The Bakken Oilfield: Hydraulic Fracturing Moratorium Implications

by: Matt King

Recently, the director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, Lynn Helms, was profiled in an article in the Bismarck Tribune where he appeared to indicate his prediction that the EPA was on track to halt hydraulic fracturing by January. The prediction stems from a non-peer reviewed study by the EPA, which implies fracturing processes risk groundwater contamination. The basis for this conclusion comes from shallow gas wells near Pavilion, WY, which were fracked by Encana (NYSE:ECA) corporation and may have contributed to acquirer contamination. As you can imagine, Encana is firing back. The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources issued a press release the very next day, which really didn't retract the prediction, but said that the office does not have the authority to make predictions on what the EPA may or may not do. This article, which was published on a Sunday, made its way through Denver and Houston the following Monday, sending shockwaves through the industry.

If you would have asked the industry if oil exploration in the gulf would have ever been shut down, they most likely would have laughed. Well, it happened during the BP incident. The continued public unease with the industry has also put the brakes on the Keystone XL pipeline. If they wanted to, what's stopping the government from imposing serious regulations on hydraulic fracturing in The Bakken? The opposition to hydraulic fracturing has grown quickly and is gaining steam. Even in my home town, there was public outcry when an oil company re-entered a well to re-fracture. The concerned citizens felt they had a right to know when and what was going on and that they should be able to comment. This sentiment is a result of us, the industry, not educating our friends and family on the facts about fracturing and that when done correctly, is safe. The best example I like to use is oil and gas activity in the city of Fort Worth. In the middle of residential communities, rigs are constructed and surrounded with wood enclosures, in some of the richest neighborhoods - with no incidents of contamination!

What would happen if a moratorium was placed on hydraulic fracturing? Overnight, rigs from North Dakota to South Central Texas would be idled. Service companies would be forced to halt pumping operations and thousands of people would be out of work. The Director of the NDDMR stated that if a moratorium was put in place, it could last anywhere from 12-24 months. I agree we should not sacrifice clean drinking water for oil exploration. But, deep exploration, in the Bakken and other shale plays, is located thousands of feet from our aquifers and will have no effect on our water or health.

The service companies that have the most to lose if there is a moratorium on fracturing are Halliburton (NYSE:HAL), Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB), and Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHI) to name the largest. Although these companies are more diversified than most, they most certainly would be affected. Sand and steel producers, who have hedged large infrastructure projects on the growth prospect of supplying well and fracture materials, would also be affected: Carbo Ceramics (NYSE:CRR), U.S. Steel (NYSE:X), and Tenaris (NYSE:TS). However, the most negatively affected companies would be the ones who have spent millions of dollars leasing land for horizontal exploration and fracturing such as Chesapeake (NYSE:CHK), Continental Resources (NYSE:CLR) , EOG Resources (NYSE:EOG), Whiting Petroleum (NYSE:WLL) and Kodiak Oil and Gas (NYSE:KOG).

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.