ANCHORAGE - While debate continues over whether to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to petroleum drilling, government geologists say the oil underneath may be the sweet, low-sulfur crude in high demand by refiners.
"The oil we've studied in ANWR is higher gravity and lower sulfur oil than oil in Prudhoe Bay," U.S. Geological Survey research geologist Ken Bird told Petroleum News Alaska. "Prudhoe Bay-type oil contains 1 to 2 percent sulfur, while samples from ANWR measure between zero and 1 percent sulfur."
That would make some of coastal plain oil 10 times lighter than Prudhoe Bay crude.
Oil tested by USGS was gathered from several points in and just outside the coastal plain, a 1.5 million-acre slice of the 19 million acre refuge set aside by Congress for possible oil and gas exploration and development because of its geologic potential.
"All the seeps and oil-stained rocks we find in ANWR contain low-sulfur oil from the Hue or Canning formations," Bird said. "Nearby offshore wells at Kuvlum, Aurora, and Hammerhead and oil seeps next to Barter Island and Ungoon Point in the eastern part of ANWR, about 30 miles southeast of Barter Island, all have low-sulfur oil."
USGS has not tested oil from the KIC No. 1 well, drilled by Chevron in the mid-1980s in ANWR's coastal plain. ChevronTexaco, a strong supporter of opening the coastal plain to oil and gas drilling, has kept that well information confidential.
Sweet light crude is highly desired, particularly for motor fuels.
"There's obviously an environmental benefit because of the fact you're using a lower-sulfur crude and producing lower-sulfur fuels with less of an impact," Rod Cason, Tesoro Alaska vice president and manager of its refinery on the Kenai Peninsula. "We hydro-treat all our gasoline here, so we're well below what EPA's 2003 sulfur emission requirements are going to be, but lower-sulfur fuel will have an impact on other refiners.
"And low-sulfur crude from ANWR will reduce the overall sulfur content in the oil coming down the trans-Alaska oil pipeline because it will be commingled with Prudhoe oil," Cason said.