North Dakota

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently raised a few eyebrows across the energy industry with a report that producers in three key shale states — including Texas, the nation’s #1 oil producer — seem to be extracting larger amounts of “heavier” crude oil. Of course, the oil is only heavier relative to the light and superlight grades that have been produced in copious amounts since the dawn of the Shale Revolution. But these denser, lower-API volumes have recently helped drive growth in total crude output. In today’s RBN blog, we unpack what the EIA discussed in its writeup, explore some of the possible drivers behind the apparently heavier oil production, and discuss what it might mean for the domestic market. 

Discussions and debates around the carbon-capture industry have been everywhere in recent years, from the federal incentives designed to spur its growth and the role it might play in decarbonization efforts to the technical challenges and economic headwinds that add uncertainty to its long-term outlook. And while all of those are important topics worthy of future conversation, none of those potential projects are going to happen without somewhere to put all that carbon dioxide (CO2). The wells used for permanent CO2 sequestration are largely approved at the federal level by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but a few states have gained control — aka “primacy” — over the permitting process. In today’s RBN blog, we explain what it means to have primacy, why it has become an increasingly important goal in recent years, and the potential benefits that come with it. 

Extreme blizzard conditions wreaked havoc on North Dakota energy infrastructure last weekend, taking offline as much as 60% of the state’s crude oil production and more than 80% of natural gas output, and leaving utility poles and power lines strewn across the landscape. On the gas side, the unprecedented supply loss is having a never-before-seen impact on regional and upstream flows and storage activity. It is also compounding maintenance-related production declines in other basins, leaving Lower 48 natural gas output at its lowest since early February. Moreover, the extent of the storm-related damage to local infrastructure could prolong the supply recovery. In today’s RBN blog, we break down the aftereffects of the offseason winter storm on regional gas market fundamentals.

When it finally came online in mid-2017, the Dakota Access Pipeline was a lifesaver for Bakken crude oil producers. For years, they had suffered from takeaway-capacity shortfalls that forced many shippers to rely on higher-cost crude-by-rail, sapping producer profits in the process. Then came DAPL, which provides straight-shot pipeline access to a key Midwest oil hub, and its sister pipe — the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline (ETCOP) — which takes crude from there to the Gulf Coast. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Now, there’s at least an outside chance that a shutdown order is issued as soon as early April in connection with the ongoing federal district court process, with the timeline for a physical closure of the pipe still to be determined. A shutdown may last for only a few months but could potentially last much longer. Where does this uncertainty leave Bakken producers, many of whom have been hoping to benefit from the recent run-up in crude oil prices by ramping up their output this spring? Today, we discuss recent upstream and midstream developments in the U.S.’s second-largest shale/tight-oil play.

It’s a well-known fact in the energy and petchem industries that ethane is either “rejected” into natural gas or used as a feedstock for steam crackers. But piping ethane to NGL hubs, crackers, or export docks only makes sense if it’s economically viable or if there’s no other alternative, and ethane rejection has its limits — ethane has a 70% higher Btu value than methane, and too much rejection can make pipeline gas “too hot” for downstream consumers. Well, there’s another way to make economic use of ethane: burn it — typically in a blend with natural gas — to generate electric power. Burning ethane for power is super-rare though, and only happens in places where the lightest of all NGLs is so abundant that folks don’t know what to do with it. The Marcellus/Utica region in Appalachia for one, and now — just maybe — the Bakken Shale in western North Dakota. Today, we discuss plans for what would be only the second major U.S. power plant to be fueled by a blend of natural gas and ethane.

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.

The Bakken Shale is being hit especially hard by production cuts this spring. Crude oil-focused producers large and small have been shutting in wells and putting well completions on hold, slashing daily crude output by more than one-sixth. The rig count is down by half in less than two months — to 26, the play’s lowest level since mid-2016 — and thousands of oilfield workers have been let go. All this is happening despite the facts that the Bakken’s four-county core has some of the best shale assets outside the Permian and that in 2017-19 the play was super-hot, with crude production increasing by 50%. That three-year growth spurt spurred the development of a number of new crude gathering systems, many of which now face a period of significant underutilization. Today, we discuss highlights from our new Drill Down report on oil production and supporting infrastructure in the U.S.’s #2 shale play.

In May 2019, the first-ever propane unit train from the Bakken to Mexico reached its destination, and since then, three more of these 100-car, single-commodity “bulk” trains have made the same trip. Facilitating these shipments by Twin Eagle Liquids Marketing is Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s (MPC) unit train-loading terminal in Fryburg, ND, which was initially set up to load crude oil but was recently expanded to handle propane too. And soon, the terminal in Torreón, Mexico, that has been receiving these unit trains will have a new loop track too, enabling producers and marketers to take full advantage of the bulk transport option. Today, we look at the economics and challenges of this relatively new propane export route.

