North Slope oil production ticked up again in 2017

In 2017, the trans-Alaska pipeline moved 192,472,797 barrels of oil. (Photo courtesy the Center for Land Use Interpretation)

For the second year in a row, there was an increase in the amount of oil flowing down the trans-Alaska pipeline.

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That’s according to its operator, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Alyeska announced that the pipeline’s average throughput went up by about 10,000 barrels per day in 2017 compared to 2016, a 1.5 percent increase.

“When we see two years in a row of increase, it gives us lots of optimism for the state of Alaska and also for pipeline operations going forward,” Michelle Egan, a spokesperson for Alyeska, said.

North Slope oil production declined steadily starting in the late 1980s, when throughput peaked at over two million barrels per day. Before 2016, the last uptick in pipeline throughput was in 2002. Back then, it carried over one million barrels per day. In 2017, throughput averaged 527,323 barrels daily.

The pipeline was designed to carry much higher volumes of oil; in 2011, Alyeska released a study raising questions about whether it can continue operating below about 300,000 barrels per day. Egan said two years of increased throughput gives Alyeska some breathing room.

“Decline and low throughput creates a lot of technical challenges for us, so anything that can happen to slow that is a big help,” Egan said.

Alaska Department of Natural Resources deputy commissioner Mark Wiggin said the increase is due to a combination of factors. (Wiggin is an Alaska Public Media board member.) Wiggin said newer oil fields west of Prudhoe Bay, like ConocoPhillips’ CD5, are performing better than expected. Wiggin added that companies have managed to get oil out of old fields like Prudhoe Bay more efficiently.

“I think the takeaway is that the industry figured out how — in a very, very challenging price environment — to do some good work,” Wiggin said.

The state of Alaska officially projects that North Slope oil production will continue to go up this year, but then begin to decline again in 2019. However, Wiggin said recent new oil discoveries, such as Pikka, could contribute to raising North Slope production again.

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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.