Whiting Oil and Gas is a public energy company that drills for oil and gas in many locations throughout the United States. The company extracts oil and gas to sell to others, and also has its own natural gas refining capabilities. I spoke with Superintendent Blaine Hoffman at their North Dakota headquarters in Dickinson, ND.
Blaine was born in Watford City, raised in North Dakota, and has worked in the North Dakota oil business for 39 years. He lives on 40 acres outside of Dickinson. “We’ve got a 2200 square foot house that my wife put together and I’ve got a 50’x80’ shop for me.” Blaine’s wife is in Arizona now. They bought property near Prescott and she is overseeing construction of another home where they plan to retire within a few years. “She can do whatever she wants, so long as I have another shop. It doesn’t have to be as big, maybe 40’x50’.”
Whiting first came to North Dakota in 1999, and drilled in Mission Canyon in 2002. In 2007 they began drilling the Bakken Formation, one of the largest oil and gas formations in North America. Fracking technology was just developing. “We did some ‘Hail Mary Fracking’ wells, dropped vertically and then went 10,000 feet horizontally and had some success. Now we can go up to 20,000 feet horizontally.”
I asked Blaine why fracking requires horizontal drilling. This led to a concise geology lesson. “The Bakken is a tight rock formation with horizontal fractures. The oil rich zone is between six and seventy feet thick. We use MWD (measurement while drilling) directional tools to drill straight down to that zone and then horizontally. We drill horizontally to tap into the transcendental fractures. Longitudinal drilling is easier, but vertical production in a place like the Bakken would be very little. The Middle Bakken is the target zone. We pump a mix of water and sand, six pounds of sand per gallon, into the well at 8,000 psi pressure. That deep in the ground, the hydrostatic pressure of the slurry is 14,000 psi or more. The water/sand mix infiltrates the fractures and releases the trapped oil.” The Bakken and Three Forks formations contain more than seven billion barrels of oil. Yet only 3%-10% is recoverable by current methods (source: Heritage Center of North Dakota).
Here’s how Blaine describes fracking:
– Start with 9-5/8” surface casing that we drill about 2500 feet deep, to get below any potable water. Fill that casing with cement to eliminate any leaks.
– Run an 8-5/8” bit filled with oil-based mud to keep the hole stable to a depth of 10,000 feet. (Blaine mentioned those two dimensions in the same breath, but I realized they are drilling with a slenderness ratio of 14,000:1. The vertical hole is proportionately thinner than an unspooled thread).
– Cement that hole in a 7” casing.
– Drill a 6” horizontal bit with a 4-1/2” liner up to 20,000 feet, nearly four miles.
– Insert a series of P-valves along the length of the horizontal bit. After the well is drilled, fracking begins from the end. Open the last P-valve, pump in the water/sand slurry, and open fractures. Stop the slurry flow and allow the released oil to flow up the well. Pull back to the next valve. Repeat.
I’m not savvy about geology or resource extraction. However, having spent my career designing healthcare facilities, I make the analogy between fracking and interventional procedures. Fracking is like performing an endoscopy on mother earth. Since endoscopy and other forms of minimally invasive surgery depend on cameras, I ask whether cameras determine their location in a well. “No, it is too muddy to get any camera image. The MWD tools show exactly where we are within a few feet.”
Blaine makes fracking sound benign, so I ask why people are so worried about it. “When this started in Pennsylvania, there were no rules in place to protect groundwater. They didn’t always cement the surface and intermediate casings. Now, 99.7% of states have some rules. North Dakota leads in writing many of these rules.”
Then Blaine reveals that there are other substances, beyond water and sand, in the slurry mix. “We add a guar gum to the slurry to help the sand and water flow better. Guar gum is a plant material. All of the components of the fracking fluid are public record. We don’t have to list them by percent, but we have to list everything we put down the well.”
Fracking was developed by large companies and/or universities (Halliburton, Delco, Texas A&M) working alone or sometimes together. It continues to evolve. “Initially, we didn’t use the P-valves. We had sliding screens placed at intervals along horizontal well runs. We applied pressure to a location, the screen expanded and the slurry flowed out into the fractures, which allowed the released oil to come up the well.” Again, I am struck by the medical analogy, as Blaine describes what is essentially a stent. “Introducing P-valves and plugs is a more accurate way to control the fracking process and gives us better quality control.”
The North Dakota energy boom has tapered way back, but the industry is still robust. North Dakota remains the second largest oil and gas producing state, after Texas. “At the height of the most recent boom, there were 212 rigs operating in North Dakota, now there are 80. Whiting had twenty-one rigs at the peak and was producing 500,000 barrels a day. Now we operate seven and produce 175,000 barrels a day. The number will increase again, as the price will come back, but it is influenced by many factors: the Middle East, Wall Street and politics. Consumption doesn’t drive the prices all that much. Politicians know how to work the numbers to get prices to sway the way they want.”
Blaine is proud to be affiliated with Whiting. He highlights that the company hasn’t had any layoffs despite the downtick. He points out Whiting’s high safety standards and the company’s leadership in community projects. “My message is; if it’s not good for North Dakota, it’s not good for Whiting. We want to maintain our quality of life. With all of the industry that’s come in here over the last few years, life has changed. If we leave the infrastructure in place, including pipelines, we can have everything in place to return to a high quality of life.”
I ask Blaine about changes in fracking. “The next thing is secondary recovery. We are getting between 5% and 25% of what’s there. When we run parallel well bores we can get maybe 25%. Parallel wells run between 300 feet and 700 feet apart, sometimes at different elevations to access different oil strata. There are certain efficiencies in drilling parallel bores, but at some point they reach diminishing returns. We are always looking for ways to capture more oil.”
“Whiting is a big family. I was the number 9 employee in North Dakota, now we have 515. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of fun, with a lot of rewards. Not many people have the opportunity to start something like the Bakken from zero. It’s been hard and really good, but I’m tired. What I’m most proud of in 39 years in the North Dakota oil business is our safety record and our environmental progress. These last seven years have been a godsend to North Dakota: oil, agriculture, cattle; all have been good. They are a bit down now, but they will be back.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“We are going to live better. This is good for the entire state. Going forward, we want to stay involved with our community and our state. Being involved in our communities is the key to long-term success.”