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Vol. 16, No. 4 Week of January 23, 2011
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Alaska Offshore Special Report: The lure of the Cook Inlet offshore

Geology, technology and economics all drive the interest in bringing a jack-up rig to test oil and gas prospects in the Kitchen Lights unit

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

It’s been quite a few years since a jack-up drilling rig, with its characteristic pylon-like legs, was last seen operating in the shallow waters of Alaska’s Cook Inlet. So, with Escopeta Oil Co. winterizing the Spartan 151 jack-up (formerly owned by Blake) in preparation for shipment to the inlet from the Gulf of Mexico, what is the particular appeal to drilling offshore at great expense rather than onshore in the Cook Inlet basin? And what is especially attractive about the oil and gas prospects in the offshore Kitchen Lights unit that Escopeta operates?

Answers to these questions lie in a combination of factors mainly involving the geology of the Cook Inlet basin; the history of Cook Inlet exploration; and the economics of the Cook Inlet oil and gas industry.

It’s perhaps worth looking first at the geology.

Subsiding basin

The Cook Inlet basin, an elongated northeast to southwest trending zone of subsiding land in almost continuous formation since the Triassic period, more than 200 million years ago, has been dragged down by the Pacific plate — a major piece of the Earth’s surface — sliding northward under Alaska.

In the first half of the basin’s history, a time span covering much of the Mesozoic era and lasting until about 65 million years ago, the basin lay under the sea, in the region of a volcanic arc — rock strata from this period are predominantly marine in nature and contain some excellent oil source rocks. Of particular interest to oil explorers are oil sources in the Triassic Kamishak formation and in shales of the Jurassic Tuxedni group. The Kamishak is known to have sourced some oil seeps on the Alaska Peninsula, while the Tuxedni is known to be the source of much of the oil in the Cook Inlet oil fields.

By the second half of the basin’s history, covering the Tertiary period, the basin had morphed into lowlands, characterized by lakes, swamps and rivers, with torrential streams carrying debris in the form of boulders, pebbles, gravel and sand down from rugged mountains on either side. As the floor of the basin sank, up to 25,000 feet of terrestrial sediment accumulated, characterized by sand bodies interspersed with shales, and with frequent periods of luxuriant vegetation.

As the mass of vegetation-laden material sank, the organic material decomposed, a bit like a rotting dung pile, forming rich coal seams and vast volumes of methane, the primary component of natural gas, with the gas migrating into the porous sands of the basin to form the Cook Inlet gas fields.

In relatively recent geologic time, the near-surface stresses generated by the movement of the Pacific plate, together with associated movements along geologic faults, have caused intense crumpling of the rock strata in the area of the upper Cook Inlet. The consequence has been a series of large, elongated north-northeast aligned folds in the Tertiary strata, particularly under the waters of the inlet, with the folds being fractured and sliced through by large geologic faults.

Obvious targets

Oil from the Tuxedni and gas from the Tertiary migrated upwards and became trapped in sand bodies within the folds, with oil characteristically occupying the lower rock strata and with gas pools higher up. The folds proved obvious targets for oil explorers between the 1950s and the 1970s, with exploration during that era discovering a number of significant oil and gas fields. In fact, it is possible to figure out where the major fold trends are located by simply looking at a map showing the locations of those fields.

Following the 1968 discovery of the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field on the North Slope, explorers headed for the Arctic, leaving much of the Cook Inlet basin substantially underexplored. And although by then drill bits had penetrated many of the low hanging Cook Inlet exploration fruits along the major fold structures, some prospects had still not been fully tested.

Those substantially untested prospects include the Northern Lights, Kitchen, East Kitchen and Corsair prospects, in the offshore Kitchen Lights unit that Escopeta wants to drill using a jack-up rig. (See map on page 18.)

The only one of these prospects that has ever been drilled is Corsair, where Shell, Phillips and ARCO drilled a total of five exploration wells between 1962 and 1993. The wells all had gas shows and some also tested small quantities of oil.

