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2018 looks optimistic for ND energy industry

An oil well pumps in northwest Dickinson, N.D., as the sun sets to the west. Forum News Service file photo

BISMARCK—North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources believes 2018 will be a lot like 2017 when it comes to North Dakota energy.

That isn't a bad thing, because 2017 ended on a high note with increased oil production toward the end of the year.

"Oil production always seems to surprise us and it does look like we're going to end 2017 on an optimistic note," said Alison Ritter, public information officer for the department. "We're going to end on a high note (and) we expect that optimism to continue to 2018, but we don't expect companies to add very many more rigs ... that is, unless we get more people in the state."

Ritter said a lack of skilled workers and a generally low population, consistent challenges in North Dakota, have resulted in fewer rigs being added to the landscape. The minerals department is focusing its attention on keeping industry on task in terms of capturing waste gas and keeping flaring to acceptable levels, she said.

"So right now industry has a target of ... 85 percent capture, and for the most part they are meeting it," she said, unlike a few months ago when it missed its target for the first time in three years.

Ritter said an increased capture target of 88 percent is a challenge to the oil and gas industry and an acknowledgment of the increasing hunger for natural gas.

"Now that we're seeing record gas production ... it just showcases the need to continue to develop our pipeline infrastructure and have additional investment in pipeline gathering and natural gas processing," she said.

The second most pressing area for the department is dealing with federal regulations. Department officials have been litigating against certain rule changes they say infringes on North Dakota's rights, Ritter said, pointing to the Bureau of Land Management's 2015 hydraulic fracturing rule. States oppose the rule and environmental groups support it, and Ritter expects a continued battle over it and other rules in 2018.

"We expect all of these legal challenges to either wrap up or continue with opposition," she said. "We certainly were very happy to see the BLM rescind the rule. That's something the Trump administration was going to review."

The agency is eager to see the results of enhanced oil recovery pilot projects underway in different parts of the state, including one in Mountrail County and another at the McGregor Field straddling Williams and Divide counties. Many consider the projects the next big event on the horizon for the Bakken's oil and gas sector as new ways to capture oil and natural gas may be found. This new technology could open up more of the estimated 175 billion to 185 billion barrels of oil in the ground to recovery.

"Each method is a little bit different ... but we certainly are hoping they have positive results," Ritter said.

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