North Dakota -- the next Saudi Arabia

Anti-peak oilers are rejoicing at the news of huge oil reserves yearning to be drilled. But it won't be cheap, and it won't be easy. OPEC can relax.

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 9, 2008 5:12PM (EDT)

"I think the peak oil folks got it wrong. As usual. Capitalism beats the fear mongers. Again."

So says a post at the blog Classical Values ("End the culture war by restoring classical values"), passed on to me by a reader. The catalyst for this dismissal of peak oil anxieties? News of the imminent release of a federal report estimating the recoverable oil in the Bakken shale formation, a geological structure that spreads across North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada.

Guesses as to the total amount of oil in the Bakken shale formation range from 10 billion barrels to an eye-opening 500 billion. Estimates of the amount of commercially feasible recoverable oil from Bakken are equally across the board, from 1 percent to 50 percent.

If 50 percent of 500 billion barrels of oil could be recovered in a reasonably short time frame, that might make a difference to the dynamics of global oil supply and demand. But such a prospect is unlikely. Shale oil is defined as sedimentary rock from which liquid hydrocarbons can be extracted. But it is not easy, and it is not cheap (and let's not even think of how environmentally catastrophic it is to pulverize mountains of rocks to get barrels of oil).

No question: Rising oil prices and technological progress will make it cost-effective to extract some of Bakken's shale oil and get it to market. But will that flow fundamentally challenge the peak oil thesis? From this corner, the hope seems like a stretch. The world is running low on cheap, easy-to-recover oil, of that there is no doubt. The possibility that the supply of expensive, hard-to-recover oil will keep pace with growing global demand appears dim.

P.S. For anyone who wants minute-by-minute updates of all things Bakken, there is of course a blog solely devoted to the exploitation of the Bakken shale formation.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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