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Analysis: Bakken drilling approaches 19-month high as oil prices, IRRs rise

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Rig count at 56, just shy of 19-month high

IRRs at 49%, now highest in North America

Denver — Drilling activity in the Bakken Shale has witnessed a steady expansion this summer on high oil prices and producer returns, but it now faces growing pains as the region struggles to process an increasing volume of associated gas.

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On Friday, rig count in the basin was estimated at 56, just one shy of the 19-month high seen on various occasions this summer, data published by Baker Hughes shows.

An increase in Bakken drilling activity has accompanied a spectacular rise in producer returns there.

In August, an average well in the play is now generating an internal rate of return, or IRR, of 49%, according to data from S&P Global Platts Well Economics Analyzer. In June, IRRs there surpassed 53%, or their highest since the 2014 collapse in oil prices.

With prompt WTI prices currently hovering near $69/b, producers in the Bakken are now earning the best returns of any oil and gas play in North America -- including the prolific Permian Basin. In August, oil production there, which is the mainstay for producer earnings, is averaging about 1.3 million b/d and is up 25%, or about 263,000 b/d, in just the past 12 months, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics data.

Gas production in the Bakken has strengthened considerably over that same period, but it has also faced growing pains linked to the region's flaring restrictions and limited processing capacity.

FLARING

In August, dry gas production in the Bakken is currently estimated at roughly 1.55 Bcf/d. Compared to August 2017, output is up about 24%, or roughly 300 MMcf/d.

In June, though, some operators reported voluntary shut-ins of oil production, which were necessary to comply with North Dakota's gas capture policy.

During the month, Bakken producers still exceeded the state's 15% gas flaring regulation as new production, now distant from existing gathering lines and processing facilities, continues to come online. With about 16.8% of gas production flared, June marked the third-consecutive month that producers exceeded the state regulation. In April and May, producers flared 15.5% and 17%, respectively, according to data published last week by the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

Looking ahead, though, by November operators will need to comply with a stricter, 12% flaring regulation, which could put the brakes on both gas and crude oil production in North Dakota.

PROCESSING

Another significant constraint on North Dakota's gas production comes from the state's limited gas processing capacity. Currently, spare capacity is estimated by Platts Analytics at more than 1 Bcf/d.

The location of many of these facilities, though, is now distant from many of the Bakken's most active production areas, which is why plants like Belfield, Little Knife, and McKenzie Grasslands currently run well below their listed capacity.

By September, Kinder Morgan is hoping to begin construction on an expansion at its Roosevelt Gas Plant in McKenzie County, increasing capacity there by 200 MMcf/d, up from the current 60 MMcf/d.

By late 2019, five gas processing plant projects currently underway in North Dakota, including Kinder Morgan's project, should boost total capacity in the Bakken by 815 MMcf/d.

-- J. Robinson, jrobinson@spglobal.com

-- Brandon Evans, bevans@spglobal.com

-- Richard Frey, richard.frey@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Rocco Canonica, newsdesk@spglobal.com