ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The search for natural gas on Alaska's North Slope is on.
Bidding at the state's oil and gas lease sale Wednesday in Anchorage focused on the southern part of the North Slope, where energy companies are more likely to find natural gas than oil.
Eight companies and investors bid a total of $10.7 million for 170 leases covering 972 thousand acres.
Smaller companies dominated the sale with Anadarko, Unocal and Alberta Energy picking up most of the acreage.
Winning their first-ever North Slope leases, Houston independent Burlington Resources got 32 tracts and Canadian firm Petro Canada got 56 tracts. Petro Canada was the largest bidder in the sale.
Phillips Alaska Inc. bid with partner Chevron on a scant nine leases. Alaska's two other big oil companies -- BP and Exxon Mobil -- didn't bid.
With natural gas prices high and demand for gas strong, optimism about development of a natural gas line is growing.
Exxon, BP and Phillips are spending $75 million to study a pipeline to the Lower 48. Prudhoe and other oil fields hold a confirmed 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Geologists believe that the North Slope may hold as much as 100 trillion cubic feet. Much of that undiscovered gas may be in the southern North Slope and Brooks Range foothills where the companies placed their bids Wednesday.
''For us, this is mostly gas,'' said Roxanne Sinz, a spokeswoman for Unocal in Anchorage. Unocal produces oil and gas in Cook Inlet and has not bid for a North Slope lease in more than 10 years, Sinz said.
Mark Myers, director of the state Division of Oil and Gas, said that even though a gas pipeline has not been built, the lease sale is a measure of the confidence that a project will happen.
''These are folks believing they can develop a lease. They are voting with their checkbooks,'' he said.
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