For Caelus CEO, North Slope ‘big find’ wouldn’t be the first

Caelus Energy CEO Jim Musselman at the company’s Anchorage headquarters, Oct. 7, 2016. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball, Alaska’s Energy Desk - Anchorage)
Caelus Energy CEO Jim Musselman at the company’s Anchorage headquarters, Oct. 7, 2016. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Anchorage)

In a shallow bay off Alaska’s North Slope, Caelus Energy may have made the biggest oil discovery the world has seen since 2010. If developed, the field could have a major impact on Alaska’s economy and the global oil market. But that’s a big “if” — there are plenty of obstacles to overcome.

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For Caelus’ top boss, this isn’t beginner’s luck — it’s his third major oil find.

Jim Musselman is an elephant hunter. Elephant fields, that is.

“I’ve always said, if I’m going to make any money, I’ve got to find something big in order to make it work,” Musselman said in an interview shortly after the company announced the discovery. “So we’ve always been looking for elephant-type stuff. I’ve got elephants all over my office in Dallas. We look for elephants, that’s kind of what we do.”

There are no elephants in Caelus’ pristine offices in midtown Anchorage. But reclining at the head of a conference room table, Musselman himself is big, a true Texan who comes off less like an oil magnate and more like your friendly uncle.

Musselman’s also a gambler. He built a racetrack in Texas once, but said he prefers not to bet on horses — those stakes aren’t high enough. He’d rather put his money on oil.

And his gamble in Alaska may have paid off big time — Musselman thinks he’s found 2 billion barrels of oil in state waters at Smith Bay, east of Barrow. If it’s confirmed, it’ll be the state’s biggest find since the late 1960s.

“It’s going to be huge, huge, huge,” Musselman said.

Musselman embodies a new kind of character on Alaska’s oil scene. For decades, big companies dominated the North Slope. Now, smaller operations like Caelus are stealing the headlines with potentially game-changing discoveries.

Asked what makes him different from the big majors, Musselman replied, “That’s a good question. How do I answer this tactfully — we are probably better risk takers than the bigger companies are.”

Musselman’s strong stomach for risk has paid dividends in the past. Smith Bay could be his third world-class find.

Map of areas Caelus is exploring or producing from on the North Slope. (Image courtesy of Caelus Energy)
Map of areas Caelus is exploring or producing from on the North Slope. (Image courtesy of Caelus Energy)

The first two were in Africa. As CEO of Kosmos Energy, Musselman discovered the Jubilee oil field off Ghana’s coast — a story with so many cliffhangers,  Musselman ended up the star of a documentary produced by Brad Pitt, called “Big Men.”

Musselman was eventually forced to step down at Kosmos after tensions flared between the company and Ghana’s government. But the Jubilee oil field started producing in 2010. So the question now is — can Musselman deliver on the North Slope?

For the moment, Alaska officials and energy experts are cautiously optimistic – emphasis oncautiously.

Cody Rice is an analyst at Wood Mackenzie in New York. He said he needs to see more well tests from Caelus to know if the find is real.

Plus, he said, “This project, while it’s massive in terms of resource base, is not going to single-handedly make Alaska great again.”

The find could add billions of barrels of oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline system — but that won’t happen soon enough to help solve the state’s current fiscal crisis. Because even if the oil is there, Rice said, getting it to market is going to be tough.

“It’s a global-scale discovery, and any time you have something of that scale, it’s inherently complex,” said Rice.

In a report, Wood Mackenzie notes the field’s geology could make its oil reservoirs hard to access. And Caelus might have to build a long offshore pipeline, which would draw a lot of scrutiny from regulators and environmental groups.

“We’re very concerned about the potential for a massive development by Caelus,” said Lois Epstein, of The Wilderness Society in Anchorage.

Epstein’s biggest concern is location: Caelus’ find is just north of Teshekpuk Lake, a key habitat for migratory birds.

Musselman said Caelus will keep operations far away from Teshekpuk Lake. But, he admitted, other things need to fall into place for the $8-10 billion project to pencil out. That includes changes to Alaska’s tax policy and much higher oil prices.

Still, like any good gambler, Musselman radiates confidence. This is his message to Alaskans:

“I am going to make it real for you, and I think, just keep the faith – we’ve done this before,” he said. “We know how to do this.”

Results from the final tests on the Smith Bay find are due in the spring of 2018. That will be the first proof of whether Musselman’s big Alaska bet will truly pay off.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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