In the wake of two big oil discoveries in Alaska in the past year, exploration companies brushed aside concerns of low oil prices on Wednesday, bidding heavily in state and federal lease sales that were some of the largest in years.
Officials used words like "outstanding" and "surprising" as the bids were opened in state sales held in the Robert B. Atwood Building in downtown Anchorage early Wednesday morning. High bids totaled $17.8 million on tracts covering 633,000 acres on the North Slope and in the coastal Beaufort Sea.
Later in the day at the nearby federal building — where protesters held signs urging President Barack Obama to leave the oil in the ground — the Bureau of Land Management held what was the largest annual lease sale since 2004, when bids totaled $54 million.
Offering land in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the agency received 92 bids on 67 tracts, generating $18.8 million for 614,000 acres. The state receives half the revenue from the sale, or $9.4 million.
In its 2015 lease sale, BLM received just six bids worth $789,000.
Ted Murphy, associate state director for the Bureau of Land Management, said that employees tracking the bid submissions told him, "You're not going to believe this."
"We were surprised," Murphy said.
ConocoPhillips was a strong competitor in both the state and federal sales, regularly outbidding independent Armstrong Oil and Gas, including on state land near the Pikka discovery where Armstrong last year announced potential production of at least 120,000 barrels of oil daily.
The battle between ConocoPhillips and Armstrong for land near the Pikka development came in an area about 75 miles southeast of another big discovery. Caelus Energy of Dallas announced in October it was sitting on 6 billion barrels of oil in place at its Smith Bay exploration project, with about 2 billion barrels of that recoverable.
Armstrong managed to grab a few tracts near its Pikka project.
"ConocoPhillips snuck up on us a bit," said Bill Armstrong, owner of Armstrong Oil and Gas, in a text message.
The Pikka discovery is already big but it can get bigger, he said.
"The good news is they are good wildcatters and will help us explore Alaska," Armstrong said.
ConocoPhillips also almost completely dominated the bidding in the federal sale, dramatically boosting its holdings in the eastern portion of the 23 million-acre reserve. It submitted high bids on about 65 tracts near its existing prospects, totaling about $18 million.
The oil giant in October 2015 began pumping the first-ever oil from within the bounds of the reserve, at the CD5 field that has produced 20,000 barrels of oil daily – and topped expectations. It's also moving forward on new prospects in the reserve, including Greater Mooses Tooth 1 with first production expected in late 2018 and an estimated peak of 30,000 barrels of oil daily.
Between the state and federal sales, ConocoPhillips snatched up more than 600,000 acres of land.
ConocoPhillips is pleased with the results of the sales and is weighing its plans for the new acreage, said Natalie Lowman, communications director for ConocoPhillips Alaska.
"There are a number of factors that go into decisions on exploration, and we don't discuss our exploration plans until they are confirmed," she said.
Dune Lankard, the senior Alaska representative with the Center for Biological Diversity, joined other protesters in the cold outside the federal lease sale at the James M. Fitzgerald United States Courthouse and Federal Building. One protester wore a polar bear outfit.
Lankard said the outgoing Obama administration needs to reject the bids so they don't lead to more oil production — and greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet and threaten animals in the Arctic.
Lankard suggested that expectations generated by president-elect Donald J. Trump, who wants to loosen restrictions to development on federal lands, helped support the increased interest in the sale.
"Clearly investors are excited to pump Alaskan oil," Lankard said in a statement after the sale. "There's money to be made from Trump's disregard for climate change and environmental oversight. Indigenous culture and wildlife lose again."
As for the state lease sale, the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas received 402 bids on 384 tracts covering 599,880 acres on the North Slope, worth $16.9 million. It was the second-largest amount of acreage sold in a North Slope lease sale since 1998, and the third-largest in value.
For the Beaufort Sea sale, the state received eight bids on seven tracts, for 33,460 acres, generating $870,000 in winning bids. A company called Narwhal LLC, which is new to Alaska, was the lone bidder on six of the Beaufort Sea tracts in Harrison Bay, southeast of Caelus' discovery in Smith Bay.
The state sale saw strong interest in the shale fields south of Prudhoe Bay that are considered the source rocks for that giant oil field.
Houston-based Burgundy Xploration and Accumulate Energy Alaska, a subsidiary of an Australian independent, dramatically expanded their interest in a potential shale play. The companies bid on more than 400,000 acres and increased their lease holdings on the North Slope to about 700,000 acres.
They plunked down about $12 million on Wednesday, said Paul Basinski, who is credited with playing a key role in the discovery of the large Eagle Ford shale play in Texas.
"We think the resource is here but the question is, can you get it out of the ground and make money with these costs," Basinski said, referring to the North Slope's high cost of development.