North Dakota oil producers and state officials are watching the developments of TransCanada Corp.’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline given the upcoming predictions that available Bakken Shale takeaway capacity will be filled in the coming years.

“A producer in North Dakota always wants every opportunity possible, and all of the options on the table — whether it is a 15,000 b/d added refinery or 100,000 b/d additional pipeline capacity to a different market,” said North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC) President Ron Ness in remarks delivered at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck. “At any given moment you can have a bottleneck or pinch that crimps takeaway capacity.”

The time when all of North Dakota’s pipeline takeaway capacity is full is not far off, according to Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms. Keystone XL could play a key role at just the right time in avoiding the need to really crank up more crude by rail shipments. “We’re facing that in another three to four years,” he said

“We’re seeing another uptick in rail, moving from two unit trains daily to six now,” Helms said. “There was a point in time when we had close to 16 unit trains daily.

“Keystone could be a key part of putting that [added] oil into a pipeline and delivering it to a Midcontinent destination instead of putting it in rail cars,” Helms added. “We think we are going to need the 100,000-150,000 b/d that Keystone offers, but it is also critical that the midstream sector build some outlets out of Cushing, OK, or out of other areas where Keystone is going to drop oil to move it to the Gulf Coast.”

Helms said there has been a recent “explosion” of U.S. oil exports, particularly Bakken crude from the Gulf Coast. “I know of one company alone that is shipping 2 million bbl a month to China of Bakken crude, and there is demand for more,” he said.

Keystone XL offers a “beautiful opportunity to help out” with getting increased Bakken supplies to the Gulf for export,” Helms said.

For its part, TransCanada continues to say that it is “working with federal, state, tribal and local leaders to secure the support needed for this important project and are working to obtain all applicable permits and approvals.”