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Energy and resources
Arctic not a refuge for oil

The United States shouldn’t lose OPEC’s number just yet: The Arctic contains far less undiscovered oil than previously thought, according to a new study. The report, released jointly on Nov. 1 by energy analyst group Wood Mackenzie and oil and gas consultancy Fugro Robertson, suggests that the United States can no longer consider the Arctic strategically for its long-term energy needs, and will instead need to continue to look to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC) and other international sources.

The study’s findings contrast with those of a 2000 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report on the world’s petroleum reserves, which estimated that nearly one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil was likely to be found in the frozen north and has therefore been touted by supporters of drilling on Alaska’s North Slope. Despite the contrast in findings, however, USGS notes that the two studies may not be directly comparable, as the USGS study focused only on the Arctic’s potential resources, rather than recoverable reserves.

Wood Mackenzie and Fugro Robertson based their findings on detailed geologic information from the five regions with basins within the Arctic: Russia, Norway, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. They analyzed both publicly available data and private industry data from exploration wells and existing discoveries over the past 40 years to map out the entire petroleum “system” in these basins: defining reservoirs, assessing traps and studying source rocks.

Based on these analyses, the Arctic contains far less oil than previously thought, the report says, with key Greenland and North American basins containing only one-fourth of the undiscovered oil reserves previously estimated. The Arctic also contains a much lower ratio of oil to gas than earlier estimates suggest: 85 percent of the discovered resource is natural gas, which also makes up 74 percent of its potential reserves.

“The Arctic is gassy — there’s no getting away from that fact,” says Tom Wilson, a geologist with Fugro Robertson and a lead author of the study. But, “if the U.S. is looking for oil, they’re going to have to look at other countries.”

At the time of the USGS 2000 study, there was still very little data from the Arctic, which the agency is now working to change, says Brenda Pierce, program coordinator for the USGS Energy Resource Program. Pierce also notes that the two studies differ on a fundamental point: While the USGS study focused on potential resources — which are technically recoverable, though still undiscovered — the new study accounts for reserves, a more economic term that takes existing infrastructure and the economic feasibility of developing them into account. “They’re really different types of analyses,” Pierce says. But USGS is reevaluating the Arctic’s resources, she says, and new USGS reports of the oil and gas potential in the Arctic basins will begin to appear in the fall, beginning with northeastern Greenland.

“People have different methodologies [and] that’s going to bring up some differences,” Wilson says, acknowledging that the reports are difficult to compare directly. “We’ve generated numbers for technically recoverable reserves — what’s out there that’s technically recoverable within the foreseeable future.”

Carolyn Gramling

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