151 million barrels of technically recoverable crude

It’s never enough. Whenever government-run geological surveys release estimates on the potential of the oil-bearing rocks underneath the plains of North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan, operators cry foul.

The potential of the Williston Basin, which contains the prolific Bakken formation, has been re-assessed multiple times by the U.S. Geological Survey over the years. Each time, oil and gas explorers have called the revised estimates of technically recoverable oil in place “conservative.”

In its 2008 assessment, the USGS revised its previously announced figure of 151 million barrels of technically recoverable crude to 3.65 billion barrels, which represented a 2,317 per cent increase from its 1997 estimates. Despite the new numbers being 25 times higher than before, geologists and executives at production companies said the estimates were cautious. They said the same thing in 2013, when the USGS revised its figures again and released an estimate showing that the Williston Basin now contained 7.38 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, for example, has publicly said that a conservative estimate of recoverable oil-in-place in the Williston Basin would measure 24 billion barrels.

Nevertheless, the USGS’s 2013 revision contained estimates for the first time on the potential of the Three Forks formation, which underlies the Bakken and is at least the same size as the Bakken. According to the USGS, there are 3.73 billion barrels of undiscovered oil in place in the Three Forks formation – or the Torquay, as it’s called in Canada. The potential of this formation has led Canadian energy producers already active in the Bakken to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire prospective Torquay/Three Forks acreage in Saskatchewan and North Dakota, where new discoveries could rewrite the production potential of Williston Basin once again.

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