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ND tops Alaska as No. 2 oil producer in US

North Dakota passed Alaska in March to become the second-leading state in crude oil production, trailing only Texas, according to officials from Alaska and North Dakota.

It's been a dramatic rise for a state that was behind seven other states in 2006 in terms of oil production.

North Dakota produced an average of 575,490 barrels of crude oil every day in March, another record, and up from 558,255 barrels a day in February, according to Lynn Helms, director of the state's Department of Mineral Resources. The crude is coming from a record 6,636 wells, up from the previous record of 6,450 set in February.

The number of rigs drilling in the state was at 208 on Monday, about where it's been for eight months, including a record 212 drilling for a day or two earlier this month.

ND up, Alaska down

North Dakota's new record output of crude surpassed the steadily declining output of Alaska, which saw its production fall to 567,481 barrels per day in March, down nearly 15,000 barrels from February's daily average, said Stephen McMains of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Monday.

Meanwhile, Texas' production has been rising by 12 percent since September, to 1.72 million barrels per day in February, the latest figures available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which tracks state and federal crude oil production. Meg Coleman, a geologist with the EIA, said preliminary figures make it appear Texas' production increased in March.

Fueled by the Bakken boom in the Williston Basin in the western part of the state, North Dakota's oil production has nearly quadrupled since March 2007, when it averaged 118,103 barrels per day.

In December, North Dakota's crude production eclipsed California for the third ranking; California produced 540,000 barrels a day in February and it will remain about the same when March figures are released later this month, said Gordon Schremp of the state's energy commission.

The top four producing states -- Texas, North Dakota, Alaska and California -- accounted for 55 percent of the nation's February total crude output of 6.144 million barrels a day, which also includes about 1.4 million barrels per day produced from federal off-shore wells, according to EIA.

April activity slowed

Helms said in an email to the Herald Monday evening the North Dakota figures will be released in full today , showing March output right in line with the average month increase the past year in daily production of 16,500 barrels. Natural gas production also is at record levels.

But he expects production in April and May likely slowed as weight restrictions imposed on thawing roads slowed down water hauling.

The hydraulic fracturing -- or "fracking" -- done after a new well is drilled requires 1 million to 3 million gallons of water or more to break open the tight shale formations 2 miles below the surface in the Bakken and Three Forks formations.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said he was surprised when told Monday that Alaska's trend downward already appeared to have dipped below North Dakota's five-year ascending production.

"Holy cow, I didn't think it would happen this fast," he said.

Mild winter helped

The warm, dry winter in North Dakota was a big contrast to the snowy, cold months Alaska experienced, Ness pointed out.

Alaska has seen decreasing production for decades, since pumping out more than 2 million barrels a day in the 1970s.

The rig count in North Dakota has remained relatively constant for the past eight months or more, Ness said.

"I think we are seeing more of a transition from exploration into more of a development phase," Ness said Monday. "I think we are settled in here where companies are really concentrating on efficiency and running drilling rigs off the pads, so you will see the rig count appears to be stabilized."

"We have seen a lot of companies coming in with new technologies . . . coming in from all over the world," Ness said.

The Petroleum Council, a nonprofit trade group, is nearing 400 member companies, up from about 160 five years ago, Ness said.

The Council hosts the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference opening in Bismarck next week which will have between 3,500 and 4,000 people attend, filling hotels for a radius of 100 miles around Bismarck.

"We had 100 new registrants today," Ness said Monday.