BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Industrial Commission has endorsed a project to test a process that injects natural gas underground to try to force more oil out of the state’s shale deposits.
The three-member panel led by Gov. Doug Burgum approved the “enhanced oil recovery” process Monday for Hess Corp.
The company is proposing the project to target newer Bakken wells near Ross in Mountrail County. The process already is done in old oil fields by injecting them with carbon dioxide. The technology has not yet been proven in newer wells created when companies drill horizontally deep underground through shale rock.
State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms said the company plans to inject a proprietary foam and natural gas underground, rather than carbon dioxide.
The project will take place over two years.
“They think that by doing that, they’ll be able to build pressure more rapidly and force gas into these very small pore spaces in the Bakken,” he said.
The oil industry has talked for years about cracking the technology for enhanced oil recovery to succeed in the Bakken. If Hess’s project works, Helms anticipates information about the process to spread “very quickly” throughout the oil industry.
“That alone would take care of the flaring issue that we have in the state, if it comes about,” he said.
Flaring, which occurs when oil companies burn off excess natural gas at well sites, hit an all-time high in North Dakota this summer amid pipeline and processing constraints.
Helms also told the commission that while hydrogen sulfide presents “a growing problem in the oil fields,” it might lead to an opportunity to create a product, such as a fertilizer, for use in agriculture.
Hydrogen sulfide also is known as “sour gas.” It’s a component of natural gas found in the highest concentrations in older oil fields, but it’s also showing up in newer oil wells.
The gas is toxic if it’s inhaled, and it’s normally handled at a processing plant after it’s extracted at a well site.
But amid an oversaturated global market for sulfur, processing companies in North Dakota have been looking to get out of the hydrogen sulfide business and have been rejecting gas with too high a concentration. That leaves oil producers in a bind.
“We’re going to have an issue, potentially, with companies wanting to flare that gas,” Helms said.
Burning hydrogen sulfide converts it into sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant.
One Bakken producer, Enerplus Resources, is seeking an exemption from state flaring restrictions for temporarily flaring at its wells since its gas was rejected this summer for too high a concentration of hydrogen sulfide.
The company has since installed sulfur treatment equipment at well sites, Helms said.
The commission authorized the exemptions for Enerplus on the condition that the company participates in future research related to potential uses of hydrogen sulfide.