North Dakota oil production swells as wells go back online

  • Oct 17, 2020
  • StarTribune

North Dakota’s oil output soared 14% in August as more wells shut down earlier in the spring because of the coronavirus crisis came back online.

“It is nice to note that we are back on the road again to healthy production,” Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Mineral Resources Department, told reporters Friday.

Still, Helms noted that while oil prices have been high enough to return wells to production, they are still too low to drill and frac new wells. So, while September’s oil data is likely to show another increase, production will likely fall thereafter.

North Dakota, the nation’s second-largest oil-producing state after Texas, pumped out 1.16 million barrels per day, up from 1.04 million per day in July. In May, output hit a seven-year low of 858,400 barrels per day.

The state posted record oil production of 1.52 million barrels per day in November 2019.

With COVID-19 clamping the world economy, oil prices plummeted earlier this year as demand for refined products crumbled. Thousands of producing oil wells across the country were shut in.

Jet-fuel demand “is still absolutely terrible,” but gasoline demand has nearly recovered in the U.S., Europe and Asia, Helms said.

West Texas Intermediate (WTI) — the benchmark U.S. crude — fell from $63 per barrel in January to record lows in the spring before leveling off to around $40 for much of the past three months. That’s enough to return shut-in wells to production in North Dakota.

But “we have just about tapped out the return-to-production increases we will see,” Helms said.

WTI needs to be around $45 before oil-field operators start fracking — and thus putting into production — the state’s many previously drilled wells, Helms said. (Fracking entails injecting a torrent of water, sand and chemicals into a well to flush out oil.)

WTI needs to be near $55 a barrel for companies to start drilling entirely new wells, Helms said.

“You need a constant stream of new wells to grow production,” he said. New wells “rapidly” decline in output in just one year.

Helms has brought a proposal before North Dakota’s emergency commission that would shift $16.9 million in CARES Act money toward finishing drilled, but unfracked, wells. The CARES Act provides federal money for COVID-19 relief.

The money is part of $60 million originally allocated to plug abandoned oil wells. But due to weather and legal delays, Helms said, $16.9 million of that fund will otherwise be unused by December’s end, as required by the CARES Act.

Under Helms’ proposal, oil companies would be eligible for grants to frack and complete wells before that time.

The state’s natural gas production also soared in August. The state produced 2.63 million MCF of gas per day, a 14% increase over July. (An MCF is 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas.)

Even with the increase, the state posted “really good numbers” on gas capture, he said.

Oil and gas companies captured 92% of gas produced statewide and flared only 8% — better than the state’s 91% gas-capture target that goes into effect Nov. 1. When excess gas is burned off, resources are wasted and carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere.

Gas flaring was above North Dakota’s goals for much of last year as output rose and investment in gas processing equipment lagged. But operators have now invested $3 billion in new equipment, Helms said.