The prospects all lie along a major Tertiary fold structure extending south-southeast from the ConocoPhillips North Cook Inlet gas field. And, although many geologists believe that there is still a large quantity of undiscovered natural gas in subtle prospects known as “stratigraphic traps” in the Cook Inlet basin, the prospects in the Kitchen Lights unit represent perhaps the best remaining opportunities in the basin for an especially large oil or gas find.

So why has it taken until now to explore these promising prospects?

Glut of gas

The answer to that particular conundrum lies in part in the history of the Cook Inlet oil and gas industry. In the heyday of Cook Inlet exploration several decades ago oil companies were looking for oil but found large quantities of natural gas in addition to a few reasonable-sized oil fields. The consequent glut of gas from the basin resulted in an oversupply of cheap gas for use by local utilities and for export as liquefied natural gas, so that Cook Inlet gas prices remained too low for many years to encourage new gas exploration. At the same time, periods of relatively low oil prices discouraged oil exploration in a region where operating expenses are relatively high.

In fact, there is a known oil pool, variously known as Tyonek Deep or Sunfish, underneath the North Cook Inlet gas field and in proximity to the Northern Lights prospect in the Kitchen Lights unit. ARCO and Phillips Petroleum, precursors to ConocoPhillips, drilled the Sunfish prospect in the early 1990s, and later that decade Phillips drilled into Tyonek Deep from its Tyonek offshore platform, the platform for the North Cook Inlet field. In January 1999, having drilled three wells into the oil pool, Phillips pulled the plug on the Tyonek Deep project, saying that the project was not viable — oil prices were around $10 per barrel at the time.

In 2001, with oil prices on the rise, Texas-based Epic Oil and Gas Inc. took an interest in Cook Inlet oil exploration and established a subsidiary, Saddleback Resources LLC (subsequently to be renamed Prodigy Alaska LLC), to purchase some leases on the Northern Lights structure in a state lease sale. Prodigy, under Vice President Lee Higgins, brought in two ex-ARCO Alaska oilmen, geologist Dave Doherty and land manager Mark Landt, to pursue an investigation of the Northern Lights prospect, as it was Doherty who brought the structure to Higgins attention in the first place.

In 2003 Prodigy said that it was looking for partners to share the cost of drilling in Cook Inlet.

Escopeta buys leases

Meantime, in a 1999 state lease sale Houston-based Escopeta Oil and Gas, under its President Danny Davis, had acquired offshore leases to the south of Northern Lights, and to the east of the operating Middle Ground Shoals oil field. Escopeta had been looking for opportunities in Alaska since 1993 and bought its first leases in the state in 1994.

In 2001 Davis raised some eyebrows in the Alaska oil industry by announcing that reprocessing of some old 2-D seismic data had revealed the possibility of as much as 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 1.35 billion barrels of oil in Escopeta’s Cook Inlet acreage. Energy absorption analysis of the data had revealed the resource potential, Davis told Petroleum News at the time.

With Escopeta calling its offshore prospects Kitchen and East Kitchen, to reflect a view that the prospects lie over the deep center of the Cook Inlet basin, close to the oil source “kitchen” where organic material is cooked into oil, Davis embarked on a multiyear search for a means of drilling into the prospects.

Landt and Doherty were doing the same with their Northern Lights prospect.

Structural trap

In 2004 Davis told Petroleum News that East Kitchen is a structural trap holding possibly 2.33 trillion cubic feet of gas and 457 million barrels of oil, while Kitchen is a faulted stratigraphic trap with perhaps 9.35 trillion cubic feet of gas and 829 million barrels of oil.

And in 2007 Escopeta consultant Frank Banar said that the Kitchen prospect consists of a thick wedge of Tertiary strata, with a trap formed against what geologists term a normal fault, a relatively steeply inclined fault that cuts through the wedge of sediments. The East Kitchen prospect consists of an elongated dome-shaped structure called an anticline, east of Kitchen and contiguous with the Northern Lights and Corsair structures to the north, Banar said.