In May 2019, Twin Eagle Liquids Marketing shipped a 100-car train filled with propane from North Dakota to Mexico, marking the first-ever single-commodity train — i.e. “unit train” — between the Bakken and the U.S.’s southern neighbor. As it turns out, it was also the first of what appears to be a regularly scheduled run to Mexico. Since May, three more unit trains have made the journey south from the Bakken’s first unit train terminal for propane. Rail shipments of propane to Mexico as part of mixed-goods trains aren’t new, but figuring out how to economically ship large quantities of propane via unit trains has long evaded NGL marketers and producers — that is, until now. What are the economics and other factors that finally made it possible, and what are the prospects and challenges ahead for unit-train exports to Mexico? Today, we look at how the first all-propane train to Mexico came to pass and what the outlook might be for these shipments to continue.

Producers in the Bakken and the rest of North Dakota flared record volumes of natural gas in the fourth quarter of 2018 — an average of more than 520 MMcf/d, or about 20% of total production — far exceeding the state’s current 12% flaring target. What happened? For one, crude oil production in the play took off; for another, the gas-to-oil ratio at the lease continued to increase. And while some new gas processing capacity came online last year to reduce the need for flaring, the pace of the additions was too slow to keep up with the Bakken’s rising gas output. The good news is that 2019 will bring more incremental processing capacity to North Dakota than any year to date. Today, we discuss recent setbacks on the flaring-control front and the prospects for things getting better later this year.

A number of the Bakken’s leading producers are talking up the shale play’s prospects for crude oil production gains in 2017—and especially in 2018—but we are still waiting on numbers that would prove that the play has truly turned a corner. What is crystal clear, though, is that the Bakken’s biggest takeaway project ever, the 470-Mb/d Dakota Access Pipeline to Illinois, is finally nearing completion and operation after a very public delay. When DAPL comes online this spring, it will further reduce crude-by-rail volumes out of the Bakken and should help to increase the odds that production in the play will begin to rebound in earnest. Today we update production and takeaway capacity in the nation’s third-largest crude-focused shale play.

The 450-Mb/d Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has broken away from the pack of out-of-the-Bakken crude takeaway projects. On August 2, Enbridge Inc., through its master limited partnership Enbridge Energy Partners, agreed to take a large stake in DAPL from Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Sunoco Logistics Partners (SXL), a move that suggests Enbridge’s own 225-Mb/d Sandpiper Pipeline may drop out of the race soon. Joining Enbridge in the $2 billion deal is Marathon Petroleum, its former joint venture partner and anchor shipper on Sandpiper. Today, we consider these recent developments in the long-running effort to transport North Dakota crude oil to market more efficiently.

Most of the crude by rail  (CBR) shipments to 4 refineries in Washington State are ex-North Dakota from where rail freight costs are over $10/Bbl. Bakken crude from North Dakota competes at Washington refineries with Alaska North Slope (ANS) shipped down from Valdez, AK. Back in 2012 ANS prices were more than $20/Bbl higher than Bakken crude – easily covering the rail cost. In 2016 so far the ANS premium to Bakken has averaged well below the $10/Bbl freight cost making CBR shipments uneconomic. But as we discuss today - Northwest refiners are still shipping significant volumes of crude from North Dakota.

If East Coast refiners bought their crude at the wellhead in North Dakota during February 2016 they would have paid average prices of about $4.90/Bbl below U.S. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) at Cushing, OK – which works out at about $26.25/Bbl (price estimates from Genscape). If they shipped that crude by rail to refineries in Philadelphia, PA on the East Coast they would have paid about $14/Bbl rail freight - meaning the delivered cost of crude would be $26.25 + $14 or $40.25/Bbl. Alternatively they could have simply imported Bakken equivalent light sweet crude priced close to international benchmark Brent for an average $34/Bbl – saving a minimum of $6.25/Bbl. Today we describe how these economics have had a detrimental impact on crude-by-rail (CBR) shipments to the East Coast.

For the past, year many shale oil producers have defied the expectations of many and kept output at or near to record levels in the face of falling oil prices and much tougher economics. Improvements in productivity, cost cutting and a concentration on “sweet spot” wells that generate high initial production (IP) rates have all helped cash strapped producers survive. But with oil prices so far in 2016 stuck in the $35/Bbl and lower range and with the worldwide crude storage glut still weighing on the market – producers are finally pulling back. Today we look at how increased pressure on North Dakota producers is putting the brakes on Bakken crude production.