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It contains hundreds of billions of barrels of light crude oil and thousands of wells and should be scaring the pants off any oil exporter needing high crude prices to balance its budget.

It is the Bakken Shale oilfield, which sprawls across two Canadian prairie provinces and two western US states including North Dakota, under 500,000 square kilometres of land.

Its US portion is described as the country’s largest oil deposit outside Alaska. With its biggest and most accessible part in Canada, the Bakken could prove to be one of the largest oilfields in the world.

The American Association of Petroleum Geologists says it is the biggest continuous oil accumulation it has ever assessed.

“There’s no question there’s a tremendous amount of oil in place in general in the Bakken Shale,” said Bud Brigham, the chairman, president and chief executive of Brigham Exploration, a Houston oil junior that started buying Bakken properties five years ago.

“It is very large, onshore and in the US,” said Harold Hamm, the chief executive and chairman of Continental Resources, which is the biggest Bakken lease holder. “We’re going to be drilling there for the next 10 years.”

[…] For decades, petroleum geologists thought the Bakken shale was the source of the oil pools in the wider Williston Basin. But in 1999, Leigh Price, a geochemist working for the US Geological Survey (USGS), wrote a paper proposing that most oil from Bakken shale was still trapped in the Bakken Formation. He suggested the “cream” in the cookie contained up to 500 billion barrels of crude, making it a prime exploration target. […]

Further research by geochemists and geologists not associated with the USGS has largely vindicated Mr Price, although estimates of Bakken oil in place have ranged from 10 billion to 500 billion barrels. The most recent, stemming from sophisticated computer modelling, suggests 300 billion to 400 billion barrels could be realistic.

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