Dozens of requests will be heard Wednesday and Thursday by the North Dakota Industrial Commission's (NDIC) hearing panel, reviewing operator requests for increased well densities and spacing unit changes in the Bakken/Three Forks formation.

The hearing panel, an extension of the three-member NDIC, used to hear about 200-300 cases a year; now it handles that volume range in any given month, said a spokesperson for the NDIC. All of the biggest players in the Bakken have applications for density and spacing unit changes, including Continental Resources, WPX Energy Williston, Kodiak Oil and Gas (USA), XTO Energy, Slawson Exploration, Hess Corp., Whiting Oil/Gas, and Oasis Petroleum.

Densities being requested climb up to as high as 16 wells/1,280-acre drilling units and 30 wells/2,560-acre units.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC) is supporting a broader effort, the "Bakken Production Optimization Initiative," being carried out in an ongoing study by the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota. The study is looking at issues of density and spacing, along with enhanced oil recovery (EOR) methods.

The three-year, multi-million-dollar EERC study is being done on a joint basis with the NDIC with backing from a number of NPC members. It is tasked with determining the "uniqueness of the Three Forks Bench Reserves, optimal well density in the Bakken, and optimum Bakken production."

Funded by $8 million form the NDIC's Oil and Gas Research Council, the study also is getting up to $100 million of in-kind resources from various oil/gas companies.

"The world's eyes are on western North Dakota since the coupling of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling and other technologies have demonstrated their ability to recover oil held tightly within the Bakken and Three Forks formations," according to the EERC's website.

EERC Associate Director for Research John Harju called the recent U.S. Geological Survey estimate of 7 billion bbl of recoverable oil in the Bakken understated, and he placed it now "in the rear view mirror."

Another way the industry is addressing the density issues is with the advent of more multi-well drilling pads, a spokesperson for the NDIC said. "The operators will drill the wells anyway -- the multi-well pad is beneficial and cost saving for them," she said. "It reduces the footprint and allows infrastructure to be localized, so increased density drilling is the prime reason for multi-well pads."

Department of Mineral Resource Director Lynn Helms said recently that two out of every three new wells occur on multi-well pads, a doubling of their incidence over the past year (see Shale Daily, Dec. 17).