In a cross section through the prospects depicted from seismic data, Banar pointed out particularly intriguing features called “bright spots” — abnormal seismic signals that can indicate the presence of hydrocarbons, especially natural gas — in positions that appear to correspond to ancient sand-filled river channels, now buried deep below Cool Inlet. And depending on how oil flowed into the Tertiary reservoir rocks from the Tuxedni source rock, large quantities of relatively light oil could have become trapped in the Tertiary reservoirs under the middle of the inlet, Banar said.

Corsair

But what of the Corsair prospect, to the north of the Kitchen prospects?

Forest Oil Corp., the Denver-based company that had acquired an extensive Cook Inlet lease position when it bought Cook Inlet operator Forcenergy Inc. in 2000, started taking an interest in Corsair as part of the Cook Inlet acreage that it had acquired.

In 2003 Forest said that a pre-drill analysis of the Corsair prospect indicated that the prospect might hold as much at 137 million barrels of oil, split between the Tertiary-age Tyonek and Hemlock formations. The prospect, with 10,000 acres of subsurface closure, might also hold 480 billion cubic feet of natural gas, the company said. Forest later described the prospect as being 2.5 miles wide, nine miles long, on a structural trend with the North Cook Inlet field, and with primary exploration targets equivalent to the gas producing Sterling-Beluga sands at North Cook Inlet.

But Forest said that it would need partners to share the cost of exploring in Corsair and in other Cook Inlet prospects.

Working together

In 2002 Prodigy’s Mark Landt said that Prodigy, Forest and Escopeta were working together to bring a jack-up rig to Cook Inlet. But by 2004 that plan had fallen through.

In early 2005, with jack-up rig rates especially high, reflecting strong worldwide competition for offshore drilling, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski suggested that the state should help with the estimated $12 million to $20 million that it would cost to bring a jack-up to the inlet. The House Finance Committee considered a contribution of $6 million to the jack-up rig cost, while legislators considered a tax incentive package for a rig.

But none of these ideas for state assistance bore fruit.

And in 2005, Forest appeared to lose interest in its offshore exploration acreage, having announced a new strategy of seeking gas onshore in the Cook Inlet basin.

However, in October 2005 Centurion Gold Holdings Inc., a Johannesburg-based gold mining company, agreed to partner with Escopeta to drill five Cook Inlet wells over two years, using a jack-up rig that would arrive in the inlet in the spring of 2006. Centurion said that it would provide funding for the drilling in exchange for a majority holding in Escopeta’s leases, with Escopeta continuing as lease operator.

The Tellus rig

Subsequently, in February 2006, Davis announced that Escopeta had arranged the lease of the Tellus cantilever jack-up rig from Norwegian company Songa Offshore, and that the rig would depart the Gulf of Mexico in late May for arrival in Cook Inlet in early August. Coscol (HK) Investment & Development Co. of Hong Kong would use its Tai an kou heavy lift vessel to transport the rig, Davis said.

Davis said that Escopeta planned to drill first in the East Kitchen prospect and then in the Kitchen prospect. He said that his company hoped that other oil and gas companies would also opt to use the rig, with the Tellus otherwise likely to be moved to the Persian Gulf at the end of the year after the completion of Escopeta’s wells.

After learning of Escopeta’s plan, Gov. Murkowski and the state’s congressional delegation began seeking an exception to the Jones Act, the act that requires the hauling of freight between U.S ports to be carried out by U.S. flagged vessels — there were no U.S. flagged vessels suitable for carrying the Tellus rig.

In Washington, Centurion started running up a substantial bill in attorney fees, trying to secure the Jones Act waiver but with no success.

On July 7, 2006, despite a widespread view that obtaining the waiver would be impossible, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the major opponent to such waivers in the past, announced that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had issued the waiver in the interest of national security — the result largely of Steve Sutherlin’s work in Alaska with U.S. Customs, top officers in Alaska’s military bases and Homeland Security; people who had Stevens’ ear.

Sutherlin, a 5 percent owner of Petroleum News, had recently quit the journalism business and moved into strategic operations work. Escopeta was his first customer.

A series of hitches

Nevertheless, a series of hitches delayed and eventually scuttled Escopeta’s plan.

