Companies showed strong interest in Alaska prospects at a big conference in Texas early this month, and it wasn't just the Sarah Palin impersonator chanting "Drill baby, drill!" that grabbed their attention, conference-goers said.
Recent discoveries on the western North Slope oil fields, and the newly opened Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the eastern edge, are offering long-term opportunities companies seek before investing in Alaska, said John Hendrix, chief oil and gas adviser to Gov. Bill Walker.
"You won't invest if it's a one-off deal," he said.
Hendrix and other state officials highlighted Alaska's oil fields at North American Prospect Expo, billed as an annual industry marketplace where deals are made. The event was held five days early this month in Houston, Texas.
The Alaska Division of Oil and Gas rented a booth. So did several Alaska lease holders, including a small-time speculator with flamboyant promotional pitches, Dan Donkel.
Hendrix said: "I went to NAPE last year, and this was probably three times better, the uptick in people talking about Alaska, the buzz."
Hendrix said he met with at least six oil companies with the financial heft to invest in Alaska, from independents to majors, at their booths or offices. They wanted to know about geological structures that have led to new discoveries, and other details.
He would not name the companies, but said the state is continuing to talk with them.
There was a sense of excitement about the discoveries over the last couple of years, including ConocoPhillips' Willow and Armstrong Oil and Gas' Pikka, he said. The discoveries and other data sparked the U.S. Geological Survey in December to sharply boost the western region's estimated oil potential.
The companies were more cautious about the opportunities in ANWR, opened to development by Congress in December with a requirement that a lease sale be held within four years. The companies see development there as a longer-term prospect, he said.
Donkel, a longtime Alaska lease investor who lives in Florida, rented a booth at the conference to promote what he says are several promising leases located on state land and water near ANWR.
Donkel hired a Sarah Palin impersonator, Patsy Gilbert from Florida, to talk up the opportunities in Alaska. He'd also hired her back in 2010, for the NAPE conference that year.
This year, Donkel handed out red hats declaring "Make Alaska Great Again," and shared geologic data and other details highlighting the oil potential at his leases near ANWR.
The data hints at what lies across the border at ANWR, he said.
"We were the most popular booth," said Donkel, 60. "Many major players came by."
"Explore Alaska!!! Oil in the billions. Gas in the trillions," signs over his booth declared.
About 15 years ago, Donkel made a lucrative deal in Cook Inlet, after selling leases he owned at the Redoubt Shoal field to Forest Oil, according to a 2002 article in Petroleum News.
One tract Donkel promoted at the Texas conference was won by Andy Bachner in the state's December lease auction, according to Bachner, a lease speculator from Fairbanks.
Bachner said the offshore tract, near ANWR, contains the Stinson well drilled by ConocoPhillips' predecessor Arco in 1990. The accumulation was originally reported to hold 150 million barrels. But the discovery could be larger, Bachner said.
The well's distance from infrastructure was a big impediment to development when it was discovered. But ExxonMobil two years ago completed the nearby Point Thomson field on state land, with a new pipeline to deliver oil to market, Bachner said.
"The geology has never changed," Bachner said. "The politics and the access to get it of there has changed immensely."