Alaska's North Slope Holds Somewhere Between Zero and 2 Billion Barrels of Shale Oil

The assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey has huge uncertainties, but highlights enormous potential resources in remote region

2 min read
Alaska's North Slope Holds Somewhere Between Zero and 2 Billion Barrels of Shale Oil

Oil drilling has gone on for years on Alaska's remote North Slope, but it has been limited to conventional resource extraction. More recently, however, with the ongoing success (economically, at least; environmentally is another story) of unconventional extraction of shale oil and natural gas in the lower 48 states, there is increasing interest in expanding fossil fuel extraction in Alaska. And now the U.S. Geological Survey has released its first ever assessment of "continuous" oil and gas in the North Slope region.

Continuous oil and gas refers to fossil fuels that are still locked up in rocks like shale; conventional resources involve oil or gas that has migrated away from the source rocks. The new USGS report found technically recoverable oil resources of between zero and 2 billion barrels. Natural gas resources lie somewhere between zero and 80 trillion cubic feet, and liquid natural gas between zero and 500 million barrels.

Those zeroes obviously make the range enormous, but they're in there for good reason. No actual drilling for these types of resources has ever been attempted on the North Slope, and it is impossible to know for sure what could be extracted before the process actually begins. According to the USGS: "The shale formations assessed have generated oil and gas that migrated into conventional accumulations, including the super-giant Prudhoe Bay field. It is also probable that these shale source rocks likely retain oil and gas that did not migrate, but only drilling can concretely confirm this or not."

For a bit of comparison: The Willison Basin currently undergoing a huge extraction boom in North Dakota contains about 3.6 billion recoverable barrels of oil; the Marcellus Shale formation, home to another boom in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and other states, has more than 88 trillion cubic feet of shale gas.

The USGS, of course, makes no statements on whether or not we should actually go after these potentially huge fossil fuel resources in Alaska. There are always risks associated with drilling, and many critics say that if major incidents occur in such remote areas they will be much harder to contain and clean up than elsewhere. And there is already precedent: earlier this month a natural gas well blew out on the North Slope near the mouth of the Colville River, spilling drilling mud and methane.

The Obama Administration has generally been friendly to drilling proponents, opening up Alaska's national petroleum reserve to extraction and promising an all-of-the-above energy strategy in his most recent State of the Union address. Whether the shale gas boom spreads all the way to Alaska's North Slope remains to be seen.

Image via USGS

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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