ConocoPhillips’ big new find on the North Slope could help replenish pipeline

Pipelines stretch twoards the horizon on NPR-A land leased by ConocoPhillips. The company announced it has found 300 million barrels of recoverable oil nearby. (photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

On Jan. 13, ConocoPhillips announced a major oil find in the National Petroleum-Reserve Alaska (NPR-A). The company is calling it the Willow Discovery. Experts say coupled with several other recent big discoveries in the region, it could portend a new wave of oil development on the North Slope. If developed, it could go a long ways toward replenishing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

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Viewed from a van driving along an ice road on the Western North Slope, pipelines zig-zag across the frozen tundra beneath a cotton candy sky. On a tour arranged and paid for by ConocoPhillips — it’s the only way for reporters to access this remote part of the world –Conoco employee Jeff Osborne explained the company sees its growing presence here as a historic achievement.

“We’re in the frontier; we’re in the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska, in lands that we’ve been exploring since the mid-’90s and now are just starting to gain access to produce the oil that has been found by our explorers,” Osborne said.

Conoco is already constructing drill sites in the National Petroleum Reserve: one being built this winter, the Greater Mooses Tooth 1 project, is expected to produce about 30,000 barrels per day. But after drilling two test wells nearby, the company announced an oil discovery that could produce much more than that.

“Depending on the development scenario, it could be up to maybe 100,000 barrels a day of production when we actually get it up and running, so I think it’s a pretty big deal,” ConocoPhillips president Joe Marushack said at an industry conference in Anchorage, right after he announced the Willow Discovery.

In total, Conoco thinks it’s found more than 300 million barrels of recoverable oil on the Western North Slope.

It’s relatively close to Conoco’s Alpine facility, and outside experts agree with Marushack that this is a big deal.

“It’s pretty significant,” David Houseknecht of the U.S. Geological Survey said. “It ranks up there with all but the top four or five oil fields in Alaska.”

Houseknecht said that for years, NPR-A was a bit of a disappointment for oil explorers. But recently, a series of companies — Armstrong Oil and Gas, Caelus Energy and now, Conoco — have announced they’ve made big oil discoveries in or near the reserve. Houseknecht said this trend could signal there’s much more recoverable oil beneath NPR-A than previously thought.

“I would not expect this to be the last discovery that is made in these two formations in this general area,” Houseknecht said.

ConocoPhillips will certainly be among those searching for more oil in and around the National Petroleum Reserve. At state and federal lease sales held in December, the company won close to 740,000 more acres in the region. Marushack said ConocoPhillips is optimistic there’s even more oil to be found south of their big discovery.

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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