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Sky Could Fall on North Dakota's Oil If We're Not Careful, Shale Boss Says

05/28/2014 03:58 pm 15:58:05 | Updated Jul 28, 2014

All parties with a collective interest in seeing the North Dakota oil experiment succeed need to work together because, right now, the boss at the largest stakeholder in the Bakken shale says opponents are drawing a bead on the region. And it's not just exploration and production that's a concern.

Oil production from the Bakken shale oil play in North Dakota is increasing at an exponential rate. State government data show production for May, the last full month for which complete information is available, was 977,051 barrels per day, a new all-time high.

On April 28, Continental Resources, the largest stakeholder in the Bakken play, said the field produced its 1 billionth barrel of oil at some point during first quarter 2014. The company's chairman, Harold Hamm, said that, at the rate things are going now, production could hit the 2 million bpd mark by the end of the decade if, and it's a big if, nothing goes wrong.

"We can't have any more issues," Continental's boss said.

In overall production terms, there's not much going wrong in the Bakken play. Though this year's rough winter slowed things down, Adam Sieminski, the top official at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), said the slump would be erased in the next few months.

But there are other problems needling away in the North Dakota oil patch.

Last week, the FBI said it has only two agents working in the area and needs the industry's help because state law enforcement agencies can't keep up with the growing crime rate. There's even a non-profit group, 4her North Dakota, to combat sex trafficking now.

On the legal margins, meanwhile, it's not just the male members of the oil industry in North Dakota striking it rich. Female strippers, on a good night, are bringing home the bacon to the tune of $2,500 per shift.

Domestic violence and bar brawls are commonplace in parts of the state that boast an unemployment rate of next to zero, but a population boom creating a chronic housing shortage.

The oil sector itself is no stranger to problems. In September, about 20,000 barrels of crude oil spilled in rural Tioga, N.D., and state officials think it will take about two years to clean up the mess.

Three months later, flames shot 100 feet in the air after an eastbound train carrying oil for BNSF Railway hit a westbound train carrying grain in Casselton, N.D. Though no injuries were reported, it was just one of a string of train accidents involving Bakken crude.

A July train accident involving Bakken crude in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, left more than 40 people dead.

That's part of the dark underbelly of the North Dakota oil industry that's not making much of a splash in the circle of energy wonks keeping steady count of wells drilled and barrels produced. But it's part of the narrative that may throw North Dakota's oil future off the rails, in more ways than one.

"We're in the crosshairs," Continental's Hamm said. "If we have anything [go wrong,] they're going to shut us down."

By Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com