Friday, April 11, 2008

Oil in Them Thar Badlands

Anyone who grew up in North Dakota perks up when their home state makes national headlines. So this week, when I saw that there may be massive oil fields in the wild western half of the state, I got excited even though I haven't lived there in nearly three decades.

According to Andrew Leonard at Salon, earlier estimates ranged as high as 500 billion barrels in the Bakken shale formation, which extends from North Dakota into Montana and Canada. (I hope this doesn't mean we'll have to invade Canada.) Even if that figure were correct, no more than half would be recoverable in the best-case scenario.

Now, with the release of a United States Geological Survey report on Thursday, the amount of technically recoverable oil there has been estimated between 3.0 and 4.3 billion barrels, as Leonard reported. (See his post for links to the actual report.) Note that this is technically recoverable, which still doesn't tell us if or when it'll make economic sense. As Leonard further notes, the extraction process for shale oil usually involves pulverizing mountains. Here, companies would likely use "horizontal drilling," which the AP described as follows:
Oil companies began sharing technology about two years ago on how to recover the oil. The technology involves drilling vertically to about 10,000 feet, then "kicking out" for as many feet horizontally, while fracturing the rock to release the oil trapped in microscopic pores in the area known as the "middle" Bakken.
If it seems like there ought to be a better way, I've got a fine idea. North Dakota has another major resource that's never been a secret to its sons and daughters: wind.

Way back in 2000, the New York Times reported:
Together, South Dakota, North Dakota and Texas have sufficient wind resources to provide electricity for the entire United States, according to studies cited by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
Being a good North Dakotan, I read that piece. And then I saw dollar signs. My dad still owns six quarter sections of land. It's not prime farmland, but wind? Boy, have we got it!

What we don't have is transmission capacity to move all that electricity out of the Dakotas and into the rest of this energy-greedy country. We also don't have clever ways of storing really massive amounts of electricity. Those are the the two things that would lay the groundwork for large-scale exploitation of wind power.

Of course, revamping our transmission grid and reinventing the battery would require huge investments. It'd take a major public initiative. But it might still be cheaper than pulverizing or drilling under the western half of North Dakota. It would certainly be cheaper than invading any more countries for their oil - yes, even cheaper than attacking Canada, never mind Iran.

Photo of the North Dakotan Badlands by Flickr user zanzibar, used under a Creative Commons license.

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