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Secret Winners in the North Dakota Oil Story

North Dakota has the lowest rate of unemployment in the U.S. right now. Some of its cities are facing unprecedented population growth and still, there are jobs aplenty. Why? Because of oil. A recent post by our friends at the Energy Information Administration, or EIA, points out that at the end of last year crude oil and lease condensate production had reached an all-time high of 770,000 barrels per day. That's impetus enough to take a closer look at the state and highlight a few investment opportunities.

The data
North Dakota's success is relatively new. Ten years ago the state was averaging oil production of fewer than 100,000 barrels per day. Production started to ramp up in 2008 and has grown exponentially since then:

Source: EIA

Unbelievably, production has grown by more than 200,000 barrels per day in one year and the state now accounts for more than 10% of all American oil production. 

Almost all of this growth can be attributed to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken Shale. In fact, 95% of the wells drilled in North Dakota utilize hydraulic fracturing to bust open shale rock and free the crude oil trapped inside. 

The trend
The top three producers in North Dakota are Continental Resources, Hess (NYSE: HES  ) , and Whiting Petroleum (NYSE: WLL  ) . Whiting and upstart Kodiak Oil & Gas (UNKNOWN: KOG.DL  ) have some of the lowest drilling times in the Bakken, while Hess has one of the highest.

For all intents and purposes, oil production in the Bakken is the same as it is in any shale play. Drill a well, fracture, pump oil to the surface. Once it gets there, however, the story changes. Pipeline capacity in North Dakota is woefully insufficient. As a result, 75% of the state's oil production is loaded into a truck and taking to rail loading sites where it is then shipped out to refineries. 

Unconventional winners
With that in mind, investors will do well to consider who touches this crude as it travels from wellhead to market. And forget about what you know about the midstream industry. Traditional pipeline players like ONEOK Partners (NYSE: OKS  ) have already been burned as producers refused to commit to its Bakken crude pipeline proposal last year. Instead, look at players like Enbridge that are expanding rail infrastructure from North Dakota to the East Coast -- a very lucrative market -- to capitalize on this new transportation paradigm.

In fact, forget about what you know about refiners at the same time. East Coast refining was supposed to be dead, but Bakken crude is making a Frankenstein out of the industry. PBF Energy (NYSE: PBF  ) is a perfect example of this. The company has built a rail unloading facility at its Delaware City refinery and is looking to replace its slate of expensive foreign crudes with North Dakota's cheap stuff.

Foolish takeaway
Our first thought when oil production ramps up is to focus on the producers, but a closer look at underlying patterns can turn up an awful lot of investment ideas, and North Dakota is a great reminder of that.

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