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North Dakota Sees Another NatGas Production Record as Oil Prices Rise

Bakken Shale natural gas production in North Dakota again set a monthly record in March as other indicators for active wells, rigs and prices all pushed higher, prompting the state's top oil and gas official on Tuesday to predict a robust drilling effort this spring and summer.

Natural gas production hit 65.6 Bcf (2.11 Bcf/d) in March, compared to 58.9 Bcf (2.10 Bcf/d) in February, and the state reached another all-time record mark for producing wells at 14,457. Oil production dropped slightly in March at 36 million bbl (1.16 million b/d), compared to 32.9 million bbl (1.17 million b/d) the previous month

Department of Minerals Director Lynn Helms noted that Bakken sweet crude on Tuesday was fetching about $59/bbl and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) prices were around $71/bbl. "Prices around $60/bbl are plenty high enough to stimulate more activity and more investment in the Bakken," he said during a webcast to discuss the results.

Helms outlined two continuing challenges facing the state’s energy industry: gas flaring and enough crews for hydraulic fracturing (fracking), assuming prices remain high. Statewide gas capture was at 88% in March, and he expressed concerns that if production were to kick higher this summer, it may be difficult to hit the next phased-in gas capture goal of 90% by Nov. 1.

"I expect to see a lot of pipeline crews, a lot of pipeline construction and a lot of natural gas processing plant construction out in western North Dakota communities in the latter half of this year," Helms said. "This is going to bring a lot of out-of-state workers back."

In response to a question, Helms said currently there are just enough fracking crews to keep up with production, with the 60 rigs operating in the Bakken. But if the rig count increases to about 70 rigs this year, "there will not be enough frack crews." The lack of labor could prove to be a "choke point," holding back future production growth. The rig count hit 60 in April from 59 in March and 57 in February.

The Williston Basin Petroleum Conference next week (May 22-24) is set to host more than 3,000 participants. Helms said he hasn't seen as much enthusiasm in the industry since 2010, when prices and production rates were setting records nearly every month.

North Dakota’s energy industry is "back on its feet with a healthy balance sheet and [is] excited about investing in North Dakota."

With the global oil oversupply now diminished, Helms said the "downside price risk" has nearly disappeared, and "the greater risk is that some sort of supply interruption could prompt an upward price spike."

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