Petroleum exploration in the Arctic

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Location of Arctic Basins assessed by the USGS.

The exploration of the Arctic for petroleum is considered to be extremely technically challenging.[1] However, recent technological developments, as well as relatively high oil prices, have allowed for exploration. As a result, the region has received significant interest from the petroleum industry.

Since the onset of the 2010s oil glut in 2014, the commercial interest in Arctic exploration has declined.[1][2]


There are 19 geological basins making up the Arctic region. Some of these basins have experienced oil and gas exploration, most notably the Alaska North Slope where oil was first produced in 1968 from Prudhoe Bay. However, only half the basins – such as the Beaufort Sea and the West Barents Sea – have been explored.

A 2008 United States Geological Survey estimates that areas north of the Arctic Circle have 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil (and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids ) in 25 geologically defined areas thought to have potential for petroleum. This represents 13% of the undiscovered oil in the world. Of the estimated totals, more than half of the undiscovered oil resources are estimated to occur in just three geologic provinces – Arctic Alaska, the Amerasian Basin, and the East Greenland Rift Basins.[3][4][5]

More than 70% of the mean undiscovered oil resources is estimated to occur in five provinces: Arctic Alaska, Amerasia Basin, East Greenland Rift Basins, East Barents Basins, and West Greenland–East Canada. It is further estimated that approximately 84% of the undiscovered oil and gas occurs offshore. The USGS did not consider economic factors such as the effects of permanent sea ice or oceanic water depth in its assessment of undiscovered oil and gas resources. This assessment is lower than a 2000 survey, which had included lands south of the arctic circle.[3][4][5]

A recent study carried out by Wood Mackenzie on the Arctic potential comments that the likely remaining reserves will be 75% natural gas and 25% oil[citation needed]. It highlights four basins that are likely to be the focus of the petroleum industry in the upcoming years: the Kronprins Christian Basin, which is likely to have large reserves, the southwest Greenland basin, due to its proximity to markets, and the more oil-prone basins of Laptev and Baffin Bay.

Year Region Milestone
1964 Cook Inlet shallow water steel platform in moving ice
1969 North West Passage first commercial ship (SS Manhattan) to transit NW passage
1971 Canadian Beaufort shallow water sand island exploration
1974 Arctic Islands shallow and deep water ice islands exploration
1976 Canadian Beaufort 20–70 m water depth ice-strengthened drillship exploration (Canmar drillship)
1981 Canadian Beaufort shallow water caisson exploration (Tarsiut caissons)
1983 Canadian Beaufort 20–70 m ice-resistant floating exploration drilling
1984 US & Canadian Beaufort shallow water caisson & gravity based structure exploration (SDC drilling)
1987 US & Canadian Beaufort spray ice islands used to reduce cost
1998 Sakhalin extension of Molikpaq caisson for early production in ice
2007 Barents Sea subsea to shore LNG (Snøhvit field)
2007/08 Sakhalin shallow water ice-resistant GBS production
2008 Varandey 1st arctic offshore tanker loading terminal
2012 West Greenland deepwater floating exploration drilling in ice
2014 Pechora Sea 1st shallow water year-round manned GBS production in the Arctic (Prirazlomnaya platform)


Extensive drilling was done in the Canadian Arctic during the 1970s and 1980s by such companies as Panarctic Oils Ltd., Petro Canada and Dome Petroleum. After 176 wells were drilled at billions of dollars of cost, approximately 1.9 billion barrels (300×10^6 m3) of oil and 19.8 trillion cubic feet (560×10^9 m3) of natural gas were found. These discoveries were insufficient to justify development, and all the wells which were drilled were plugged and abandoned.

Drilling in the Canadian Arctic turned out to be expensive and dangerous.[1] The geology of the Canadian Arctic turned out to be far more complex than oil-producing regions like the Gulf of Mexico. It was discovered to be gas prone rather than oil prone (i.e. most of the oil had been transformed into natural gas by geological processes), and most of the reservoirs had been fractured by tectonic activity, allowing most of the petroleum which might at one time have been present to leak out.[7]


In June 2007, a group of Russian geologists returned from a six-week voyage on a nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy, the expedition called Arktika 2007. They had travelled to the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater shelf going between Russia's remote, inhospitable eastern Arctic Ocean, and Ellesmere Island in Canada where the ridge lies 400m under the ocean surface.[8]

According to Russia's media, the geologists returned with the "sensational news" that the Lomonosov ridge was linked to Russian Federation territory, boosting Russia's claim over the oil-and-gas rich triangle. The territory contained 10bn tonnes of gas and oil deposits, the scientists said.[9]


Greenland is believed by some geologists to have some of the world’s largest remaining oil resources.[10] Prospecting is taking place under the auspices of NUNAOIL, a partnership between the Greenland Home Rule Government and the Danish state. U.S. Geological Survey found in 2001 that the waters off north-eastern Greenland, in the Greenland Sea north and south of the Arctic Circle, could contain up to 110 billion barrels (17×10^9 m3) of oil.[11]

Greenland has offered 8 license blocks for tender along its west coast by Baffin Bay. Currently, 7 of those blocks have been bid for by a combination of multinational oil companies and the National Oil Company NUNAOIL. Companies that have participated successfully in the previous license rounds and have formed a partnership for the licenses with NUNAOIL are, DONG Energy, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Husky Energy, Cairn Energy. The area available, known as the West Disko licensing round, is of interest because of its relative accessibility compared to other Arctic basins as the area remains largely free of ice. Also, it has a number of promising geological leads and prospects from the Paleocene era.

