Christopher Helman, Forbes Staff ;
Everyone has heard about the Bakken shale, the huge expanse of oil-bearing rock underneath North Dakota and Montana that billionaire Harold Hamm thinks could yield 24 billion barrels of oil in the decades to come. The Bakken is a huge boon, both to the economic health of the northern Plains states, but also to the petroleum balance of the United States. From just 60,000 barrels per day five years ago, the Bakken is now giving up 500,000 bpd, with 210,000 bpd of that coming on in just the past year. Given the availability of enough rigs to drill it and crews to frack it, there’s no reason why the Bakken couldn’t be producing more than 1 million bpd by the end of the decade, a level that could be maintained for halfway through the century.
But as great as the Bakken is, I learned last week about another oil shale play that dwarfs it. It’s called The Bazhenov. It’s in Western Siberia, in Russia. And while the Bakken is big, the Bazhenov — according to a report last week by Sanford Bernstein’s lead international oil analyst Oswald Clint — “covers 2.3 million square kilometers or 570 million acres, which is the size of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico combined.” This is 80 times bigger than the Bakken.
Getting access to the Bazhenov appears to be a key element in both ExxonMobil and Statoil‘s big new joint ventures with Kremlin-controlled Rosneft. Exxon’s recent statement says the two companies have agreed “to jointly develop tight oil production technologies in Western Siberia.”
No wonder. The geology of the Bazhenov looks just as good if not better. Its pay zone averages about 100 feet thick, and as Clint points out, the Bazhenov has lots of cracks and fractures that could make its oil flow more readily. The couple test wells that he sites flowed at an average of 400 barrels per day. That’s in line with the Bakken average.
This Siberian bonanza might be news to most of us, but it’s old news to Big Oil. The conventional oil fields of Siberia have been producing millions of barrels a day for decades — oil that originated in the Bazhenov “source rock” then slowly oozed up over the millenia. From the looks of it, geologists have been looking at the Bazhenov for more than 20 years.
It’s only in the last five years that the technology and expertise has been developed that will enable drillers to harvest it. Lukoil‘s president Vagit Alekperov said a year ago that his company was also experimenting with the shale.
Analyst Clint figures that it won’t be hard for Big Oil to export their shale-cracking techniques to Siberia. They will be challenged, however by summer weather in Siberia, which softens the ground enough to prevent drilling for much of the season. If Russia can get its act together to deploy 300 drilling rigs to the play, Clint figures Bazhenov could be producing 1 million bpd by 2020.
This would, of course, have huge geopolitical implications. Russia, though it doesn’t have as many proved reserves as Saudi Arabia, had been outproducing the Saudis for years, averaging about 10 million bpd to Saudi’s 9 million bpd. This year, the Saudis are said to have surpassed Russia, leading some pundits to speculate that Russian oil supply had peaked and was set to begin spiralling down.
Developing the Bazhenov could reverse that decline. Unlike the Kremlin’s much ballyhooed plan to drill for oil in ice-packed Arctic waters, the beauty of the Bazhenov is that it is onshore and it underlies an area that is already criss-crossed with pipelines serving mature, conventional fields. No need for expensive icebreakers, cold-weather drillships and subsea pipelines.
If Harold Hamm is convinced the Bakken will give up 24 billion barrels, a play 80 times bigger like the Bazhenov would imply 1,920 billion barrels. That’s a preposterous figure, enough oil to satisfy all of current global demand for 64 years, or to do 5 million bpd for more than 1,000 years. Rosneft, says Clint, has already estimated 18 billion barrels on its Bazhenov acreage. Either way, it looks like they’ll still be working the Bazhenov long after Vladimir Putin has finally retired and the Peak Oil crowd realizes there’s more oil out there than we’ve ever imagined....