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Is North Dakota's oil production on the verge of surpassing Alaska's?

Eric Christopher Adams,Amanda Coyne
Traffic on Route 85 and the Missouri River.
Stephen Nowers photo
Barbed wire fence in a North Dakota wheat field.
Stephen Nowers photo
A truck hauls drill pipe through wheat fields from a drilling site near Williston, North Dakota.
Stephen Nowers photo
Drill rigs and gas flares near U.S. Route 2 in North Dakota.
Stephen Nowers photo
An empty gravel truck drives on a rural road in North Dakota near Williston.
Stephen Nowers photo
A drill rig works in a field of wheat near Williston, North Dakota.
Stephen Nowers photo
Treeline at sunset in Ray, North Dakota.
Stephen Nowers photo
A drill rig near Williston, ND.
Stephen Nowers photo
New construction in Williston, ND
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Gas flare at sunrise near Williston, North Dakota.
Stephen Nowers photo
Ray, North Dakota.
Stephen Nowers photo

This summer has been a banner one for the Peace Garden State's oil patch. In July, more than 13 million barrels of oil were produced in North Dakota, according to its Department of Mineral Resources -- or 423,592 barrels per day. That was a new state record, historical statistics on the state's oil patch indicate.

If Alaska can hold steady yet this year -- and its old pipeline doesn't rupture or corrode -- then it will maintain its national rank as the second-largest oil producing state in the country (Texas is tops, federal offshore excluded). But not for long. Many national experts forecast North Dakota -- currently No. 4 in oil production -- leapfrogging past California and Alaska sometime next year. 

State and industry officials estimate North Dakota could hit 700,000 barrels a day by 2015.

July's new record added about 40,000 barrels per day to North Dakota's oil production. That's still some 3.5 million barrels less than Alaska's August production of about 16.7 million barrels, but the 49th state's oil production is declining, according to statistics from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates and maintains the trans-Alaska pipeline. Alaska's production last month dropped to 538,623 barrels; its average on the year is a little better but still less than 570,000 barrels per day.

It's been decades since Prudhoe Bay has enjoyed "peak oil." Back in the early 1980s, more than 2 million barrels of oil per day gushed down the pipeline at one point. And Alaska partied back then. North Dakota did, too, last weekend with a big festival celebrating the Bakken oil patch. The shebang kicked off with what was "the largest energy-themed parade in the Williston Basin." According to news reports, workers from 200 companies and thousands of people from communities throughout the oil patch attended. The sky lit up with fireworks, free food was passed around. Roughnecks competed in tug-of-war games, arm wrestling, a bit of drill-bit tossing.

North Dakotans see their economic stars aligning. Times are good. Unemployment hovers at about 3 percent. McDonalds must offer employees up to $15 per hour, signing bonuses, even. Its oil and gas industry jobs have doubled in just two years, up from 6,600 workers in July 2009 to 15,800 two years later.

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com and Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com