Visualizing the Bakken Formation ’s Shifting Center of Activity –

Visualizing the Bakken Formation’s Shifting Center of Activity


matrix-monitor-control-dripmoon-graphiste-3d Bakken Formation
Sometimes when I find myself staring at a giant table of data, trying to draw a conclusion, I’m reminded of a scene from the movie The Matrix. In the scene, the character Link watches multiple computer screens, each flashing an unintelligible stream of symbols. But what he sees in the screens is his team being chased around by the bad guys inside the Matrix. He’s able to interpret, visualize, and understand the incoming data in real time.

I’m not to Link’s level yet, but I do realize the importance of visualizing data in a way that makes it accessible to the user. With this frame of reference in mind, I tried to answer a question that is relevant to understanding US unconventional oil production:

“How has well start activity changed over time in the Bakken?”

The Process

I started with our DI Analytics database of Bakken wells, a sample of which looks like this (colored to look more Matrix-like):

Bakken_dB Bakken Formation

Unless you are Link, the story of well starts probably isn’t quite clear yet. The story is in there, we just have the right way to tell it.

A Better Approach

To process and visualize the data, I turned to R – a statistical programming language that’s growing in popularity within the decidedly unpopular data nerd community. After some tinkering and trial and error, here’s what I came up with: an animated heat map of well start density over time.

To make the animation less jumpy I used a running 3-month grouping of well starts. The map coloring shows relative intensity of well starts within each frame.

Looking at the same data a different way, I ran the analysis using cumulative well starts over time. This shows the relative density of all wells drilled up to a particular point in time.

Key Takeaways

I think these maps tell the story on their own, but I’ll point out a couple turning points.

  • From 2004 through the end of 2007, activity is almost exclusively focused in the Elm Coulee / Billings Nose area of Richland County in eastern Montana.
  • Around the beginning of 2008, the center of activity shifts strongly over to Mountrail and Dunn Counties, east of Williston, North Dakota.
  • In 2011, Williams and McKenzie Counties, in the immediate vicinity of Williston, emerge as additional centers of activity, along with Mountrail and Dunn. This is when well starts (and production) from the Bakken really begin to take off, quadrupling from about 40 new wells per month in 2010 to about 160 new wells per month in 2012.
  • This four county area of Mountrail, Dunn, Williams, and McKenzie remains the focus of drilling activity today. All four of these counties were top US oil producers in 2013.

Hopefully, this method of analysis helps you understand the unfolding story of the Bakken formation. An important piece of information doesn’t do any good if it’s tucked away in a spreadsheet or database somewhere. Unlike in The Matrix, the computers still do our bidding for the time being and we can use them to turn raw data into actionable insights.

Your Turn

What do you think? Did anything catch your eye from these visualizations? Leave a comment below.


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Kevin Thuot

Kevin Thuot is an Engineering Research Analyst at Drillinginfo. He is part of the DI Analytics team and focuses on play-level forecasting and operator best practices. His work helps our customers understand how current and future trends in the US unconventional oil and gas industry impact their business. Kevin graduated with a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT in 2011.


  • Fantastic visualization, I will definitely be sharing with my colleagues at SkyTruth. Do you think the various hotspots have more to do with the productivity of the shale at that point, or the proximity to existing infrastructure? Would be interesting to compare an isopach map of the Bakken with an infrastructure (pipeline, railroad, etc) map. Thank you for doing this!

  • Visualization is the key to understanding by the wider public. I look forward to seeing this type of fact-based story telling on the impacts of the Bakken oil fields soon.

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