New Drilling Method Opens Vast Oil Fields in US
The Bakken and the Eagle Ford are each expected to ultimately produce 4 billion barrels of oil. That would make them the fifth and sixth-biggest oil fields ever discovered in the United States. The top four are Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, Spraberry Trend in West Texas, the East Texas Oilfield and the Kuparuk Field in Alaska.
The fields are attracting billions of dollars of investment from foreign oil giants like Royal Dutch Shell , BP and Norway's Statoil , and also from the smaller U.S. drillers who developed the new techniques like Chesapeake , EOG Resources and Occidental Petroleum .
Last month China's state-owned oil company CNOOC agreed to pay Chesapeake $570 million for a one-third stake in a drilling project in the Niobrara. This followed a $1 billion deal in October between the two companies on a project in the Eagle Ford.
With oil prices high and natural-gas prices low, profit margins from producing oil from shale are much higher than for gas. Also, drilling for shale oil is not dependent on high oil prices. Papa says this oil is cheaper to tap than the oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico or in Canada's oil sands.
The country's shale oil resources aren't nearly as big as the country's shale gas resources. Drillers have unlocked decades' worth of natural gas, an abundance of supply that may keep prices low for years. U.S. shale oil on the other hand will only supply one to two percent of world consumption by 2015, not nearly enough to affect prices.
Still, a surge in production last year from the Bakken helped U.S. oil production grow for the second year in a row, after 23 years of decline. This during a year when drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation's biggest oil-producing region, was halted after the BP oil spill.
U.S. oil production climbed steadily through most of the last century and reached a peak of 9.6 million barrels per day in 1970. The decline since was slowed by new production in Alaska in the 1980s and in the Gulf of Mexico more recently. But by 2008, production had fallen to 5 million barrels per day.
Within five years, analysts and executives predict, the newly unlocked fields are expected to produce 1 million to 2 million barrels of oil per day, enough to boost U.S. production 20 percent to 40 percent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates production will grow a more modest 500,000 barrels per day.
By 2020, oil imports could be slashed by as much as 60 percent, according to Credit Suisse's Morse, who is counting on Gulf oil production to rise and on U.S. gasoline demand to fall.
At today's oil prices of roughly $90 per barrel, slashing imports that much would save the U.S. $175 billion a year. Last year, when oil averaged $78 per barrel, the U.S. sent $260 billion overseas for crude, accounting for nearly half the country's $500 billion trade deficit.
"We have redefined how to look for oil and gas," says Rehan Rashid, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets. "The implications are major for the nation."