North Dakota Has Way, Way, Way More Oil Than We Thought

The United States government drastically underestimated the amount of oil and natural gas in North Dakota and Montana. And its new estimates may still be too low.

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The United States government somewhat underestimated the amount of oil and natural gas in North Dakota and Montana. Turns out, there's three times as much we used to think. At the end of last year, North Dakota's blistering oil economy was finally showing signs of slowing down. This new data suggests the state may just have been catching its breath — and that data may still be too low.

Compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, the new estimates are stunning. There may be as many as 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That's roughly the same amount of oil as would fit in 1.9 trillion cans of soda.

The new Secretary of the Interior lauded the upgrade.

“These world-class formations contain even more energy resource potential than previously understood, which is important information as we continue to reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “We must develop our domestic energy resources armed with the best available science, and this unbiased, objective information will help private, nonprofit and government decision makers at all levels make informed decisions about the responsible development of these resources.”

Opponents of increased fossil fuel consumption will likely express less enthusiasm.

Mother Jones indicates that the new data means the exploration boom in North Dakota "is here to stay." Noting that the new estimates would make the region the largest oil field in America, the magazine indicates that they may go higher still. It quotes Jim Ladlee, associate director of Penn State University's Marcellus Center: "Production estimates tend to go up as they drill more holes." A Reuters columnist agrees, writing:

USGS estimates are generally and deliberately conservative. Historically, the amount of oil ultimately recovered has exceeded them in many cases, as technology improves and more becomes known about remote parts of the formations. So there may be scope for even more crude and gas to be produced.

That's part of what happened with the USGS' new revision. Its lower, 2008 estimate was superseded after "new drilling resulted in a new understanding of the reservoir and its resource potential." The other thing that prompted the revision was that Interior added to its estimates the Three Forks Formation, a region thought to contain little oil or gas. Turns out, it does.

Even assuming the new estimates aren't revised upward, they still have a large margin of error. There could be as few as 4.42 billion barrels recoverable, or as many as 11.43. Despite representing the largest oil field in the country, the new estimates suggest an amount of oil that pales in comparison to how much fossil fuel the world uses. At 2011 consumption levels, the 7.4 billion barrels is enough oil to meet all of the world's oil demand for … 84 days. And 6.7 trillion cubic feet of gas can supply the United States for 100 days.

This is what the boom has looked like in North Dakota over the past decade. Feel free to extrapolate outward.

Data from the Energy Information Administration.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.