Government study increases Alaska's untapped oil and gas reserves

Posted: Friday, May 17, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Undiscovered oil and gas reserves on federal lands on Alaska's North Slope are much larger than previously estimated, according to a government report released Thursday.

The U.S. Geological Survey report says that the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska contains a mean amount of 9.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil -- more than four times the amount predicted in the previous 1980 study.

The report says even more recoverable oil, an estimated mean of 10.3 billion barrels, is in the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

By comparison, the Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the North Slope -- the largest in the United States -- have an estimated recoverable reserve of 12 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The USGS says the NPRA contains a mean of 59.7 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The new study benefitted from sensitive seismic technology that can detect reserves that previously would have been nearly invisible, said Kenneth Bird, a USGS research geologist who presented the study at a news conference in Anchorage. A news conference also was held in Washington, D.C.

The reassessment was prompted by recent oil discoveries at Phillips Alaska Inc.'s Alpine oil field, a 429-million-barrel field just east of the NPRA. The Alpine field went into production last November and is performing better than expected.

Bird said in doing the reassessment, USGS scientists extended the geologic trend found at Alpine west into the NPRA.

''I think these numbers are very realistic given what we now know of the geology of the area,'' Bird said.

The study underscores the importance of opening ANWR's coastal plain to oil development, said Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.

The senator said the report proves that ANWR would be a better source for oil than the NPRA because the area for drilling would be more concentrated and oil could be extracted more cheaply.

The study says that if oil prices are below $35 a barrel, the refuge would be the better economic alternative. Above $35 a barrel favors the reserve. Alaska North Slope crude closed Thursday at $27 a barrel.

''Development in the coastal plain would be far more concentrated, likely improving the economics and certainly lessening the environmental impacts,'' Murkowski said in a statement.

The report, if anything, supports arguments to stay out of ANWR, said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society. If the report is right and substantial reserves can be found in the NPRA, it makes even less sense to go into the refuge, she said.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., a strong opponent to drilling in ANWR, also said the report points toward more exploration in the NPRA.

''We should expend our energy on exploring and developing, in an environmentally responsible way, the lands designated for this use instead of trying to break into lands set aside for the protection of wildlife, not the production of oil,'' Markey said in a statement.

Murkowsi last month attempted unsuccessfully to add a provision to the Senate energy bill opening the refuge to oil development. ANWR drilling is in a House bill that passed last year.

Differences will have to be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee. While all the committee Republicans favor drilling in ANWR, several key Democrats have promised to block any bill that would open ANWR to oil development.

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