In the oil industry, change is constant, and reinvention is key to success. That BP's mantra when it comes to breathing new life into Alaska’s well-known oil field.

Alaska changed when the first barrel of oil flowed down the trans-Alaska pipeline in June 1977, putting the state on the map as a contender on the oil scene.

BP began working in Alaska in 1959, started drilling at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and currently operates the entire Prudhoe Bay Field. After a 40-year run, it would seem like time to look elsewhere for oil.

Not BP — the company is doubling down to find the remaining oil in North America’s largest oil field.

Prudhoe Bay — 40 More Years

The field produced an average of more than 280,000 barrels of oil per day in 2017 — half of the state's total oil production, according to the company. BP said it held production levels from three years, from 2015 to 2017. It also improved efficiency from 80% to 85%. That translates to 10,000 to 15,000 barrels of oil flowing through the pipeline a day and is equivalent to adding a new field within Prudhoe Bay, the company said.

With the help of new technology, BP hopes to keep the field going another 40 years.

(Image courtesy of BP)

 

The company's latest effort is called PBS 40, or Prudhoe Bay Seismic. The area they're searching is as big as the task: in this case 450 square miles as they go from west to east.

"I think all of us that work at BP would love to see this old field last another 40 years," said Jennifer Collins, BP's lead advisor on regulations and permitting on a sometimes wind-swept, but bright and sunny day on the North Slope. "It's vital to the state. It's vital to all the other oil fields in Alaska being successfully moving oil down taps."

The oil industry has repeatedly adapted to new and different circumstances. That’s where the seismic survey comes in using seismic imaging and sound waves.

Data will come in terrabytes and then be analyzed. This current effort will last about 100 days. It began Jan. 17 and is expected to run into mid-April. Once the data is collected, it will take months to comb through it.

"We're looking for fault traps that have not been drilled yet and we'll create that cube and plot every wellbore and look for compartments that haven't been produced. Then Scott [Digert] will go drill them," said Robert Pool, a Houston-based seismic acquisition specialist.

The

 

While the technology is dense, it's not all book science — There's some eye candy, too. The vibe truck is an attention-getter.

"It's about a 90,000-pound vehicle on tracks so he doesn't do any damage on the tundra. He stays on the snow," says Scott Digert, a resource area development manager, describing a vehicle that's part moon buggy, part techno-wonder.

BP is using a dozen of them to assist in finding that oil.

"The end point of all this would be targets that we could drill to, to try and recover any oil that's been left behind in Prudhoe Bay," Digert said.

As the company looks towards 40 more years at Prudhoe Bay, this survey will be critical to helping BP determine where the remaining pockets of oil are.

Dave Goldman / KTVA

 

A Changing Landscape

Polar bears are listed as a threatened species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Endangered Species Act required the company to consult with fish and wildlife before moving forward.

Chrissy Pohl, wildlife and environmental studies advisor for BP, said it’s an issue the company takes seriously.

“It’s always a really big focus in the oil fields. For example, one of the things we have to do is specifically choose a winter seismic shoot, because there are a lot less environmental impacts and we have to receive federal authorizations to work in polar bear country and one of those mitigations from the authorization from U.S. fish and wildlife service is conducting surveys to identify and avoid known polar bear dens,” she said.

In a letter sent to BP by State of Alaska natural resource specialist Nathaniel G. Emery, the authorization for activities on state lands in the Prudhoe Bay Unit comes with stipulations — including two sections specifically addressing the mitigation measures for both brown bears and polar bears.

Exploration and production must be kept one-half mile from brown bear dens and one mile from polar bear dens. BP must consult with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to identify the locations of known occupied brown bear dens during the proposed activities. For polar bear dens, they must consult the USFWS. Dens not previously known, but found to be occupied, must be reported within 24 hours to the according agency.

An addendum to the letter states:

iii. For projects in proximity to areas frequented by bears, the lessee is required to prepare and implement a human-bear interaction plan designed to minimize conflicts between bears and humans. The plan shall include measures to:

A. minimize attraction of bears to facility sites;

B. organize layout of buildings and work areas to minimize interactions between humans and bears;

C. warn personnel of bears near or on facilities and the proper actions to take;

D. if authorized, deter bears from the drill site;

E. provide contingencies in the event bears do not leave the site;

F. discuss proper storage and disposal of materials that may be toxic to bears; and

G. provide a systematic record of bears on the site and in the immediate area.

It’s a complicated undertaking. For a project like this one, Collins said planning happens six to eight months in advance to begin the permitting process. That means considering all of the risks involved from damage to the tundra and the potential for spills, then lining out the mitigation procedures if the worst case scenario should happen.

“Frankly, BP is incredibly responsible," Collins said. "We go to great lengths to prevent any damage to the environment any injuries to people. It's quite an operation and begs the question of people having an opportunity to see this and change your mind a little bit on the sheer amount of effort it takes.” 

Risks don’t just include the potential for disaster, but also the company’s economic leap of faith.

“Definitely it's a very expensive project and obviously BP wouldn't have taken it on unless they though it was a huge potential,” Collins said.

The way BP sees it, the desert on ice is just warming up. The company says it will conduct tests a few more weeks and then will take several months to process the data. Collins said the investment goes beyond oil; it’s an investment in the future of the region.

“It does make the project feel more impactful,” she said. “We know this potentially is a big factor in our 40-more strategy for BP and we like to think this project is going to have a big impact on us having jobs and what Prudhoe Bay looks like for the next 40 years.”

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