In the first place, the Tai en kou arrived in the Gulf of Mexico to pick up the Tellus rig, only to discover that an inspection firm had reported that some required refurbishments to the rig were running four to five months behind schedule. So Escopeta rescheduled the sealift of the rig for December, with the rig now expected to arrive in Cook Inlet at the end of February 2007, with drilling expected to start in the following month.

But at about the time that the Tai en kou had arrived in the Gulf of Mexico, Abbot Holdings Norge AS made an offer for Songa Drilling. That deal went through in July and included all of Songa’s jack-up rigs, including the Tellus. The Abbot Group subsequently announced a lucrative offshore drilling contract with Mexico’s national oil company Pemex at day rates significantly higher than those for the Escopeta contract.

And in December 2006, Centurion dropped out of its deal with Escopeta, having failed to raise sufficient funds for the project through the sale in London of shares in a new company called Arrik Energy Inc., a company floated specifically for the funding of the Cook Inlet drilling venture.

But Escopeta soldiered on, seeking other partners for its Cook Inlet program and applying for unitization of its Kitchen leases to head off expiration of the leases, scheduled for Jan. 31, 2007.

With its leases also in jeopardy of expiring, in late 2006 Forest also applied for unitization of Corsair. Forest said that it would commit to obtaining a suitable rig by the end of 2007, with a view to drilling in 2008. Escopeta invited Forest to participate in its planned drilling at Kitchen, but Forest declined the offer.

In its Kitchen unit plan of exploration, Escopeta said that it would drill the East Kitchen 1 well and the Kitchen 1 well by Dec. 31, 2007, and depending on progress with those wells would drill the Kitchen 2 well by Dec. 31, 2008. Wells would extend vertically to depths in the range 16,000 to 20,000 feet.

Forest said that it would drill a Corsair well no later than Dec. 31, 2008, with the unit terminating at the end of 2007 unless there was evidence that the company was acquiring a rig for the drilling.

In late January 2007 the state approved the Kitchen and Corsair units.

Forest out, Pacific in

But by then expectations that Forest might at long last bring a jack-up to Cook Inlet had evaporated following an announcement earlier in the month that the company was putting up for sale all of its Alaska assets. The company had taken over Houston Exploration Co. and wanted to reduce its debt level by means of the Alaska sale. It was also reportedly dissatisfied in production from its Cook Inlet Redoubt field, a situation that got enough publicity to cast a pall on all investments in Cook Inlet oil and gas assets.

In May 2007 California-based independent Pacific Energy Resources announced that it was purchasing the bulk of Forest’s Alaska assets for $464 million. At the time of the announcement, Darren Katic, Pacific Energy’s president, told Petroleum News that his company’s Alaska acquisition included multiple high quality exploration targets, including Corsair.

And after the deal closed in August 2007, Pacific Energy’s Chief Financial Officer Jerett Creed told Petroleum News that his company wanted to use a jack-up rig to explore its offshore acreage and that Pacific Energy had been engaged in discussions with other companies interested in bringing a jack up to Cook Inlet.

With little time left for Pacific Energy to fulfill exploration commitments for the Corsair unit, the state gave the company until April 2008 to secure a jack-up rig and until June 2009 to drill a Corsair well.

More ownership changes

Meantime, the shifting sands of Cook Inlet lease ownership had also changed the ownership landscape for the leases around the Northern Lights prospect. In early 2006 Midland, Texas-based independent Rutter and Wilbanks closed on the purchase of Northern Lights from Prodigy Alaska. Rutter and Wilbanks had been involved in a project drilling for gas near Glennallen in Alaska’s Copper River Valley and the company said that it was following a strategy of increasing its Alaska presence, with the Cook Inlet as a major focus. And in a May 2006 state lease sale the company expanded its Cook Inlet acreage by purchasing further leases.

In February 2006 company official Bill Rutter III told Petroleum News that Rutter and Wilbanks was working with partners to bring a jack-up rig into Cook Inlet, to drill in the Northern Lights prospect, with drilling perhaps taking place as early as 2006.

