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Energy

Armstrong-led company spends big, snags million acres in NPR-A

  • Author: Elwood Brehmer
  • Updated: December 11, 2019
  • Published December 11, 2019

Bill Armstrong, seen in his Anchorage office in 2016, was the high bidder on some 1 million acres in the annual National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska lease sale on Dec 11. (Photo/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal)

The State of Alaska’s annual North Slope oil and gas lease sale held Wednesday morning was quieter than in recent years but that was partly offset by a spike in industry interest for lands in the federal National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The state’s lease sales for near-shore Beaufort Sea acreage and broader onshore North Slope areas together garnered 69 bids from four groups totaling about $7.8 million in bonus bids, according to Division of Oil and Gas Director Tom Stokes.

North Slope bidding on state lands was dominated by Oil Search Alaska, which is developing the large Nanushuk oil project in the Pikka Unit. Oil Search won nearly 40 lease tracts primarily on the eastern portion of the Slope south of the Point Thomson gas field. The company spent as much as $276 per acre to secure the leases it sought.

The NPR-A lease sale put on by the Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday morning was dominated by North Slope Exploration LLC, a company formed by noted North Slope explorer Bill Armstrong of Denver, according to state business records.

Armstrong, through his namesake company Armstrong Oil and Gas, led the discovery of the Nanushuk oil formation in partnership with Spanish major Repsol six years ago before selling his stake in the Pikka Unit prospect to Oil Search for $850 million in a deal announced in late 2017.

The Nanushuk discovery has since sparked a boom in exploration on the North Slope with Oil Search and ConocoPhillips declaring finds with potential of more than 100,000 barrels per day each.

Overall, BLM received winning bids totaling $11.2 million on 92 tracts covering just more than 1 million acres in the eastern and central portions of the NPR-A, according to BLM Associate State Director Ted Murphy. Other than 2016, when companies spent $18.8 million on leases, it is the largest collective bid amount for an NPR-A lease sale since 2008.

Murphy noted that half of the $11.2 million in bid revenue from the federal sale goes to the State of Alaska.

North Slope Exploration won 85 of the 92 tracts mostly in the central portion of the reserve that is available for leasing. The company’s continuous chunk of lease tracts totaling nearly 1 million acres butts up to the northeast portion of the reserve that is unavailable for leasing in favor of wildlife habitat protection under the current NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan.

BLM is currently going through the environmental impact statement process to amend the NPR-A land-use plan with the aim of opening more acreage in the 23 million-acre reserve for oil and gas leasing.

Great Bear Petroleum Ventures II LLC, a subsidiary of the Anchorage-based independent Great Bear Petroleum, also won 17 leases mostly in the central portion of the state-owned North Slope acreage.

Individuals Samuel Cade and Dan Donkel jointly won six leases in the state waters of Beaufort Sea and independent Narwhal LLC won seven Beaufort Sea leases.

Last year’s Beaufort Sea and North Slope oil and gas lease netted the state more than $28.1 million and other recent sale totals were in the $15 million to $20 million range. Stokes said that part of the reason this year’s sale was smaller is likely that most of the prospective acreage is already under lease.

He also noted that exploration activity including seismic surveys as well as drilling has ramped up across the Slope over the past few years.

Australian independent Emerald House LLC won four leases in the eastern part of the reserve and ConocoPhillips, which already has large lease holdings and several oil projects there bid on and won three leases near its current acreage.

Before the Wednesday bid opening, companies held 215 leases covering about 1.5 million acres in the reserve, according to Murphy.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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