you’re allowed to look for oil, you find it and the resulting, previously unavailable geologic data helps you find more. USGS Acting Director Suzette Kimball:

“The USGS undertook this assessment of the Bakken and Three Forks Formations as part of a nationwide project assessing U.S. petroleum basins using standardized methodology and protocol. Through this improved understanding of our energy resources, government, industry, and citizens are better able to understand our domestic energy mix and make wiser decisions for the future.”

In addition to oil, USGS estimates the two formations contain a mean of 6.7 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas and 0.53 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas liquids. The estimate is a nearly threefold increase in mean natural gas and a nearly threefold increase in mean natural gas liquids resources from the 2008 assessment.

The dramatic increases in these oil and natural gas estimates are a credit to industry initiative and the application of ideas and technology – in non-federal areas where oil and natural gas development is supported and encouraged. These reserves underscore the game-changing nature of unconventional oil and natural gas – again, thanks to hydraulic fracturing – that could support the creation of 3.5 million jobs and more than $5.1 trillion in industry cumulative capital spending by 2035, according to an IHS Global study.

America has ample supplies of oil and natural gas – the energy sources that run our economy and make modern living possible. To realize America’s energy potential and to increase America’s security in the world, we need policies that expand development – as we’ve seen in the Williston Basin – to federal areas onshore and offshore where access is limited (or blocked altogether) and where production has lagged. Access to reserves, accompanied by predictable leasing and timely permitting, will foster investments in exploration, infrastructure and other areas that will turn America’s energy potential into reality. API’s Carlton Carroll:

“Today’s report is further proof of a new energy reality brought about by advancing technologies that could turn America into a global energy superpower. … We are now the largest natural gas producer in the world and are poised to surpass Saudi Arabia to become the world’s top oil producer in a few short years. … Americans everywhere are benefiting from the energy revolution occurring in our country. … These benefits could become much greater in the future, creating even more jobs, reducing our debt and further strengthening America’s position in the world on energy.”


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.