In a first, Alaska officials have begun to release unique oil exploration data obtained at least in part through state tax credits, and they hope the information will attract new companies to prospect under-explored basins from the North Slope to Cook Inlet.
Particularly valuable is the never-before-released seismic data that can potentially help wildcatters lower exploration costs, officials said.
"This expands the database for all players rather than the information being concentrated in the hands of a few companies that have been here a long time," said Paul Decker, a petroleum geologist with the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas.
The North Slope has attracted a variety of newcomers in recent years, but industry majors BP, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips have long dominated Slope oil activity, giving them an advantage in a region that has seen little drilling activity compared to fields in the Lower 48.
Companies already provide a wide variety of well data to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that is publicly released after a two-year confidentiality period, Decker said. But a 2003 requirement under the state's tax-credit program triggers the release of seismic data for the first time, plus certain new information from wellbore work.
The seismic data is releasable 10 years after it was collected, in line with the length of many oil and gas leases. The well data initially fell under that decade-long requirement, but the eligibility for release was later shortened to two years.
"In most parts of the U.S., if not everywhere, the seismic data is not generally released," said Decker. "So this is unusual."
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources in late October announced the planned release of the first batch of data, covering about two dozen projects by a variety of companies such as ConocoPhillips on the North Slope, Apache in Cook Inlet and by Rutter and Wilbanks near Glennallen in Southcentral Alaska.
Some companies are challenging the release of information — Decker would not name them.
But some items have been released, including a 400-square-mile three-dimensional seismic survey known as Storms 3D, for a decade-old project south of Prudhoe Bay that included ConocoPhillips.
The data the state is releasing is being turned over to the Geologic Materials Center in Anchorage, Decker said.
The unique well data required for release under the program includes wellbore velocity surveys that use sound made by a vibrator truck to understand the geology around a well.
The velocity surveys help link together wellbore and seismic data, providing prospectors with greater detail about locations of possible reservoirs, said Decker.
Pat Galvin, chief commercial officer for Great Bear Petroleum, said the Anchorage-based explorer wants to see some of the decade-old seismic data collected from an area south of Nuiqsut village.
The report, by Fairweather Geophysical and Veritas DGC, could help Great Bear evaluate some of its prospects in that area.
"We did not shoot seismic over that because it was so isolated and expensive," Galvin said. "We're looking forward to getting our hands on it."
Galvin, a former petroleum land manager and revenue commissioner in Alaska, said the state in 2003 was concerned about the lack of independent operators and publicly available geological data.
When the state created the Alternative Credit for Exploration, it set timelines for the release of the information. The deal provided a 20 percent to 40 percent credit for qualifying exploration work. That credit preceded the creation of other tax credits, which also require the release of the information, Decker said.
The state will be releasing the seismic and well data for several years, as data from exploration projects becomes eligible for release, Decker said.
The state is starting the first releases later than planned because the program has proven difficult to administer in part because of limited staff and the additional tax credits approved over the years, requiring more data to be released, he said.
"We got a little bit behind the curve on releasing some of the data at its earliest possible time," he said.