But both of them see something in northern Colorado, enough to increase their drilling efforts this year from last -- in Noble's case, doubling its drilling. An estimated 37 million barrels of oil came from Weld County last year. That works out to 101,369 barrels a day and is considered an incredibly conservative estimate.
Throughout this time, the only options to dispose of that production were at the SunCore Refinery in Commerce City, which refines oil into gas for local markets, or the White Cliffs pipeline, which routes the crude more than 500 miles to the trading hub of Cushing, Okla., where it's put out to the national markets.
Together, the refinery and pipeline can take about 120,000 barrels a day and are quickly being overwhelmed. Colorado's total oil production in 2012 is estimated at 47 million barrels, about 9,000 more per day than current resources can handle.
Producers conceivably could stop or slow down their drilling for oil, but there's still demand, and prices still warrant the additional drilling. And all of that drilling has created jobs, tax revenue and retail sales throughout Weld, propping up an economy during a recession.
Rail has always offered some variability in moving crude to different markets, and it has long been the preferred method to bring components such as fracking sand or pipe into the fields. But last year, business picked up in crude takeaways.
"There may have been historically some crude, but not a lot," said Mark Davis, spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, which traverses Weld County along the U.S. 85 corridor. "Most of the crude in the country moves by pipeline. We have seen numbers rise in the last year. Our group that handles crude saw an increase of 160 percent in shipments from 2011 to 2012."
BNSF Railway reports its crude transportation has grown from 2008 by 7,000 percent to 100 million barrels last year. Railroad officials expect more this year.
Most of the oil being transported via rail through Colorado today is coming from the Bakken, an oil play in North Dakota that is considered one of the country's largest resources, where rail essentially saved the day. Last fall, BNSF, as an example, expanded its facilities up north to have the capacity to take away 1 million barrels a day from North Dakota and Montana. The mile-long rail lines of black tanker cars traveling south along U.S. 85 are becoming more prevalent. Fields in Texas also are expanding.
Northern Colorado's resources in the Wattenberg field, with the Niobrara boom, have developed a bit slower, but they're speeding up. The 40-year-old and much-tapped Wattenberg field has surprised everyone in the past three years, proving itself to be what some in the industry call a "mini" Bakken.
With expectations of increased production now, companies are lining up their resources in Colorado. Pipeline companies are talking about expansions; one has plans on converting a natural gas pipeline to crude.
But pipelines, either converting them or building them, take time.
"Rail is more expensive than pipelines, but it's faster. It can reach the market a little quicker than pipelines," Haas said. "If White Cliffs expands to 150,000 like they've planned, it would be met by another wall. It's all piling into Cushing. Everyone needs to figure out something a little more varied than that."
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