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Fracking in Alaska: Shale oil exploration under way on North Slope

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch
Aaron Jansen illustration

It's a fracking miracle: Wildcatters are exploring Alaska's deep underground formations, hoping to strike it big while igniting a shale-extracted oil-and-gas boom.

Great Bear Petroleum, a small Austin, Texas, oil company that in recent years has invested heavily in North Slope leases, recently gave state lawmakers a tour of the North Slope's first shale oil exploratory project just south of Prudhoe Bay. With any luck, Great Bear could be producing oil and gas hydrofracked from North Slope shale in 2015, according to a press release from Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, who sits on the Senate Resources Committee.

In 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey assessed Alaska's shale resource potential. Among the findings:

  • Alaska's North Slope may hold 2 billion barrels of shale oil -- enough to fill the trans-Alaska pipeline for a decade at current throughput of about 600,000 barrels a day.
  • Technological advances in fracking extraction could yield as much as 80 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from North Slope shale rock.
  • Fracking could also yield as much as 500 million barrels of recoverable natural gas liquids from North Slope shale.

Great Bear President Ed Duncan is bullish on the North Slope's resource potential. In 2011, he told lawmakers he believed as little as 20 percent of the slope's oil and gas resources have been extracted. More recently, he told Senate Resource Committee members that as many as 200 wells could be drilled from gravel pads, per year, if exploration proves as successful as is hoped. That could translate into more oil industry jobs.

Even environmentalists are pleased with Alaska's shale oil and gas potential. There is an abundance of brackish water -- used in the extraction process -- beneath Great Bear's North Slope acreage that could mitigate water pollution and contamination issues that have accompanied major shale plays in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. Too, Alaska's shale formations are in remote, unpopulated areas and could take pressure off of development in other North Slope areas that are both resource rich and ecologically sensitive, like Teshekpuk Lake in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska.