A pioneer of the U.S. shale revolution wants to take fracking to America's final frontier. Success could help revive Alaska's flagging oil fortunes.
Paul Basinski, the geologist who helped discover the Eagle Ford basin in Texas, is part of a fledgling effort on Alaska's North Slope to emulate the shale boom that reinvigorated production in the rest of the U.S. His venture, Project Icewine, has gained rights to 700,000 acres inside the Arctic Circle and says they could hold 3.6 billion barrels of oil, rivaling the legendary Eagle Ford.
While the potential is huge, the difficulty of shipping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals — the ingredients used in fracking — to one of the most remote areas on earth is nothing short of monumental. At stake is an Alaskan industry that's seen output tumble from 2.1 million barrels a day in 1988 to 520,000 in 2016 as reserves dwindled and explorers sought cheaper supplies in shale fields to the south.
"The oil is there," said Basinski, founder and chief executive officer at Houston-based Burgundy Xploration, in an interview. "Now it's a question of how quickly we can get it to flow and whether we can get the economics to work." One exploratory well has been drilled, he said, and a second is planned by mid year.
The future of U.S. oil exploration has been among the hot topics as the industry's biggest names gathered in Houston this week for the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan spoke during the meeting's opening session and Sen. Lisa Murkowski is set to help close it with comments on Friday.
The dwindling volume of crude produced in the state has combined with a rout in oil prices over the last two years to undercut Alaska's once-booming economy. When oil topped $100 a barrel in 2014, Alaska took in $5.7 billion in petroleum taxes and royalties for the fiscal year that ended that June, covering most of its budget. For fiscal 2017, the take is projected at $1.6 billion, a 72 percent drop.
At the same time, the decline has fed worries that the 40-year-old Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, the North Slope's 800-mile link to global oil markets, could become too expensive to operate by the next decade.
In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, water, sand and chemicals are shot at high pressure into shale rock to release the oil and natural gas trapped inside. Drillers create cracks within shale and tap them with horizontal wells that can run for thousands of feet underground. In Alaska, the practice has been slow to take off due to the higher costs of working in the Arctic, where drilling can cost three times as much as in the lower 48 states.
Until recently, companies also didn't have underground imaging technology good enough to peer beneath the Arctic permafrost and pinpoint shale reserves below.
Now that's changing. State tax breaks passed earlier this decade have encouraged explorers to give shale a look, and 3-D seismic imaging technology allows them to make a more educated guess about what's below.
To be sure, shale isn't the only hope for the state's oil industry. Icewine is part of a wave of new exploration on the North Slope.
In October, closely held Caelus Energy said it had found at least 2 billion barrels of recoverable oil about 120 miles to the west of Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Coast. ConocoPhillips, the state's biggest oil producer, said in January that it was developing a new field that may hold as much as 300,000 barrels.
In the latest development, Spain's Repsol said on Thursday that two wells drilled this winter had confirmed what could amount to a 1.2 billion-barrel find. It's developing the field, known as Nanushuk, with Denver-based Armstrong Oil & Gas Inc.
Caelus has turned to fracking to boost production in non-shale wells on the slope as well.
"This is the oiliest place we've ever worked," Caelus CEO Jim Musselman said in an interview. "These are not world-class rocks so we've had to turn to more modern techniques. The low-hanging fruit has been plucked so we're having to go a little higher in the tree."
Burgundy Xploration, Basinski's closely held company, has teamed with Australia-based 88 Energy Ltd. to test shale on 690,000 acres of state land south of Prudhoe Bay. The land sits over three underground bands of shale, from 3,000 to 20,000 feet below ground, that are the source rocks for the huge conventional oilfields to the north.
The companies' first well, Icewine 1, confirmed the presence of petroleum in the shale and found a geology that should be conducive to fracking, Basinski said. Their second well, due to be drilled in the first half of 2017, will fracture a small section of that range and see how readily the oil flows.
"We don't know what we have yet," said Michael McFarlane, Burgundy's president. "We know that the shale has sourced a tremendous amount of oil, but is it commercial? That's a question that we haven't answered yet."
Basinski was a geologist at Houston-based Burlington Resources Inc. in the early 2000s, when he began pushing to test the Eagle Ford shale zone in southern Texas. The rocks were long thought to contain oil, but conventional wisdom held the geology wasn't suitable for fracking, Basinski, 62, recalled in an interview.
Basinski looked at the data and thought differently. When Conoco bought Burlington in 2006 for $36 billion, it inherited the geologist's quixotic quest as well.
"I just looked at a map and saw a lot of white space in Texas and asked a stupid question: what is this?" he said. "I was looking for the opposite of what everybody else was looking for."
Conoco would eventually snap up thousands of acres in the area at rock-bottom prices, before the Eagle Ford's productivity was fully known. By 2015, the Eagle Ford was the most prolific shale play in the U.S., producing 565 million barrels, according to the U.S. Energy Department. North Dakota's Bakken shale was second with 421 million barrels.
Basinski left Conoco in 2011 to pursue unconventional plays elsewhere in the globe. Alaska seemed a natural target — huge reservoirs like Prudhoe Bay had to have source rocks somewhere nearby, he figured.
"There's a lot of potential," said David Houseknecht, a senior research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey who studies Alaskan oil. "The big 'but' is that you can only put so many wells within a stone's throw of the pipeline. Even if you assume the kind of production rate that the Bakken or Eagle Ford have given you, it's going to be a challenge to make it economically viable."
In a 2012 assessment, the USGS said North Slope shale may hold anywhere from zero to 2 billion barrels of oil recoverable with current technologies. The report emphasized "the large range of uncertainty" associated with the area.
An analysis of well results by consultant DeGolyer & MacNaughton found the Icewine land may sit atop the equivalent of 1.4 billion barrels of oil, 88 Energy said in an investor presentation last month. The company said its own modeling suggests as much as 3.6 billion barrels may be available. The Eagle Ford that Basinski helped develop, by comparison, has about 4.3 billion barrels, according to Energy Department estimates.