While enjoying a summer night at the cabin on the shores of Lake Sakakawea 20 miles east of Williston, N.D., attorney Chuck Neff spotted massive lights illuminating a once-dark bluff. The full moon hanging low in the prairie sky paled in comparison.
“I got in my truck and drove up over the hill to see what was going on. It was lit up like ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ ” Neff said, referring to a 1977 movie about extraterrestrials visiting Devils Tower in Wyoming.
The industrial lights were part of a weeklong hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” operation on a pad with some 50 water tanks hooked together.
Water is mixed with sand and some chemicals and then pumped at high pressure into the well bore to shatter the Bakken shale formation, which can be as hard as a driveway. The “fracking” creates fissures that free up trapped oil and natural gas to flow up to the well bore.
The Bakken, and the oil-rich Three Forks Formation underneath, lies in the heart of the Williston Basin sweeping south to Dickinson, N.D., up into Canada and over into Eastern Montana.
A horizontal drilling method punches a hole as deep as 2 miles into the Bakken, a thin 100-foot horizontal layer. North Dakota laws allow at least one rig every 1,280 acres of land, so drillers can tie up two sections of land by drilling down 2 miles and over 2 miles. Six horizontal legs can be drilled from one well site, effectively draining the oil out of two sections of land.
The directional driller, often in a faraway city like Denver, uses GPS and computers to “geo-steer” the diamond-studded drill bit. When it’s deep enough, the bit turns 90 degrees and roots its way horizontally another 2 miles to hit the “sweet spot” some 30 to 40 feet into the Bakken layer.
The “fracking” process can take four to five days per well and use more than a million gallons of water.
Pipelines are in short supply, and four or five wells need to be producing in an area before a pipeline is laid to capture the natural gas that flows to the surface with the oil. Until there are pipelines, oil companies are allowed to flare or burn off the gas.
There are dozens of flares burning across western North Dakota. Montana has pipelines to almost all of its wells, according to Tom Richmond, division administrator of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation,
MDU Resources Group’s Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline Co. announced in May that it is expanding its natural-gas pipeline capacity by 33 percent in northwestern North Dakota to handle the Bakken demand.
Increasingly refined hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques have doubled Montana’s oil-and-gas production, Richmond said.
In the United States, approximately 35,000 wells are “fracked” each year and 1 million wells have been developed without documented harm to groundwater, he said. There are three protective cement barriers around the drilling pipe and problems have occurred only when the casing isn’t done correctly, he said. Oil in the Bakken lies well below groundwater supplies.
But increasing concerns are being raised about “fracking.”
A June HBO documentary called “Gasland” shows some of the impacts of “fracking” in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus natural gas drilling operations, including one homeowner striking a match and lighting gas seeping through a water faucet.
In June, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission unanimously required drilling companies to tell the state what chemicals are used during “fracking.” Also in June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started a study of the potential effects of this technique on public health and water supplies.