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Elephants Could be Hiding in Arctic

Greenland Potential to be Gauged

It's November and the Arctic Circle is dark, except for the mesmerizing dance of the aurora borealis.

The sun disappeared over the horizon about half-past September. Temperatures are shrinking to as low as — 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

The polar ice pack (sea ice) is expanding to the14-16 million square kilometers it will be at winter's end — almost double the 7-9 million square kilometers it covered before the September sunset. The depth of the ice cap (land ice) can be measured in kilometers.

But shrouded here by nature's extreme harshness could be the resources required by human beings who aspire to a better-than-Stone-Age existence.

It is a huge area, and the oil exploration has been minuscule.

But Don Gautier, an AAPG member with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., said "there are basins in the Circum-Arctic the size of Texas."

The need for new resources and the growing technologies to find and extract them has prompted an ambitious multi-country and industry effort to "take a serious cut at gauging the potential of the Arctic," he added.

Gautier is heading up a recently launched USGS collaborative effort to measure the Arctic's resource potential as a part of the USGS World Energy Project, designed to provide timely assessments of future fossil energy supplies in a digital form.

It was at Ilulissat, Greenland, in August that a workshop was organized cooperatively by the USGS and the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) to address the opportunities, uncertainties and methodological issues surrounding the mission. Participants included geoscientists from the United States, Canada, France, Greenland, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom, with industry, academic and government ties.

Image Caption

Ilulissat Ice Fjord, West Greenland.
Photos by T. Ahlbrandt

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It's November and the Arctic Circle is dark, except for the mesmerizing dance of the aurora borealis.

The sun disappeared over the horizon about half-past September. Temperatures are shrinking to as low as — 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

The polar ice pack (sea ice) is expanding to the14-16 million square kilometers it will be at winter's end — almost double the 7-9 million square kilometers it covered before the September sunset. The depth of the ice cap (land ice) can be measured in kilometers.

But shrouded here by nature's extreme harshness could be the resources required by human beings who aspire to a better-than-Stone-Age existence.

It is a huge area, and the oil exploration has been minuscule.

But Don Gautier, an AAPG member with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., said "there are basins in the Circum-Arctic the size of Texas."

The need for new resources and the growing technologies to find and extract them has prompted an ambitious multi-country and industry effort to "take a serious cut at gauging the potential of the Arctic," he added.

Gautier is heading up a recently launched USGS collaborative effort to measure the Arctic's resource potential as a part of the USGS World Energy Project, designed to provide timely assessments of future fossil energy supplies in a digital form.

It was at Ilulissat, Greenland, in August that a workshop was organized cooperatively by the USGS and the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) to address the opportunities, uncertainties and methodological issues surrounding the mission. Participants included geoscientists from the United States, Canada, France, Greenland, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom, with industry, academic and government ties.

Workshop presenters on the first day included AAPG President-elect Peter R. Rose and past AAPG President Dick Bishop, discussing risk analysis and methodology to assess frontier basins.

A Daunting Task

The tasks of finding and producing hydrocarbons are daunting. But all of the countries that share the geography of the Arctic Circle have met the challenge and are producing oil and gas.

Almost all, that is.

Greenland, the world's largest non-continental island and about 81 percent ice-capped, has no oil production — yet. Greenland was granted home rule in 1979 by the Danish parliament. The law went into effect the following year. Denmark continues to exercise control of Greenland's foreign affairs.

The second day of the Ilulissat workshop focused on the assessment of West Greenland, where in the early and mid-1990s GEUS geologists discovered significant and fairly extensive oil seeps onshore near the country's west-central coast.

"We know that many majors have looked at the region and purchased data — but there are still a lot of myths and rumors to overcome, especially on ice and oil source rocks," said Flemming Christiansen, head of department, GEUS coordinator of Greenland Petroleum Studies and co-convenor of the Ilulissat workshop. "However, more and more data from seeps tell a different story.

"The good news is that we have started to see evidence of older source rocks," Christiansen said. "Thanks to new equipment we can now analyze age-specific biomarkers from oil seeps, and we have for the first time strong evidence of Jurassic oils in West Greenland. At the same time we have also found reworked marine dinoflagellates of Late Jurassic age — the implications are very significant for the industry."

He also said there is evidence of the possibility of Ordovician source rocks, which were found from dredging, and some oil seepage onshore. "We do not however, know the thickness and distribution of this source," he said.

Christiansen said there is an ongoing cruise with more sea-bed sampling, especially on inversion highs and within eroded canyon systems, plus a number of diapirs, sea-mounts and pock-marks.

"The next step could be shallow drill holes," he said, depending on what they find — and the results of a licensing round that closed Oct. 1.

The Big Chill

Jens Christian Olsen, of TGS-NOPEC, showed the group a sampling of seismic acquired from 1999-2003, which shows hydrocarbon indicators and a number of inviting structures that were part of the West Greenland licensing round.

Olsen, who also has presented the seismic at AAPG annual meetings, said management interest in the area is beginning to grow. He said the investment in 30,000 kilometers of new data is at break-even for the company.

Six wells have been drilled in Greenland waters south of Baffin Bay — all dry holes, but with some tantalizing oil shows.

EnCana is presently the only license holder, with blocks off West Greenland. Marc Cooper, vice president of new ventures, said seismic has been shot and mapping is under way.

He said EnCana is looking to bring in a partner in the next six-nine months, or farm it out before.

"Prudent risk management is required," he said.

It's required because exploring in Greenland's waters is hardly cheap, even though it does not face the rigors that sea ice presents. The Statoil well drilled in 2002 is said to have tabbed out in the neighborhood of $25 million (U.S.). Both Christiansen and Olsen said the high cost, however, was due mainly to normal technical problems and cannot be related to ice. The summer wells drilled offshore West Greenland do not have to face the rigors of sea ice, which is a very different issue from icebergs, according to Cooper.

The Greenland ice sheet is thousands of meters thick — and constantly shedding enormous icebergs into the surrounding seas. The icebergs initially head north before turning south in Baffin Bay, then move down the Labrador coast to end up off Newfoundland.

"The big question is how do you deal with ice," he said.

For example, while the Hibernia Field in the North Atlantic can be worked year-round, areas of sea ice can only be worked in the summer months.

"If I find a field that could only produce for six months a year," he said, "the economics get pretty difficult."

Cooper said possible scenarios in relatively shallow waters might include subsea completions with a tie back to the coast.

Successful experiences at BP and ExxonMobil's Sakhalin Island project off eastern Siberia — as well as prospects in the MacKenzie Delta being explored by EnCana and PetroCanada, and others — are adding to the knowledge bank of how to deal with difficulties posed by the high latitudes.

But getting back to risk management, a large factor is defining, as closely as possible, if the risk is commensurate with the reward.

That's what Gautier and the Circum-Arctic international consortium of governments and industry are going to try to quantify. Gautier said the goals are to provide a scientifically grounded view of the resources, make available compiled original tectonic and stratigraphic maps and an oil source rock compilation.

The goal is to release results in 2007 — the International Polar Year.

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