Although oil production in most US shale basins is not expected to reach pre-coronavirus levels until at least late 2023, additional processing and higher gas-to-oil ratios might still lead to natural gas growth in the oil-rich Bakken.
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Oneok increased its first-quarter natural gas and natural gas liquids volumes processed in the Williston Basin and plans to bring another 200 MMcf/d of processing capacity online before year-end, which will further reduce flaring in North Dakota.
Gas volumes processed in the Rocky Mountain region increased 5% while NGL raw feed throughput volumes grew 20%, the company reported in its first-quarter 2021 earnings call on April 28. This occurred despite winter storm production freeze-offs in February and lower year-over-year drilling activity in the region.
"The Williston Basin continues to surpass our expectations," Oneok CEO Terry Spencer said. "Our increased operations were not reliant on increased rig activity or commodity prices. Instead, it is based on DUC inventory, rising gas to oil ratios and increased ethane demand."
Oneok chief operations officer Kevin Burdick said: "There are 350 DUC wells on our dedicated acreage. With eight completion crews, there is no need for additional drilling or completion crews to maintain our volumes throughout the year. Any additional activity would provide upside."
With more than 200 MMcf/d of natural gas still being flared in the Bakken, according to the latest data by the North Dakota Industrial Commission, more volumes of gas can still be captured even if production stagnates for the foreseeable future, especially with wells demonstrating higher gas-to-oil ratios.
The company is moving forward with its 200 MMcf/d Bear Creek natural gas processing plant expansion and related infrastructure in the Williston Basin, which is slated for completion in the fourth quarter of 2021.
US crude and condensate production reached 12.8 million b/d in December 2019 and is not expected to achieve such a level before late 2023 and then slowly grow to a peak of around 14 million b/d by 2030, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. The severe reduction in drilling and completion activity because of the pandemic, coupled with capital discipline, is requiring four years for production to reach pre-pandemic levels.
Rigs and frac crews decreased significantly after the pandemic hit in March 2020. They have recovered some, as prices have increased, but are still below pre-pandemic levels by 48% for horizontal oil rigs and 26% for frack crews.
Also, despite better oil prices, several operators have maintained capital discipline and sidelined production growth. However, there is high-side risk as it relates to private operators, which have increased rigs at a much faster rate than other operators and could accelerate their current growth trajectory, leading to production gains at a faster rate than currently forecast.
Global demand a factor
Longer term, production growth beyond 2023 depends on several factors, including global demand, well-level breakevens, capital discipline and shale rock quality.
"Our guidance does not expect increase drilling activity in the Midcon or Powder River, but it looks like activity might increase based on recent commodity prices," Burdick said.