United States[edit]

Prudhoe Bay Oil Field on Alaska's North Slope is the largest oil field in North America,[12] The field was discovered on March 12, 1968, by Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and is operated by BP; partners are ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.

In September 2012 Shell delayed actual oil drilling in the Chukchi until the following summer due to heavier-than-normal ice and the Arctic Challenger, an oil-spill response vessel, not being ready on time.[13] However, on September 23, Shell began drilling a "top-hole" over its Burger prospect in the Chukchi. And on October 3, Shell began drilling a top-hole over its Sivulliq prospect in the Beaufort Sea, after being notified by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission that drilling could begin.[14]

In September, 2012, Statoil chose to delay its oil exploration plans at its Amundsen prospect in the Chukchi Sea, about 100 miles northwest of Wainwright, Alaska, by at least one year, to 2015 at the earliest.[15]

In 2012 Conoco planned to drill at its Devil's Paw prospect (part of a 2008 lease buy in the Chukchi Sea 120 miles west of Wainwright) in summer of 2013.[16] This project was later shelved in 2013 after concerns over rig type and federal regulations related to runaway well containment.[17][18]

October 11, 2012, Dep. Secretary of the Department of the Interior David Hayes stated that support for the permitting process for Arctic offshore petroleum drilling will continue if President Obama stays in office.[19]

Shell, however, announced in September 2015 that it was abandoning exploration "for the foreseeable future" in Alaska, after tests showed disappointing quantities of oil and gas in the area.[20]

On October 4, 2016 Caelus Energy Alaska announced its discovery at Smith Bay could "provide 200,000 barrels per day of light, highly mobile oil".[21]


Rosneft and Statoil made the Arctic exploration deal in May 2012. It is the third deal Rosneft has signed in the past month, after Arctic exploration agreements with Italy's Eni and US giant Exxon Mobil.[22]. Compared to other Arctic oil states, Norway is probably best equipped for oil spill preparedness in the Arctic.[1]

Environmental concerns[edit]

Greenpeace have launched the Save the Arctic Project since the melting Arctic is under threat from oil drilling, industrial fishing and conflict.[23]

Geological basins in the Arctic[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Gulas, Sarah; Downton, Mitchell; D'Souza, Kareina; Hayden, Kelsey; Walker, Tony R. (January 2017). "Declining Arctic Ocean oil and gas developments: Opportunities to improve governance and environmental pollution control". Marine Policy. 75: 53–61. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2016.10.014.
  2. ^ Josephine, Mason (31 October 2017). "Greenland Will Offer Oil, Gas Concessions Next Year-Minister". Rigzone. Retrieved 2017-10-31.
  3. ^ a b United States Geological Survey, (USGS) (July 27, 2008). "90 Billion Barrels of Oil and 1,670 Trillion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas Assessed in the Arctic". USGS. Retrieved 2008-08-12.
  4. ^ a b MOUAWAD, JAD (July 24, 2008). "Oil Survey Says Arctic Has Riches". New York Times.
  5. ^ a b Alan Bailey (October 21, 2007). "USGS: 25% Arctic oil, gas estimate a reporter's mistake". 12 (42). Petroleum News. Retrieved 2008-07-24.
  6. ^ National Petroleum Council: Arctic Potential. Realizing the Promise of U.S. Arctic Oil and Gas Resources, March 27, 2015
  7. ^ Jaremko, Gordon (April 4, 2008). "Arctic fantasies need reality check: Geologist knows risks of northern exploration". The Edmonton Journal. Archived from the original on June 12, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-18.
  8. ^ "The Northern Continental Shelf of Greenland (Executive Summary)" Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland / Ministry of Climate, Energy and Building (Denmark), November 2014. Accessed: 15 December 2014. Size: 52 pages in 6MB. UN mirror
  9. ^ Harding, Luke (June 28, 2007). "Kremlin lays claim to huge chunk of oil-rich North Pole". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  10. ^ Overlooking the world's largest island, The Copenhagen Post, 17 April 2008
  11. ^ Allagui, Slim (July 16, 2006). "Greenland Makes Oil Companies Melt". Agence France-Presse. Retrieved 2008-08-31.
  12. ^ Prudhoe Bay Fact Sheet Archived 2009-03-26 at the Wayback Machine. BP. August 2006. (Adobe Acrobat *.PDF document)
  13. ^ Everything You Need to Know About Shell Oil and Arctic Offshore Drilling in Alaska
  14. ^ Shell starts exploratory drilling in Beaufort Sea Archived 2012-10-06 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Statoil Delays Chukchi Exploration
  16. ^ Conoco forging ahead with Arctic drilling plans for summer of 2014
  17. ^ "ConocoPhillips puts Arctic drilling plans on ice". Fuel Fix. 2013-04-10. Retrieved 2017-06-30.
  18. ^ "UPDATE 2-In about-turn, Conoco shelves Alaskan Arctic drilling plan". Reuters. 10 April 2013. Retrieved 2017-06-30.
  19. ^ Interior Dept. official pledges continued support for Arctic drilling Archived 2012-10-12 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Shell stops Arctic oil exploration". BBC News. 2015-09-28.
  21. ^ "Caelus claims Arctic oil discovery that could rank among Alaska's biggest ever". 2016-10-04.
  22. ^ Rosneft and Statoil in Arctic exploration deal 6 May 2012
  23. ^ Save Arctic Project Greenpeace

External links[edit]