Marshall changes history
Lands selection officer, geologist convinced Alaska leaders to gain control of North Slope acreage before Prudhoe Bay field discovered
Geologist Tom Marshall came to Alaska from Wyoming in 1958 to homestead on federal lands.
He was eager to get in on the ground floor of the Cook Inlet oil exploration boom touched off by the Swanson River discovery in 1957.
“I also wanted to see if Alaska was the magnificent place that my grandfather Marshall said it was,” he told members of the Alaska Geological Society in April 2008. The elder Marshall had traveled to Alaska decades earlier as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Tom Marshall took a position as an assistant lands selection officer with the young state of Alaska government to support himself while he planned to homestead.
Marshall was tasked with evaluating a federal opening for land selection on the North Slope. He said his primary source of information was professional papers published by the U.S. Geological Survey, which were crammed with lots of information about the Navy’s exploration program in the 1940s and 1950s.
As part of its land entitlement under the Statehood Act, the new state could select more than 1.8 million acres of the Arctic coastal plain on the Beaufort Sea between what is now the National Petroleum Reserve- Alaska, or NPR-A, and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.
Promoted to state land selection officer, Marshall enthusiastically recommended the swampy lake-covered area, which contained no surface rock exposures, because he saw general geological similarities with the petroleum-bearing areas in the Rocky Mountains.
The state Division of Lands polled seven companies and none of them recommended the Prudhoe Bay area for lease, preferring the Colville basin west of Prudhoe Bay versus the Arctic coast.
Marshall recalled that he might have gotten “a little overdramatic” when he told Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Phil Holdsworth and state lands director Roscoe Bell that “there could be a big banana up there on the coast.”
Luckily for Alaska, Holdsworth and Bell had faith in Marshall’s judgment.
Other Alaska leaders were skeptical.
Marshall said he received calls from politicians in Juneau wanting to know what the basis was for “Arctic waste land selection.” Other taunts included “Marshall’s icebox” and “Marshall’s folly.”
The lands he recommended selecting included Prudhoe Bay.
By October 1964, the state received tentative approval for its land selections from the federal government and scheduled for December its first competitive oil and gas lease sale on the North Slope.
Richfield Oil, soon to become ARCO, picked up more than 71,500 acres of land covering the crest of a subsurface geological structure on the shores of Prudhoe Bay in the July 1965 sale.
British Petroleum, or BP, following theories developed by its geologists, acquired nearly 82,000 acres lower down the flank of the Prudhoe Bay structure.
Nearly three years later ARCO announced discovery and confirmation of the Prudhoe Bay oil and gas field.
In a matter of months, “Marshall’s folly” had changed the course of history, becoming the single-most important source of revenue for the state of Alaska.
Marshall: ‘I was dead wrong’Marshall, who retired from the state as chief petroleum geologist for the Division of Oil and Gas in 1978, said “I don’t want to sound too smart about the discovery, because frankly, I was dead wrong. I had read reports about the Sadlerochit sandstone and the Ivishak formation. They were described as being primarily quartzite, which has to be zero porosity. I couldn’t see outcrops of these Ivishak sands in the information I had about the region across the broad Slope, and it didn’t seem to impress the USGS geologists who studied them in the Foothills area,” he explained. “But as we know, the Prudhoe Bay discovery was primarily in the Ivishak sands of the Sadlerochit formation, which I did not even consider. I thought it was going to be the Lisburne. Fortunately, it’s in both of them. But the Lisburne is a far distant third or fourth largest reservoir on the North Slope,” he said in 2008.
Marshall’s modesty notwithstanding, the significance of his contributions cannot be underestimated.
Doing his job as a state employee, “Tom Marshall deserves a monument for persisting in getting the state to select the acreage where the discovery of Prudhoe Bay was made. He fought tooth and nail from his appointment … until he convinced the governor in 1963 to make the selections on the North Slope,” said John Sweet, Alaska district explorationist for ARCO at the time of the 1968 discovery.