Monday, July 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Maps: Natural gas production in Montana and South Dakota -- plus some thoughts on fracking

Maybe it was watching the recent “Dark Knight Rises,” but somehow I have lately ended up with Charles Dickens's “A Tale of Two Cities” on the brain. It has even spilled over into my musings on energy production in Montana, as the title of this post indicates.

According to the Billings Gazette, North Dakota’s oil production is on track to triple by 2025. All of those wells currently being drilled are going to keep pumping out oil and producing natural gas for a long time. Will Montana’s oil production triple? Who knows?

What really caught my eye in the article, though, were the natural gas production numbers:

North Dakota produced a record 650.8 million cubic feet of natural gas in April. Montana produced 85 million cubic feet for the month, and South Dakota's production was pegged at 42.1 million cubic feet.

I have before discussed North Dakota’s “stratospheric” oil production numbers and compared them to Montana. But this isn’t going to be another post comparing ND to Montana.

No, what made me sit up and take notice was that South Dakota produces fully half the natural gas that Montana does.

You see, as I sit writing this, I am at the family ranch in South Dakota, about 25 miles from the Harding county oil fields. While there are a few wells in the far southwestern corner of the state, more than 90% of oil and all of the gas production takes place up here in the far northwestern corner of the state. In fact, South Dakota's “vast" oil fields currently take up all of 1/2 of one county -- take a look at the map.

By contrast, Montana’s potential oil fields are far more extensive (see the partial map of Montana at the top of the post) and are in multiple parts of the state. It is hard to see how South Dakota’s minuscule fields could reach 10-20% of Montana’s natural gas production, let alone 50%.

One possible contribution could be fracking. I spoke to state Rep. Betty Olson, who along with state Senator Ryan Maher comprises the entirety of the "oil and gas caucus" in the South Dakota legislature, and she noted that while fracking isn’t necessary for oil production in the Red River formation that underlies the South Dakota fields, it has been used there for natural gas production since 1979.

Given that we have some who strongly and vocally oppose fracking in Montana and have increasingly stringent DNRC regulations regarding fracking, it is reasonable to wonder what effect this is having on Montana’s gas production numbers (which have dropped) -- another subject for inquiry, I suppose.

The first question I asked Betty after she mentioned fracking was whether, in 33 years of using that technique to enhance natural gas production in South Dakota, she had heard of any instances of it affecting the quality of well or surface water. Her reply? Not a single one.

Betty and her husband Reuben have been ranching in Harding County for as long as I can remember. I got to know Reuben from his years as one of the members of the crew that long sheared sheep for us and pretty much every other sheep rancher in our area. Betty is also the head of the Harding County Historical Society, and last year I had the pleasure of joining that group for a tour of historical sites in the North Cave Hills -- something I hadn’t done since I was a kid.

I can attest to their love for this land and their concern that this beautiful part of the country not be spoiled for future generations.

Betty is part of an interim SD legislative committee that is studying the impact of the Bakken oil boom as its effects continue to spill over into northwestern South Dakota. The committee is also trying to be proactive about oil and gas development and its effects on landowners, emergency services, schools, roads, and the like -- knowing that it could increase in South Dakota as well.

My point is that while she favors oil and gas development, my impression is that her visceral loyalties lie with the ranchers and other long-time residents in the area. At the first whiff of trouble for water supplies in this arid part of the South Dakota, Betty would be the last person to turn a blind eye to any dangers posed by fracking.

Talking to her, I was struck by the combination -- favoring oil and gas development and being clear-eyed about the potential problems and the necessary infrastructure and long-term planning that will be necessary to manage any boom the future might bring.

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