Overlooked 'heavy oil' may be in North Slope and Alaska's economic future

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2011

The next big thing out of Alaska’s prolific Arctic Slope oil fields may be “heavy oil,” a thick, molasses-like petroleum that’s there in huge quantities but is difficult to recover.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

BP in a few weeks will begin a $100 million pilot project at the Milne Point field testing whether it can overcome the technical challenges of heavy oil production, said Eric West, who is managing the project for BP.

“This thing could be really big,” West said.

There are known reserves of about 30 billion barrels on the North Slope, but the question, he said, is what percentage of that can be developed.

Even at a 10 percent recovery rate, that’s 3 billion barrels, he said.

“It is a very substantial and large resource we’re sitting on,” he said.

Because of the difficulty of producing heavy oil, it hasn’t been considered among the companies proven reserves.

West said it may eventually provide as much as 250,000 barrels a day into the Trans-Alaska pipeline, which now carries more than 600,000 a day.

Heavy oil may be in a race against time, however.

In addition to being difficult to get out of the ground, it is also difficult to ship. The best way is to dilute it with lighter oil, but as Prudhoe Bay and other huge fields age they’re producing less oil. Soon, there may not be enough light, or regular crude oil, to thin the heavy with.

West said he hoped the Milne Point pilot project, with four wells, would provide answers that would enable the company to develop new projects with hundreds of wells. Heavy oil wells produce less oil per well than do standard wells.

West said he’d be pleased if each of the wells in the pilot produce 500 barrels a day.

“The objective is not to make oil and revenue, our objective is to learn,” he said.

The plant is now complete, and undergoing commissioning “making sure all the pumps turn the right way and all the switches work” before getting underway in late March, he said.

It is likely to eventually be successful, but West said he just hopes it is successful quickly.

“We have a fantastic track record in Alaska of solving technical problems,” he said.

Among those getting an informal presentation on heavy oil at the Capitol Thursday was Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, a former North Slope worker.

“People have been talking about heavy oil for 20 years or better, but if you look at the scientific advances BP has in mind it looks pretty promising,” he said.

And that could be very good news for Alaska.

“You could see the trans-Alaska pipeline extended for 30 or more years,” he said.

New technological advances such as fracking that have boosted natural gas production and mining of tar sands in Alberta show the industry is always finding new ways to develop resources, he said.

West predicted it would be BP.

“Somebody is going to make this work — the resource is too big to leave there,” he said.

“I want it to be my generation and BP to get it out of the ground,” West said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or Patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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