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Could oil production from the US rival Saudi Arabia?

John Kemp asks whether the oil production from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana rival output from Saudi Arabia's supergiant Ghawar oilfield, the greatest oil-bearing structure the world has ever known?

November 12, 2012 6:52 by

Until recently, comparisons between the shale fields of the Bakken and Ghawar, which produces 5 million barrels per day, would have been dismissed as fanciful.

But Bakken’s exponential growth and enormous reserves put it on course to produce more than 1 million barrels per day by the middle of next year, which will earn it a place in the small pantheon of truly elite oil fields.

Ghawar accounts for nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s total declared capacity of 12.5 million barrels per day and has produced more than 65 billion barrels of oil since 1951.

Ghawar is one of only six super-giant oil fields that have produced more than 1 million barrels per day at their peak. Others are Burgan (Kuwait), Cantarell (Mexico), Daqing (China) and in the 1970s and 1980s Samotlor (Russia) and Kirkuk (Iraq).

Discovered in 1948, and just 174 miles long by no more than 31 miles wide, Ghawar is an extraordinary structure.

“It is unlikely that any new oilfield will ever rival the bounteous production Ghawar has delivered to Saudi Arabia and the international petroleum markets,” energy expert Matthew Simmons explained in “Twilight in the Desert”, his controversial 2005 book about Saudi Arabia’s diminishing oil reserves.

No other super-giant has been discovered in the last 35 years (the last was Cantarell in 1976). Failure to find any more caused Simmons and other experts to worry world oil production was close to peaking in the late 2000s.


But now Bakken has burst onto the scene. Output hit 631,000 barrels per day in August 2012, according to North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, up from 256,000 barrels per day in August 2010 and just 83,000 barrels per day in August 2008.

Growth has been exponential (in the true sense of the word). Output has been increasing at a steady rate of about 65 percent a year since late 2009 and shows no sign of slowing ().

If growth continues at this pace for the next 12 months, and there is no reason to think it won’t, production will top 1 million barrels a day by August 2013.

Some analysts will complain about the comparison. Ghawar is a conventional field: a single, well-defined accumulation of oil. In contrast, the Bakken is a collection of dozens of small fields in an unconventional “continuous-type” deposit without well defined boundaries.

But the two are not so very different in size. Ghawar covers about 2,000 square miles. The core of the Bakken is 15,000 square miles, according to Continental Resources, one of the pioneering exploration and production companies operating in the area. Rough comparisons are reasonable.

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