Today in Alaska, the vast majority of oil from the state's Arctic region comes from on-shore drilling wells. Most of the oil comes from the 'North Slope,' referring to the land adjacent to the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas down to the Brooks Mountain Range (the area of land depicted on the map above). Prudhoe Bay Oil Field (near Deadhorse) is the most productive of the areas in the North Slope, but various industries have leases all along the coastline. Currently, the oil is brought to the sub-Arctic via the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. This pipeline starts at Prudhoe Bay and runs over 800 miles down through Alaska to Valdez, where it is loaded onto ships for transportation to refineries outside of Alaska.
Oil production from wells on the North Slope peaked in the late 1980s and has been steadily declining ever since. This decline is due to many factors: geophysical, commercial, and/or political. Additionally, reduced oil production on land spurs exploration that is riskier (both for the environment and corporate investment) towards off-shore reserves.
Until very recently, the Arctic has been closed to off-shore oil exploration and drilling because of sea ice. With the changes in the Arctic Ocean, Beaufort, and Chukchi Seas due to global climate change and the loss of sea ice, corporations are able to extend their ice-free season and find oil reserves in previously unknown locations.
How much oil is in the Arctic? The US Geological Survey estimates that the area north of the Arctic Circle holds 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered natural gas. Of those resources, 84% lie offshore. The United States’ offshore claims only lie in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and a part of the Arctic Ocean. Accessing these oil reserves will require oil rigs in marine environments, but only in depths of around 150 feet of water. For comparison, the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling under about 5,000ft of water. While the Arctic environment provides many hazards, the relatively shallow water depths allows for drill technology that has been in place for decades.
PHOTO CREDIT: USGS, 2011/BOEM, 2008: http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2011/3048/ Map of the North Slope of Alaska from Point Hope to the United States–Canada border.
The United States has been drilling for oil from the North Slope for decades. An extension from onshore to offshore drilling is becoming feasible as the climate changes. Why go after these sources of energy? We are still a society that relies on oil.
Trans Alaska Pipeline System
Take a look at some facts about the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) which runs from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope down to Valdez, 800 miles of pipeline away. The rest of Alyeska Pipeline’s website provides more information about the history and design of the pipeline. The links under the header SERV will explain TAPS' oil spill readiness.