But Prodigy’s Mark Landt signaled his continued interest in Northern Lights by co-founding with James Watt and W. Allen Huckabay a new company, Renaissance Alaska LLC, which in late 2006 purchased a majority interest in Rutter and Wilbanks’ Cook Inlet leases. Rutter and Wilbanks retained a 12.5 percent interest in Northern Lights.

Renaissance had secured some funding from a private equity fund, through Canadian company ARC Financial Corp., for Alaska exploration and development, and worked with Escopeta and Pacific Energy to try to secure a jack-up rig to drill in their offshore prospects. But with no rig forthcoming in 2007, and drilling commitments set to expire in the Kitchen unit, Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas granted Escopeta another year to commence its Kitchen drilling.

Under the gun

With Escopeta and Pacific Energy now both under the gun to drill in their offshore leases, Pacific Energy said in January 2008 that it was trying to lease and later purchase a jack-up from Rowan Companies Inc.

Renaissance, faced with an expiration date in December 2008 for some of its leases, said that it had requested a drilling slot for use of the jack-up at its Northern Lights prospect. And Escopeta and Renaissance continued to seek partners for their planned exploration ventures.

In April 2008, right on the state’s deadline for securing a jack-up, Pacific Energy announced that it had signed a three-year, $156 million contract with Blake Offshore for the use of Blake jack-up 151, located at the time in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pacific Energy not only secured the use of the jack-up rig but also applied to the state to expand the Corsair unit from about 10,000 acres to 26,751 acres, saying that evidence from new 2-D seismic data that the company had acquired and a new evaluation of the prospect had indicated that as much as two-thirds of the Corsair structure extended beyond the limits of the existing unit boundary. Unit expansion would prevent three leases within the expansion area from expiring.

The state turned down the unit expansion request, saying that the expansion would be tantamount to the “warehousing” of leases that the lease operators had failed to drill over a period of several years.

Pacific secures rig

By August 2008 Pacific Energy was looking to sell some assets, to pay down its debts, but said that it still planned to explore in Alaska and that it was still trying to get the Blake rig up to Cook Inlet — the state had given the company until Sept. 29 to secure a contract for the use of a heavy-lift vessel. By September the company had a draft contract with a Dutch shipper for the transportation of the rig, but needed a Jones Act waiver for shipping the rig on a foreign-flagged vessel. The state extended its deadline to Oct. 31, 2008. And by early November, Pacific Energy had formed a 50 percent partnership agreement with Escopeta for mobilizing the jack-up rig.

On Dec. 1, 2008, Kevin Banks, director of the Division of Oil and Gas, placed the Corsair unit into default for failure to meet work commitments and rejected a request for a two-year extension to the work commitments for the Kitchen unit.

In early December, Renaissance applied for a Northern Lights unit, as several of its core leases were set to expire at the end of the month. The state did not approve the unit.

Some state lawmakers subsequently questioned whether the state administration was hindering oil and gas companies from Cook Inlet exploration and development, while state officials responded that they could only ensure development by enforcing statutes and regulations for oil and gas leasing, which are designed to discourage the warehousing of leases. And Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin upheld the state’s decision not to grant an expansion of the Corsair unit.

Kitchen Lights

In late December 2008, Banks proposed a new solution to the apparent impasse: Combine all of the leases for the Northern Lights, Kitchen, East Kitchen and Corsair units into one large unit, the Kitchen Lights unit. Under the proposal, the three oil companies involved in the leases would need to move a drilling rig to the inlet by March 15, 2009, to drill the first well by June 30, 2009, the state said.

But the three companies said that they could not meet the drilling deadline — Escopeta’s Danny Davis asked the state to give them until April 15, 2010, to bring a rig north.

In March 2009 Pacific Energy, weakened by falling oil prices and encumbered by debt, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.

But by then the company had farmed out its Corsair leases to Escopeta, which was actively negotiating the Kitchen Lights concept with the state.

Renaissance Alaska and Rutter and Wilbanks had also transferred a 100 percent working interest in their Northern Lights leases to Escopeta for inclusion in the Kitchen Lights unit, but each company kept a small overriding royalty interest on the leases totaling around 3.5 percent.

