Oil Well Drilling in Western North Dakota

The following photos show a new oil field being developed in Northwestern North Dakota. The area being developed currently appears to be about 15 miles long by 3-4 miles wide. Most of the wells are being developed along a long flat area typically a couple miles wide bordering a small creek known as Shell Creek.

Shell Creek is all that remains of what was once undoubtedly a much larger glacial lake, with much of the area on either side of the creek being quite flat (Hence the name "The Flat"), and sandy. Even when I was growing up, I noticed that the flat area had seashells and lots of other geological remnants indicating that at one time there was a lot more water there. The hills surrounding the flat are often quite sandy, and perhaps once a part of a "beach" surrounding the glacial lake. I can imagine lush trees surrounding the lake near sandy beaches, with perhaps prehistoric animals roaming and using the lake for water.

Interestingly, much of the drilling right now appears to be happening not within the lakebed but rather half-ways up the sides of the hills surrounding the lakebed. Whether the wells will be common on the flattest part as development continues I don't know.

Currently there are perhaps 30-35 wells being drilled or completed, with a share of those being in production. A rumor circulating is that a total of a minimum of 400 wells are planned within this general area. There appears to be lots of oil that is very high quality light sweet crude low in sulfur and virtually no hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg) odor. The entire development appears to be well thought out and envronmentally friendly. For those familiar wsith North Dakota geology, most of this land is not very good cropland and instead is mainly pasture, hay or "CRP" land. So it is not as if the drillers are somehow destroying valuable cropland.

The photo below shows an oil well currently being drilled on the "East Road" corner. This is about as far east as the development occurs and more or less on the Southeast edge

This shows sheep grazing on the old "Vic Reese" farm a mile or so up the east road from where the well is being drilled. What appears to be a red fence here is actually the bridge over Shell Creek, all that remains of the glacial lake. When I was in high school I used to go over this bridge on the school bus every day.

Another shot. The sheep here are grazing prairie grasses growing on the flat old glacial lakebed that runs all along the creek, with the hills behind on either side to the north and south. This is a typical scene from the area.

Drilling in a remote area with few roads suitable for large equipment requires fairly extensive roadbuilding efforts, and the first wells that are being drilled appear to be those that require the least amount of roadbuilding. The road pictured below is an all-new oil well road. It is traditional to use scoria (this dates from the first North Dakota wells in the 50s, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that these ideas continue). Scoria is actually a very hard red clay, naturally fired like brick as coal in underground veins burns. If you are on a scoria not gravel road you know you are headed toward an oil well.The road pictured here is all new, and basically exists only to get to the well. I suspect the red scoria covering is used primarily it holds up better than gravel to heavy truck traffic, although the scoria is coarse enough such that a 4WD vehicle would be in order here. I'm not sure where they got all this scoria although there are pockets of it in various places in the area.

This well is in production at the end of the road pictured above. The pump is behind the tanks. Surprisingly, they are still flaring off accompanying natural gas.They are working on pipeline development but it appears that for now a lot of the oil is put in the big tanks you see and simply trucked away.

This is a closeup of a well being drilled a mile or perhaps less from our farmland, if I haven't mixed up my photos. I'm not sure of the depth of these wells by 8,000 feet I think is fairly typical of wells in Western North Dakota.

This is another shot showing the general terrain and an old abandoned farmstead. The drilling area is mainly grassland not cropland.

I think this well has struck oil, but is not yet in production. After oil is struck a so-called "workover rig" is used to better prepare the hole for actual production and I think that is the phase this well is in. The tanks to store the production are not there yet and this still appears to be a work not production site.

All the oil development has brought and will continue to bring an influx of people into an area not known for economic development in any form. Scenic 23, a restaurant located at the intersection of (paved) state road 23 and state road 8, is about 6 miles west of our farm and the same distance to the nearest well. This restaurant and bar, a decent place to eat in the area, has been on the site in many different forms dating all the way back to the late 50s or early 60s. It is perhaps 5 miles due north of the Van Hook arm of lake Sakakawea, which is actually an arm of the dammed up Missouri River (Garison Dam) built in the early 50s. Prior to the oil development it catered most recently to residents of Old Van Hook, a town on the very shores of the Van Hook Arm.When the Dam was built the Corp of Engineers bought up property and chased all of the town of Van Hook residents out, but the lake even at its highest flooded only a bit of the old townsite. The town has redeveloped as something of a resort community, and the restaurant catered to the residents. The setup here is typical North Dakota bar and restaurant with a bar on one side and restaurant in on the other, although nowadays no one would object to bring a drink from the bar into the restaurant. The deck pictured is brand new off the bar side, and apparently intended to provide outdoor seating, tho not yet in use. Both the restaurant and bar now cater to oil workers and they must be doing a very good business this summer.

I had to laugh: This place has always been known for more than ample proportions of above-average food. The special the night I was there could have been called an oil worker's special--the 16 ounce Rib Eye for 17.95.