Oil and natural gas industry analysts predict that investments by operators in the Bakken shale will exceed $15 billion for drilling and completions this year. If so, Bakken would hold second place in the United States Lower 48, with Eagle Ford in the number one spot. As with other large shale regions, infrastructure problems are continuing to constrain production, but operators still believe they will be able to recover at least 20 billion barrels of oil over the life of the plays.
Analyst predictions for Bakken and Three Forks are an average of 1.1 million barrels of oil per day in 2014, with growth exceeding 1.5 million barrels of oil per day in 2020. At the same time, costs for wells continue to decrease, in part due to pad drilling. Three years ago, the average well cost more than $10 million, but with pad drilling techniques, the average well costs between $7 and $8 million. This significant price reduction is not the only benefit pad drilling brings to the table. It also reduces the environmental impact of the drilling process.
In the past, moving a rig from one well site to another involved taking the rig down and then putting it back up at the new site, no matter how close together the sites were. Now operators are able to construct drilling pads with many wells on them, keeping the wellheads for horizontally drilled wells clustered relatively close together on the drilling pad.
A well pad generally drains a rectangular area called a spacing unit. This unit is usually about half a mile wide by two miles long, with the drilling pad itself positioned in the rectangle’s center. Most of the surface area of the rectangle will not be used, and the pad is usually a plot of just four to five acres that is cleared and leveled. A surface is added to the pad to bear the weight of the drilling equipment, trucks, and the rig itself.
On the drilling pad, the environmental footprint of the site is minimized by placing the wells near each other at the surface. Under the surface, operators drill the horizontal wells in different directions. After one well is drilled, a hydraulic walking system or skidding system moves the rig a few yards for the next well location without any need for disassembly. Some operators are even building short roads between well sites so that rigs can be moved between sites intact for greater cost savings.
Savings and efficiencies such as these will continue to have a big impact on the oil and gas industry, and enable more players to come to the table. In the past three years, North Dakota has seen a growth rate of 177 percent in crude oil output. This type of result is becoming increasingly typical and decreases the dependence of the United States on foreign oil.
Particularly in shale regions such as Bakken, Eagle Ford, and Marcellus, new techniques and ideas make greater recovery possible. Operators continue to research ways to reduce the costs of drilling and increase output, while encouraging midstream companies to develop the infrastructure necessary to handle the increased need for processing and transportation.