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Is This America's Next Big Shale Play?

Robert Baillieul
September 16, 2013

The North Dakota Bakken has helped revive the United S. energy industry, driving the nation's crude production to its highest level since 1989. Yet there could be a bigger play, even larger than the Bakken, sitting right below it.

Even bigger than the Bakken
The Bakken has been one of America's biggest shale finds in history. In July, output from the formation hit a record 810,000 barrels per day, up from less than 80,000 barrels per day during the same month five years earlier. 

But based on the latest findings from United States Geological Survey, the Three Forks formation could hold more oil than the Bakken shale that lies above it. According to USGS estimates, the Bakken contains 3.65 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil. That's slightly short of the Three Forks' 3.73 billion barrel estimate. 

The new report also triples the estimated quantity of undiscovered, technically recoverable gas and natural gas liquids, or NGLs, in the Williston Basin. The USGS projects that the combined Bakken and Three Forks contains 6,726 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 527 million barrels of NGLs. These estimates are conservative and could be increased as technology improves.

Of course, industry operators have provided a more optimistic assessment. 'What [the Bakken] looks like in terms of recovery factor and recoverable reserves was about 24 billion barrels of oil.' Rick Bott, President and Chief Operating Officer at Continental Resources (NYSE: CLR), told analysts on Thursday, 'But if you add the deep benches and depending on what recovery rates you use, those deeper benches could move the amount of oil in play to 32 billion to 45 billion barrels of oil. So that's an exciting number to be going after.' 

Who's best positioned
Unsurprisingly, established operators in the Williston Basin are the best positioned to exploit the Three Forks. 

Continental Resources has been the most aggressive in trying to prove up its acreage. The company's Three Forks exploration program is on target to complete 20 new wells by year-end to establish the formation's productive capacity, identify unique reserves, and de-risk leaseholds.

Year-to-date the company has completed 14 wells in the Three Forks with average initial production rates between 970 and 1,200 barrels of oil equivalent per day, or BOE/d. That compares to initial production rates in the upper Bakken layer of around 1,150 BOE/d per well during the second quarter. 

Other companies have posted encouraging exploration results from the Three Forks formati