Blogs & Comment

An all-American Keystone XL possible: Erica Alini

Skip Alberta, start from Montana

There’s even more shale oil than previously thought in the Bakken. A new assessment of resources in the area found that there are some 7.4 billion barrels of oil trapped between layers of rock across North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, the U.S. Geological Survey announced earlier this week. That’s twice the amount estimated in 2008.

Drilling in the Bakken allowed U.S. geologists to take a better look at another underlying shale basin that was previously thought to be unproductive, the Three Forks Formation. It turns out there’s even more oil there—an estimated 3.73 billion— than in the Bakken, which comes in at 3.65 billion. Reaching deeper down will be more complex and expensive than tapping the Three Forks’ shallower cousin, but fracking and horizontal techniques have been evolving rapidly enough for experts to predict even the harder-to-get spots will soon be profitable to exploit.

The new discovery has brought renewed attention to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Alberta’s heavy crude to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Might it make sense for the company to complete the U.S. portion of the pipeline even if it can’t tap into the oilsands north of the border, some U.S. energy news outlets are wondering?

The new assessment means the lifespan of those oilfields has now suddenly become a lot longer, E&E News noted. Even if the White House denies permission to build a cross-border pipeline, it might make sense for TransCanada to complete the U.S. part of the project, which doesn’t require government approval. After all, work on the southern leg of the pipeline, which links the oil storage facilities in Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries in Texas, is already underway. The northern portion of it, meant to connect Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, would cut right through the Bakken and Three Forks region. The route is no coincidence: the plan has always been for the pipeline to transport U.S. shale oil as well.

“Keystone XL is about bringing both Canadian and American oil to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and that is what the commercial underpinning behind the project is about,” TransCanada spokesperson Shawn Howard said in an emailed statement when asked about whether the company would consider building an all-American pipeline if permission to cross over into Canada is denied. But with nearly three-quarters of landlocked Bakken oil now forced to move by rail, that might be a sensible plan B.