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December 2002

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Alaska's Other Big Oil Target

There's more than one controversial oil patch on Alaska's North Slope. Only about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), long coveted for its oil and gas, lies the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska (NPRA)—and it may have more oil than its famous neighbor.

The 22.5-million-acre (9.11-million-hectare) federal reserve, largely ignored by the oil industry since its creation in 1923, hasn't produced any oil. The focus has been instead on a 1.5-million-acre (610,000-hectare) section on ANWR's coast. But opposition to drilling in the refuge and the 1996 discovery of the Alpine field just east of NPRA is shifting industry interest westward.

The U.S. Geological Survey has reassessed NPRA's potential, which now is thought to be between 6 and 13 billion barrels of oil—compared with 4 to 12 billion for ANWR. But those numbers don't factor in recovery costs. At current prices, 22 to 30 dollars a barrel, more of ANWR's oil would be economically recoverable. That's because NPRA's oil lies in thin, widely spaced deposits—probably at greater depths than ANWR's—making it more expensive to extract. If the price rises above 35 dollars a barrel, the amount of economically recoverable oil at either site would be about the same.

Conservationists' concerns about impact on wildlife in NPRA echo those for ANWR. "The reserve has some of the world's best migratory bird habitat," says Deb Moore of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. "And it includes the calving grounds for more than 470,000 caribou."

—John L. Eliot

Web Links

United State Geological Survey (USGS)
This USGS fact sheet describes the estimated petroleum resources in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA), and it includes maps and illustrations.

Northern Alaska Environmental Center
Learn more about the Northern Alaska Environmental Center's campaign to protect the NPRA and other Alaskan areas.

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Find out why this group of petroleum geologists advocates petroleum extraction in the NPRA.

Free World Map

Mitchell, John. "Oil Field or Sanctuary?" National Geographic (August 2001), 46-55.

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