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UND professor says recoverable oil in North Dakota could more than double after study of formation

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A UND professor says the amount of recoverable oil on the U.S. side of the Bakken Formation could more than double as a result of a three-year study by UND researchers looking at how to increase the amount of oil that can be extracted from the Bakken's dense shale.

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A report released by the U.S. Geological Survey in April estimated that the Bakken Formation holds 3 billion to 4.3 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered in North Dakota and Montana using current technology.

But Zhengwen Zeng, an assistant professor in geological engineering at UND, said doubling that estimate is a modest goal. He said the U.S. Geological Survey's estimate of recoverable oil in the Bakken comprises only about 1 percent of the total oil in the formation, much lower than the normal U.S. recovery rate of about 30 percent because of the difficulty of extracting oil from the Bakken's dense rock formation.

Zeng said a recovery rate of between 5 percent and 10 percent of the oil on the U.S. side of the Bakken Formation is attainable and the percentage of recoverable oil could potentially be even higher.

"There is a huge potential in the Bakken and a huge demand for technology development," Zeng said. "This would be a huge contribution to the state economy and help reduce the U.S. trade deficit from buying foreign oil."

Zeng said increasing the Bakken's recovery rate by just 1 percent would produce an additional 2 billion to 4 billion barrels of oil, which would be worth between $200 billion and upwards of $400 billion at current oil prices.

Research by members of UND's Geology and Geological Engineering department will study the properties of the Bakken Formation, which stretches across parts of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, and look for ways to recover more oil trapped in the dense shale almost two miles beneath the surface.

The research project is scheduled to begin in October. It is funded by a $1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy that was announced Wednesday by North Dakota's congressional delegation.

Zeng is coordinating the research project. William Gosnold and Richard LeFever of UND's Geology and Geological Engineering department also will be involved in the project.

The study will look at the geological structure of the Bakken Formation and take a quantitative measurement of the magnitude and direction of pressure on the formation by examining rock samples.

It also will look into how and where to conduct horizontal drilling to attain the best results and how best to fracture the formation so oil trapped in rocks flows into horizontal wells.

Zeng said injecting CO2 and a mixture of other chemicals into the rock formation also will be used to increase the amount of recoverable oil.

The study by UND researchers will use current technology, but new lab equipment also will be developed to measure and examine samples, Zeng said.

Zeng said researchers also will look at previous studies of other formations to help them understand more about the formation.

He said the research group will release the results of its research gradually during the course of the three-year project.

"Hopefully, by the end of the three years, we will have a better understanding of the stress in the Bakken Formation and be able to give better advice about how to recover more oil from it," Zeng said. "We don't understand the formation enough now to be able to produce an adequate amount of oil from it."

Schuster covers business. Reach him at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to rschuster@gfherald.com. Read his business blog at www.areavoices.com/bizbuzz.

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