Renaissance transferred its remaining Cook Inlet acreage to Stellar Oil and Gas, a sister company made up of the same investors and executives, a way to focus fundraising efforts for its remaining offshore and onshore inlet acreage.

The hope was that Escopeta would be able to attract the capital necessary to bring a jack-up rig to Cook Inlet, to drill in Kitchen Lights, Landt explained at the time. Stellar might then be able to use that same rig to drill in 10,008 acres of offshore leases that Renaissance retained after the conclusion of the Kitchen Lights deal. Those retained leases included prospects at Middle Ground Shoal and Northwest Cook Inlet, Landt said.

Unit approval

In July 2009 the state approved the 83,394-acre Kitchen Lights unit, with Escopeta as operator. The new unit included the former Kitchen and Corsair units, as well as expansion acreage for each, and the proposed Northern Lights unit leases.

Under the stipulations for unit formation, Escopeta had to have a jack-up rig en-route for Cook Inlet by June 30, 2010, ready to spud the first well in the new unit by Dec. 31, 2010.

During the 2010 legislative session, Alaska lawmakers, concerned about dwindling Cook Inlet oil production and tightening Southcentral Alaska natural gas supplies, upped the ante for offshore Cook Inlet drilling by offering a $25 million tax credit to the first company to drill a well from a jack-up in the inlet, provided that the well penetrates the Mesozoic strata below the Tertiary. The next two wells would also receive substantial tax credits, but had to be drilled by the same jack-up as the first, but by difference operators.

The reason for the pre-Tertiary drilling requirement relates back to the petroleum geology of the Cook Inlet basin. Geologists know that most of the oil in the Tertiary reservoirs of the Cook Inlet oil fields migrated upwards from the Jurassic Tuxedni group source rock. But, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, known oil resources in the oil fields only account for about 4 percent of the oil likely to have been generated by the Tuxedni source. And, while it is possible that some of the remaining oil escaped to surface long ago or perhaps remains undiscovered somewhere in the Tertiary strata, some geologist think that much of the oil remains deeply buried in Mesozoic reservoir rocks.

But potential Mesozoic reservoir rocks in the Cook Inlet basin generally contain volcanic fragments that could decompose and thus clog the reservoir pores. So, given the high depth of burial of these rocks, drilling into them would be both very expensive and potentially risky. Hence the tax incentive,.

Further delay

However, by June 2010 Escopeta had still not landed on a new deal to obtain the use of a jack-up rig, despite negotiating with several potential suppliers. The company asked the state to defer the requirement for a jack-up rig contract to Feb. 28, 2011, with the first well to be drilled by Sept. 30, 2011.

On July 19, 2010, Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas put the Kitchen Lights unit into default, saying that it would terminate the unit unless Escopeta deposited a $4 million security towards the cost of mobilizing a jack-up rig; had a rig en route for the Cook Inlet by February 2011; and drilled a well in the unit by the end of September 2011.

In September Escopeta appealed the state’s decision, with the company taking particular exception to the demand for a $4 million deposit.

Escopeta gets rig

Then, in November, with the appeal against the state’s Kitchen Lights ruling still unresolved, Escopeta announced that it had contracted the use of the Spartan 151 rig in Cook Inlet and had contracted with a firm to ship the rig to Alaska.

Although continuing to operate under its lease agreement with Spartan, in December Escopeta announced a plan to eventually buy the rig.

Escopeta told the Division of Oil and Gas that the rig will depart the Gulf of Mexico in February for arrival in the Cook Inlet in April and provided evidence of available funds to pay for the use of the rig.

On Nov. 23 the Division of Oil and Gas withdrew its default ruling for the Kitchen Lights unit and, on the same day, Banks sent a letter to U.S. Customs and Immigration, in support of Escopeta’s application for a new Jones Act waiver for shipping the Spartan 151 rig to Alaska. The state now requires Escopeta to have its drilling rig under way from the Gulf of Mexico by March 30, 2011, and the first well drilled by Oct. 31, 2011.

