Independent drillers find opportunity at Prudhoe Bay

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- In its heyday, the Prudhoe Bay oil field produced 10 million barrels in a week, but production peaked in 1988 and has been falling off ever since.

After years of exploration, no other monster fields have been found to take Prudhoe Bay's place. Now, Alaska's biggest oil companies are pulling back to drilling in existing fields. That's left room for small and medium-sized companies to compete.

Phillips Petroleum, a big Alaska producer but a small company compared to giants Exxon Mobil and BP, is forging ahead. Small independent companies like Alberta Energy, Anadarko and Darrah's tiny AVCG are pushing projects ahead.

Phillips Alaska Inc., which last year bought Arco's Alaska business, announced three discoveries last winter, including a large find in the newly opened National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where BP struck out.

This year, Phillips plans 10 more wells. Last year, its new 429-million-barrel Alpine oil field began production, arresting the company's long-term production decline from Alaska and renewing hopes of the Slope's potential.

Meanwhile, at least seven new companies, including Anadarko, Alberta Energy Corp. and AVCG, are studying more exploration.

When the 14 billion-barrel Prudhoe Bay field was discovered in 1967, companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars just for the right to look for North Slope oil.

The world's biggest companies piled into Alaska: Chevron, Shell, BP, Exxon and others.

Prudhoe proved itself a world-class field, producing at peak 1.6 million barrels a day. For the three companies that owned almost the entire field -- BP, Exxon and Atlantic Richfield -- it was, for a time, the biggest and most valuable asset they owned.

But visions of more giant fields stashed beneath the North Slope have never materialized.

Success in the oil business is simple.

''More profits requires more oil,'' said Ken Thompson, the former president of Arco Alaska Inc. who is now a consultant in Anchorage.

And the bigger the company, the bigger oil finds must be.

Exxon, the world's largest energy company with a daily production bigger than some OPEC nations, gave up the Alaska oil hunt long ago, drilling its last true exploration well in 1984.

After years of lackluster drilling results and an unsuccessful $30 million well at the outer edges of the North Slope last winter, BP announced last month that it too is dismantling its Alaska exploration program.

''We're interested in fields with a potential of a billion barrels,'' said F.X. O'Keefe, head of BP's exploration in Alaska, last month. ''It's just really tough to find that on the Slope.''

Prudhoe still produces a healthy 550,000 barrels a day.

''We're looking for growth,'' said Alan Boras, spokesman for Alberta Energy, a medium-sized Calgary-based company. Last August, AEC cut the first in a series of deals, swapping natural gas holdings in Canada with Texas-based Anadarko for a share of exploration rights in the Brooks Range.

The company has since picked up more land and is pushing a new plan for the controversial McCovey prospect in the Beaufort Sea.

A discovery of 50 million barrels could pump up AEC's production by more than 10 percent, Boras said.

''Others might pass on it, but for us it's big,'' he said.

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