House of Pain - Once Again, Bakken Crude Oil Producers Were Hit Especially Hard by Sagging Prices

Tough times in the crude oil sector generally affect all participants to some degree, but the impacts can vary widely by production basin. We saw that back in 2014-16, when the crash in oil prices battered the Eagle Ford, Bakken, and Niobrara but left the Permian unscathed — production there actually kept rising. Fast-forward to 2020, with its COVID-induced demand destruction, anemic prices, and uncertain-at-best recovery, and again the Bakken really took it on the chin. Production in the basin plummeted by 28% in one month — from April to May — and while Bakken output rebounded this summer, the rig count has been hovering at its lowest level in memory and another, albeit slower production decline may be imminent. Today, we discuss the challenges facing exploration and production companies in western North Dakota.

As we said a couple of months ago in Dakota, our Drill Down report on Bakken crude oil gathering systems, the Bakken was one of the first shale plays to demonstrate the promise and potential of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the production of crude oil. As shown in Figure 1, between the beginning of 2010 and the end of 2014, Bakken crude production soared by 400%, from ~250 Mb/d to ~1.26 MMb/d, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). But the mid-decade collapse in oil prices knocked the Bakken to its knees. By December 2016, crude production there had fallen to less than 960 Mb/d (blue area), and the number of active rigs in the play had dropped to 32, from 182 rigs two years earlier (green line).

Bakken producers soon got back on their feet, though. Crude oil prices rebounded, E&Ps significantly reduced their drilling-and-completion costs and increased their wells’ productivity, and — especially important for the Bakken, which remained chronically short of pipeline takeaway capacity through its initial 2010-14 growth spurt — the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to Patoka, IL, came online in June 2017. DAPL, which started out with a capacity of 470 Mb/d and has since been expanded to 570 Mb/d, freed many Bakken producers and shippers from their reliance on crude-by-rail and slashed the cost of delivering the play’s light crude to market. (More on DAPL in a moment.)

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