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Low Oil Prices Have Varying, Subtle Impacts in North Dakota

North Dakota recently exhibited new examples of how continued low global crude oil prices can have a socioeconomic impact on local communities and drive research to find more efficient ways to extract oil and gas from the Bakken Shale.

A case in point was the Williams County Commission meeting last Tuesday adopting new guidelines for temporary housing, which has been a mainstay of the county's and state's shale boom. Temporary housing -- including oil/gas worker camps, recreational vehicle (RV) and trailer parks, and modular homes -- is now retracting significantly with the pullback of rigs.

County officials will no longer accept new or extended temporary housing (TH) permits after Aug. 1, and TH that fails to meet new exceptions won't be allowed to operate as of May 1. It's another sign of the low oil price times, officials and operators agreed.

County statistics show that Williams has 18 TH facilities with more than 4,000 beds, but occupancy is half of that now at around 2,000 occupied beds. Nevertheless, a North Dakota State University study concluded that there is a permanent need for some types of TH to accommodate the nonresident workers that are expected to continue to come to the Williston Basin oil/gas patch.

In a different vein, researchers at the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) are tracking the marked increase in water used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in recent years and looking for ways to get more done with less water. It is clear, the researchers say, the ever-longer well laterals and greater numbers of frack stages are significantly increasing the volumes of water used, but the amount still is less than 5% of the state's overall fresh water use.

Today's low crude prices have raised the level of importance of increasing efficiencies and saving money, the EERC researchers said in a report.

EERC Senior Researcher Bethany Kurz told Bakken Magazine recently that in the early days of the shale boom, there were issues tied to fresh water supply access, but that has eased in more recent times. "Those issues have largely been alleviated as a result of substantial improvements to our water supply infrastructure through water supply pipeline projects," Kurz told the regional oil/gas-focused publication.

"We're very fortunate in North Dakota in that we have fairly available water supplies on the Missouri River system, and saltwater disposal wells are not a big issue," Kurz told NGI's Shale Daily on Monday. "So there are not the same drivers for recycling and reuse of water here, not to mention that the water quality in the Bakken is so poor [30% salt in many cases]."

Kurz said there are ongoing improvements in the fracking fluid systems to allow the use of highly salty water in lieu of fresh water. "The problem is storage; the state is very leery of storing 60,000 barrels of 30% salt water in any sort of structure because if you get a leak you could have a real [environmental] problem," she said.

Eventually, the volumes needed in fracking will drive more push for re-used water, said Kurz, noting that in 2008 an average hydraulic fracturing job required 20,000 barrels of water and at the start of this year that total was four times greater, 80,000 barrels. "But some jobs are close to 250,000 barrels, slickwater fracks," she said.

Kurz said the EERC and various firms are looking at better ways to forecast future water needs, improve saltwater storage and establish better management of saltwater pipelines.

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