USGS Analysis of Alaska’s North Slope

If Alaska's North Slope joins the shale revolution, there's likely plenty of natural gas to be found, according to a new analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The report pegs the mean estimate of shale gas at 42 trillion cubic feet (tcf) that could be produced with current technology. That's almost twice the volume of gas the entire United States consumed last year. But in a recent presentation in Anchorage, David Houseknecht, the USGS research geologist who wrote the analysis, cautioned that the estimates are squishy due to lack of drilling into the shale strata. It's possible that no North Slope shale gas can be recovered, although he doubted that this would be the outcome of future drilling.

Despite the abundance of natural gas on the North Slope, little is produced and marketed because there is no pipeline to carry it to consumers. However, three major North Slope producers — ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and BP — and pipeline company TransCanada are jointly studying  whether to pursue a multibillion-dollar project that would export liquefied natural gas to Asian and other markets. They're also querying potential shippers about their interest in a pipeline from the North Slope to Alberta to feed North American markets.

The new shale gas estimate from USGS joins several other numbers that collectively represent what is publicly known about the North Slope's natural gas resources:

  • 35 tcf of proved reserves, mostly at the giant Prudhoe Bay oil field.
  • 203 tcf of estimated undiscovered natural gas resources, onshore and offshore in Alaska's Arctic, that could be produced using current technology.

For example, the USGS recently assessed the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), an Indiana-size tract west of Prudhoe Bay. The agency concluded that NPRA held a mean estimate of 52.8 tcf of technically recoverable natural gas resource. But only 7.3 tcf to 17.5 tcf of that gas could be profitably produced if gas prices were $8 per thousand cubic feet — more than double the current Lower 48 price.