History of Petroleum and Natural Gas in North Dakota


Clarence Iverson oil well
A 1953 photo shows the Clarence Iverson oil well. Photo courtesy of NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.
  • Beginning in about 1910, several small oil wells were drilled in North Dakota.
    • These wells produced little or no oil because drillers did not drill in the right place or drill deep enough.
  • The first major discovery of petroleum in North Dakota was in 1951, in a wheat field on the Clarence Iverson farm near Tioga, in Williams County.
    Oil Rig
    Oil Rig: An oil rig (also called drilling rig) is a large structure that contains the equipment necessary to drill holes into the ground in order to bring oil to the surface. Photo courtesy of Whiting Oil.
    • This first oil-producing well was called Clarence Iverson No. 1.
      • From 1951 to 1980, the Clarence Iverson No. 1 produced more than 585,000 barrels of oil.
    • An oil boom took place in North Dakota in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
      • In 1984, the boom peaked at 154,000 barrels per day at an average price of over $35 bbl.
    • In the mid-1980s, the “boom” turned “bust.”
      • World oil prices plummeted to $10 bbl in 1985.
      • Only three out of every ten North Dakota wells were producing.
      • Oil companies closed their North Dakota offices and laid off workers. 
    • Oil drilling continued in the 1980s and 1990s using horizontal drilling.
      • Horizontal drilling involved drilling down vertically and then making a curve to drill parallel to the surface for a short distance.
    • By 1990, the price of oil had increased, but extraction from the deep shale rock was not as efficient or profitable as it would become with advanced drilling technology.  
Drill Bit
Drill Bit: A close-up shot of a drill bit. Photo courtesy of Vern Whitten Photography.
  • Around the year 2000, a major oil boom began in the Bakken Formation.
    • New technology, called extended reach horizontal drilling, made it profitable for oil companies to extract oil and gas from the shale rock.
      • This technology is similar to earlier horizontal drilling, but the new technology has made it possible for oil companies to drill down two miles (10,560 ft.) and then angle the instrument horizontally for another two to three miles.
Fracking Graphic
Extended Reach Horizontal Drilling: Most drilling in North Dakota happens 2 miles below the surface and extends out another 2 miles. Graphic courtesy of the North Dakota Petroleum Council and the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.
Active wells in ND
Active wells in ND: This map shows the wells drilled in North Dakota as of January 2014. Map courtesy of North Dakota Industrial Commission Oil & Gas Division.
  • The Bakken has become one of the most important sources of oil in the United States.
    • North Dakota is now the second largest oil producer in the United States (Texas is first).
    • In June 2014, North Dakota’s oil production hit the milestone of 1 million (1,000,000) barrels of oil per day.

Natural gas:

  • The first known natural gas well in North Dakota was discovered in 1892 near Edgeley in LaMoure County.
    • Throughout the 20th century, several small gas wells were found in North Dakota.
      • These wells supplied energy for some small towns, such as Mohall, Westhope, Lansford, as well as for nearby farms.

Natural gas was used in China around 500 B.C. The Chinese people transported natural gas in bamboo pipelines for use in boiling sea water to extract salt.

  • Most natural gas is found trapped deep underground along with petroleum deposits.
    • More than 1 billion cubic feet (1,000,000,000 cu. ft.) of natural gas are produced each day in the Bakken.
  • Natural gas can be used for heating homes, cooking, and other home and business uses.
    • Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it is processed to remove impurities.

Natural gas is sold in cubic feet (cu.ft.) measured at 60⁰ F and 14.73 pounds per square inch (psi). About 1,000 cu.ft. of natural gas can supply an average home for four days, depending on the season.