In early January, Escopeta moved its spud date to May or June, but on Jan. 18, Davis said Coscol, the heavy haul company, was picking up the jack-up in Galveston in late February or early March.

Given the trip to Alaska is 45-55 days, the Spartan 151 will be arriving in late April or early May, which puts the spud date in May, Davis said. (See related jack-up story on page 1 of this issue of Petroleum News.)

Buccaneer

Meantime, in March 2010, Stellar turned around and sold its remaining Cook Inlet acreage to Australian independent Buccaneer Resources, a newcomer to Alaska. Currently, the Renaissance-Stellar team works for Buccaneer Alaska, which is aggressively pursuing multiple prospects. Buccaneer has been moving forward with its own plan to bring a jack-up to the inlet and is seeking funding for exploration. (See related jack-up article on page 1 of Petroleum News.)

Exploring for oil and gas is a high stakes game: Having promising prospects to drill does not guarantee success in finding oil and gas resources that are viable for development. Cook Inlet oil and gas reservoirs can be fragmented and difficult to develop. And some have questioned Escopeta’s interpretation of the subsurface geology in its leases; others, including geologists with long-term experience in the inlet, have said the company’s take is credible.

Either way, after several years of perseverance and a number of false starts, Escopeta seems set to sink a drill bit into the Cook Inlet “kitchen,” where it hopes to find one of the largest oil and gas fields in Alaska.

Its first five wells (see map) in its Kitchen Lights development plan with the state of Alaska, include Corsair, East Kitchen and Kitchen wells, in that order. The Northern Lights prospect is not included in its initial drilling plans.


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Driving force behind bringing a jack-up rig to Alaska

Three individuals have been the driving force behind bringing a jack-up rig to Alaska’s Cook Inlet for oil and gas exploration. Those individuals are Danny Davis, top executive at Escopeta Oil, and Mark Landt and Dave Doherty of Renaissance Alaska.

Both parties, Davis with Escopeta and Landt and Doherty with Renaissance and other companies, have been pushing hard for more than a decade to get the funds to bring a jack-up to the inlet to drill three major prospects — East Kitchen and Kitchen for Escopeta and Northern Lights for Landt and Doherty.

Currently, all three prospects are part of the Escopeta-operated Kitchen Lights unit, a deal that was entered into in 2009 to give leaseholders more time to get a jack-up to Alaska.

The Corsair unit and its proposed expansion acreage are also included in the Kitchen Lights unit and will be the site of the first well Escopeta will drill in 2011 with the Spartan 151 jack-up, currently being winterized in Galveston, Texas, for work in Cook Inlet.

Several companies have owned the Corsair prospect, but none have the years of effort behind them that Davis, Landt and Doherty do.

Landt, Doherty and Northern Lights

Following is a list of the companies that have owned Landt and Doherty’s Northern Lights prospect:

Epic Oil and Gas, Saddleback Resources, Prodigy Oil and Gas, Rutter & Wilbanks, Renaissance Alaska, Escopeta

In 2009, Renaissance and Rutter and Wilbanks transferred a 100 percent working interest in their Northern Lights leases to Escopeta for inclusion in the Kitchen Lights unit, but each company kept a small overriding royalty interest on the leases.

Renaissance transferred its remaining Cook Inlet acreage to Stellar Oil and Gas, a sister company made up of the same investors and executives, a way to focus fundraising efforts for its remaining offshore and onshore inlet acreage.

Those retained leases included prospects at Middle Ground Shoal and Northwest Cook Inlet.

In March 2010, Stellar turned around and sold its remaining Cook Inlet acreage to Australian independent Buccaneer Resources, a newcomer to Alaska, which has since added to its inlet acreage.

With their original proposed Northern Lights unit now part of Escopeta’s Kitchen Lights unit, Landt and Doherty, currently part of Buccaneer’s team, are focusing on other onshore and offshore Cook Inlet prospects, some of which are close to the Kitchen Lights unit (see map on page 18). They continue to work hard to bring a jack-up rig to Alaska as part of Buccaneer (see article on page 1 of Petroleum News about the two Cook Inlet jack-up projects).

— Alan Bailey