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Bettering the Bakken

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota is embarking on an ambitious multimillion-dollar project in the Williston Basin.  Partnering with the North Dakota Industrial Commission and several companies investing in the Bakken, this project will focus on improving Bakken system oil recovery approaches, reducing the environmental impacts associated with oil and gas production, and gaining a better understanding of the Bakken and Three Forks Formations.

The EERC is a research, development, demonstration, and commercialization facility recognized as one of the world’s leading developers of more energy-efficient and cleaner energy technologies, as well as environmental technologies to protect the nation’s air, water, and soil.

The EERC has been doing research on a wide variety of topics since the mid-1980s; all of which strive to recognize the interwoven and complicated relationships between energy and the environment.  Operating solely on a contract basis, the EERC follows a business model and pursues a market-driven approach to research and development.  As such, the facility chooses the subject of its research based on the needs of its clients,  which include predominantly commercial entities, as well as federal and state government agencies.

“In many cases, we are able to form partnerships between government and industry to tackle problems in which everyone has a stake in the outcome,” says John Harju, Associate Director for Research at the EERC.  “In a nutshell, the EERC conducts research, development, demonstration, and commercialization activities to provide cost-effective solutions for our clients.”

Much of the EERC’s early work focused on issues pertaining to the use of low-rank coals but it has expanded its research over the last 20 years to include projects in nearly every kind of fuel imaginable, including oil and gas.  This was a logical progression for the EERC, considering its close proximity to the Bakken and a history of working with the key players in the formation’s development.

“It was only natural that we develop a robust program to look at ways of extracting the resource while minimizing the environmental footprint,” says Harju.

The EERC is no stranger to forming symbiotic relationships with its partners, having a long history of joint projects with the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC) and the oil and gas industry.

Over a decade ago, the EERC established the Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership; a multiyear, multimillion-dollar program that was geared toward characterizing opportunities in the northern Great Plains region to capture, utilize, and store CO2 from large industrial point sources.  In doing so, the EERC wished to further explore one of the most economically attractive means of potentially utilizing and storing CO2 from North Dakota’s coal-fired power plants: the injection of CO2 into oil fields for enhanced oil recovery.

Initially the NDIC’s interest in partnering with the EERC and some of the region’s largest oil producers was driven largely by a desire to identify potential technologies that would enable North Dakota’s coal-fired power industry to economically manage CO2 emissions.

It was through the PCOR Partnership Program that the EERC was able to ensure that the needs of both the NDIC and its oil industry members were being addressed while also facilitating dialogue and knowledge sharing between those key stakeholders.

“With the creation of the NDIC Oil and Gas Research Council by the state legislature in 2003, the NDIC recognized the positive impact that research focused on the oil and gas industry could have on the state,” says Harju.  “The experience and track record for performance that the EERC developed in working with the NDIC and the oil industry through the PCOR Partnership led to opportunities for projects focused on several other topics, including efforts focused on the Bakken. The EERC continues to serve all of our project stakeholders by providing impartial research results and facilitating knowledge sharing.”

This new multimillion-dollar Bakken CO2 Storage Enhanced Oil Recovery Program that the EERC is undertaking will take a two-pronged approach to both improve its understanding of the Bakken and Three Forks resource and to develop cost-effective approaches in order to optimize the productivity of that resource; while also reducing the environmental effect of operations.  Leading the way to better characterize the Bakken and Three Forks resource is Continental Resources Inc. with efforts that include primarily field-based work to identify “sweet spots,” determine the optimal spacing of wells, evaluate well completion and stimulation techniques, develop refined knowledge of fracture networks, and conduct other activities to better define the reserves of the shale formations.

Alongside Continental Resources Inc., the EERC is working to evaluate several key operational challenges that Bakken producers deal with on a daily basis.

“We work closely with our partners, who, along with Continental Resources, include Marathon, Whiting, ConocoPhillips, SM Energy, Oasis Petroleum, PetroHunt, Hess, Nuverra, Hitachi Data Systems, and the NDIC, identify and prioritize those challenges,” says Harju.  “We then conduct field-based and/or laboratory-based research efforts to better understand the nature of those key challenges, with a goal of developing solutions that are economically and environmentally sustainable.”

The EERC is currently endeavouring to also work on flaring and the collection and utilization of associated gas, solid waste, and water management.  The EERC’s optimization efforts are designed to be flexible and responsive to meet the evolving needs of the project partners and, as such, new topics may be added in the future.

Projects of this scale and scope tend to face a variety of logistical challenges, particularly when they involve multipartner, multiyear, and multitopic variables.  However, the enthusiastic support from project stakeholders, coupled with the EERC’s record, helps to make clearing the potential hurdles an easier task.

“The EERC has a long track record of designing, implementing, and managing these types of projects,” says Harju.  “This experience has served us well in ensuring that the project got off the ground and continues to move forward in a smooth and timely fashion.”

The results of this project are expected to provide the partners of the EERC and the citizens of North Dakota with scientifically robust knowledge that will ensure the resources of the Bakken and Three Forks system are developed in a cost-effective manner with minimal environmental impact.  In addition, this project will strengthen the EERC’s technical expertise and its relationships with stakeholders in the Bakken.

Although this project is currently confined to a 3-year period of performance, the intention of the EERC is to continue on with the optimization efforts beyond the scheduled time frame.  The EERC plans to proceed with commercial participation, building on its established and valued partnerships beyond the 3-year window.

Ultimately, establishing the size and nature of the oil resources of the Bakken and Three Forks systems, then developing approaches to improve operational efficiency and reduce the environmental footprint will lead to overall improvements in production efficiency in North Dakota.

“Such results will directly benefit the state of North Dakota, industry, and royalty owners by supporting the maintenance of strong oil production rates and the revenues that go with it,” says Harju.  “The reduction of the environmental footprint will improve the long-term sustainability of the Bakken and Three Forks play in North Dakota, which will, in the long run, benefit all of the citizens of North Dakota.”