CEOs from three major Bakken formation producers on Thursday predicted that North Dakota’s rapid oil/natural gas production growth is just getting started, pointing toward 2 million b/d levels in the next few years and recovery rates in future wells approaching 40%.

Continental Resources Inc.’s Harold Hamm, Whiting Petroleum Corp.’s Jim Volker and Oasis Petroleum Inc.’s Jimmy Nusz helped conclude the three-day Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, ND, which used the theme “Bakken Strong” to summarize the gathering of 4,500 participants and dozens of bullish industry speakers, many of whom offered the state’s shale-driven oil boom as a model for the rest of the nation.

“When we started [in the Bakken], we were seeing 10% recovery rates; now we all agree we’re getting to 20%,” said Volker. “Ten years from now it might be up to 40%. So if we do a good job, we will be able to recover the higher numbers with just the same well spacing and takeaway capacity we put in place today.”

In response to news media questions, Hamm said he sees a doubling of Bakken production to 2 million b/d by 2020 or sooner.

“We have a resource life here [in the Williston Basin] that is 50 to 60 years, so it’s not your father’s oil business anymore,” said Nusz, citing some technically recoverable reserve estimates for the Bakken at 24-30 billion bbl levels. “This is going to be an important part of life in North Dakota for a long time.”

On two major issues echoing throughout the Williston and the conference, all three CEOs said their companies were recovering between 90% and 95% of their associated gas production, and rail transport of Bakken light, sweet crude oil is here to stay as was underscored in separate earlier presentations by BNSF Railway senior executive Matt Rose and petroleum analyst/consultant Tom Petrie, along with North Dakota’s top statewide elected officials.

Nevertheless, Volker made a pitch for more pipeline capacity out of the Bakken, particularly to tap the Northeastern seaboard markets from Philadelphia to Boston, an area he thinks is just waiting to be tapped if the pipeline capacity to Philadelphia can be built and laterals up into New England can be built.

Noting that he has always been a strong advocate of pipelines and Midwest markets, Volker said some of his company’s midstream partners are “probably tired of hearing from me about expanding the lines. I’m still after them to expand the lines into more Midwestern markets, and in addition to take our crude into the Philadelphia refineries to replace the imported crude there. It would essentially serve the entire metroplex from Philadelphia to Boston. That market could be a solid market for us for 50 years. The crude would come through the refineries’ backdoor rather than the front door off the water.

“Longer term, we are going to see a lot of entrepreneurial companies go in and tap that market.”

Hamm said two-thirds of what has been produced so far in the Bakken was only developed in the past three years, and “what is more incredible, this is only the beginning. And I still predict we ultimately will be producing 2 million b/d; that is not over the top for us.”

In response to other questions, the three CEOs said they are not worried about falling oil prices, citing examples of pent-up demand growth of 1.5-2.0 million b/d worldwide, but each expressed concerns about the industry being targeted by some regulators and environmental advocates.

On the issue of the U.S. ban on crude oil exports, Hamm expressed some optimism, predicting that Congress would deal with the issue next year.

Hamm said advocates seeking crude exports forget that a good portion of U.S. production is being exported already in the form of natural gas liquids (NGL) and other petroleum products. “We do need to be able to export [Bakken] light, tight crude supplies, and there are refineries in various places offshore that can handle this,” he said. “I predict that the next session of Congress we can get that done [lifting the ban of crude exports].

“It will probably happen one application at a time, but we see some progress [with the Obama administration] in that process right now. Some things [from the administration] at times haven’t been very good, such as Keystone XL, but we should give them time to do the right thing on this one.