North Dakota celebrates one million barrels of oil a day

An oil drilling rig is seen in an aerial view in the early morning hours of July 30, 2013 near Watford City, North Dakota. (File) (Andrew Burton, Getty Images)
An oil drilling rig is seen in an aerial view in the early morning hours of July 30, 2013 near Watford City, North Dakota. (File) (Andrew Burton, Getty Images)
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Updated: 6/25 9:29 pm

TIOGA, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's resurgent oil industry on Wednesday held a celebration marking the state's impressive 1 million barrels a day production level in the town where oil was first found in the state. World War II-era fighter planes swooped low above a grassy field in an airshow and guests chowed down on plates piled with barbequed pork, shrimp and baked beans and waited in line to collect commemorative medallions.

The state, the second-biggest oil producer in the U.S., passed 1 million barrels a day of production in April, but the announcement wasn't made until June 17.

The event was largely a pat on the back from the industry to itself. For years since technology advances unlocked the oil of North Dakota's Bakken formation, the question has been when the state would hit the mark, not if.

But that is not how it has always been.

Oil exploration began in North Dakota in the early 1900s. Decades later, drillers had nothing to show for their efforts.

A Williston Herald story from April 5, 1951 noted that before the Amerada Petroleum Company began drilling its Clarence Iverson No. 1 well in a wheat field south of Tioga, 20 wells had been dug in the state. All were failures. "This time they hit it," read the article about the April 4 strike.

The discovery kicked off a "frenzied optimism" in Williston and the northwestern quadrant of the state. Oil company representatives rushed to town and land men bargained with locals to secure drilling rights.

By the end of 1952, the state had 89 wells, jumping to more than 1,200 in 1958. Now, it has more than 10,000.

Production shot up rapidly as well: 72 barrels in 1951, 4,393 in 1952, 14,544 in 1953 — all the way up to more than 60,000 in 1960.

Between 1960 and the end of the 1970s, production mostly stayed between 60,000 and 70,000 barrels a day. Then a boom hit, doubling the state's daily output in just a few years. But an oil price glut hit North Dakota hard. Drilling slowed. Workers abandoned boomtowns.

"The last time it shut off in the 80s it was just like you turned the lights off," Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said of Williston. "You could have shot a machine gun down the main drag and never hit a thing."

A frustrated few continued to try to coax oil from the ground.

"I made a lot of money; I lost all my money," said Dickinson oilman Mike Armstrong. At one point, Armstrong says he bought and sold 500,000 acres of land and "didn't find enough oil to buy a used Volkswagen."

Many gave up on the state's oil prospects. At one point in 1999, just one drilling rig was stationed here.

Hess — previously called Amerada — stayed in North Dakota through the tough years.

"We knew it was there. We just couldn't unlock it like we can today," said Rory Nelson, western North Dakota's energy impact coordinator who was a Hess employee for three decades. After the bust, many of his colleagues left. "I was actually wondering if I should be finding another industry to work in. It was tough."

Today oil companies speak of their Bakken wells as a sure thing. Advances in hydraulic fracturing — the injection of a pressurized mix of water, sand and chemicals into wells to stimulate the release of oil and gas by fracturing rocks — and directional drilling have unlocked the Bakken formation's oil.

"This is far bigger and more different than any boom we've had before," said Nelson. "Someday we will hit the peak and start working our way down, but it doesn't look like that's going to be for a while."

©2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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