Gull Island buzz: 200 years of oil from Alaska’s North Slope?
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Along with a surging interest in fuel-efficient automobiles and biking to work, the legend of Alaska’s Gull Island, a speck of land four miles or so offshore the North Slope in the middle of Prudhoe Bay, seems to have an uncanny ability to appear when the United States is facing soaring oil and gasoline prices.
Back in 1981 when crude oil prices hit unimaginable highs in excess of $30 per barrel, a letter from U.S. Rep. Bob Stump of Arizona popped into the mail bag of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in Anchorage, Alaska.
“I have been contacted by several constituents concerning the recent allegations of a massive oil find off the North Slope on Gull Island. Those allegations range from a business cover-up to a giant federal conspiracy to perpetuate our energy crisis,” Stump said. “I would appreciate any information that you can offer me that will aid with my correspondence with these constituents.”
Some of Stump’s constituents had presumably been reading a book called “The Energy Non-Crisis,” written by sometime Baptist missionary Lindsey Williams and published in 1980. Williams’ book included a description of the Gull Island field.
And, as oil prices started climbing in 2006, this time past $60 per barrel, Williams told a meeting of the Midwest Concerned Citizens group in Kansas City about how the fabulous Gull Island field could supply the United States with oil for 200 years. Gasoline prices could drop to just $1.50 per gallon if only the U.S. government and the oil companies were to open the spigots on the vast, undisclosed North Slope oil reserves, he said.
North Slope chaplainWilliams said that in the 1970s Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. had given him a position as chaplain for people working on the northern section of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the camp at Prudhoe Bay. He said that Alyeska became so pleased with his success in counseling workers that they gave him executive privileges on the North Slope, thus enabling him to sit in on board meetings held by company executives.
Williams said that in 1976 he stumbled across the discovery of a vast oil field penetrated by an exploration well drilled on Gull Island by ARCO. He said that at the time of the discovery he had attended the management meeting in ARCO’s North Slope base camp, in which the “top eight oil company men of the world” had confirmed the find. But ARCO refused to make public the Gull Island discovery and the field has remained a closely guarded secret ever since, Williams said.
Williams outlined the field’s characteristics in a second edition of the “The Energy Non-Crisis.” The Gull Island field has a 1,200-foot thick pay zone and an area four times the size of the giant Prudhoe Bay field, he said. He said that three wells drilled from Gull Island had encountered the field, as did a well at East Dock. All wells drilled in an area extending 40 miles to the east of Gull Island had struck oil, thus demonstrating the huge areal extent of the field, he said.
And now, with oil prices moving through $130 per barrel, a flood of Internet chat has appeared on the subject of the supposed government and oil industry Gull Island secret — at the time of writing this article a Google search for “Gull Island” resulted in multiple pages of hits. Although some Web sites question Williams’ claims, many seem to view the claims as evidence of government manipulation of the price of oil and a cover-up of the real status of world oil reserves.
“The public needs to demand the opening of the Gull Island oil field,” appears as a call in some sites.
And Petroleum News has heard of congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., asking questions about the truth behind the Gull Island story.
One Internet site quotes an official in Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas expressing concern that Gull Island might explode because of excessive amounts of underground oil, thus causing an environmental disaster (hint: the url for the Web site begins with the word “sirsatire”).
Three wellsSo what are the facts concerning oil drilling at Gull Island?
There have been three wells drilled from the island. And, although these wells were tight at the time of the drilling, the data from the wells are now in the public record. Williams’ supposed Gull Island field discovery presumably relates to the Gull Island State No. 1 well, completed and suspended by ARCO in 1976.
In a response to Rep. Stump’s 1981 letter AOGCC Commissioner Harry Kugler set the record straight on the two Gull Island wells that had been drilled at that time (Gull Island State No. 3 wasn’t drilled until 1992). The Gull Island No. 1 well tested 1,144 barrels of oil per day in “the equivalent of the North Prudhoe Bay (Permo-Triassic) reservoir,” while the Gull Island No. 2 well tested 2,971 barrels of oil per day from the Lisburne, Kugler said.
“We do not believe the evidence from these two wells indicates a massive new oil find,” Kugler said. “Additional wells will have to be drilled and additional studies made before the economic feasibility of developing these known reservoirs is determined.”
Geologist Peter Barker didn’t sit in on senior oil company executive board meetings, but he did sit the Gull Island No. 1 well in 1976 (“sitting a well” is geologist speak for monitoring and interpreting the geologic evidence from a well while the well is being drilled). The objective of the Gull Island drilling was to test a deep structure on the north side of a geologic fault, to the north of the Prudhoe Bay field, Barker told Petroleum News July 7. The drilling proved disappointing, he said.
“There was an (oil and gas) trap there but there wasn’t an economic quantity of oil,” he said.
However, the drilling team did recover a beautiful core sample from the Ivishak formation, the main reservoir rock in the Prudhoe Bay field. Because Gull Island is closer to the inferred source of the sand that constitutes the Ivishak sandstone, the sandstone is coarser grained at Gull Island than in the Prudhoe Bay field, Barker said.
Barker said that the drilling results were extremely confidential at the time of drilling — the critical data display instrumentation was even covered, to prevent unauthorized viewing of data. “We ran it as a very tight hole,” he said. “… There was no information that got out of there.”
In fact, the electric well logs were taken off the North Slope in a very secure manner and were unlikely to have even been seen in ARCO’s North Slope camp, Barker said.
Long-time Alaska geologist David Hite also sat the well briefly and told Petroleum News that only ARCO personnel were allowed on the rig and rig floor. If necessary, one expert from the mud logging company was allowed to come in to troubleshoot the mud logging, Hite said. And Barker recalls the expert having to determine, without being allowed to see the instrumentation, why the gas detectors failed to signal gas as the well penetrated the Sag River formation, the uppermost reservoir rock at Prudhoe Bay. It turned out that mud from the well had formed a dam, blocking new mud from reaching the detectors, Barker said.
Ken Bird, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist and an expert on North Slope geology, provided Petroleum News with some geologic perspective on the Gull Island drilling.
“Three directional wells have been drilled from Gull Island in Prudhoe Bay to different subsurface targets, all of which tested different geologic ‘prospects’ in and beyond the northern boundary of the earlier discovered Prudhoe Bay oil and gas accumulation,” Bird said.
The Gull Island State No. 1 well drilled a faulted block of rock known as a horst and recovered oil from a very thin, 9-foot-thick interval at the base of the Shublik formation, Bird said. Gull Island State No. 2, completed in 1977, was deviated to the southeast to delineate the gas cap of the previously discovered Prudhoe Bay field and the underlying Lisburne oil pool, he said. The Gull Island State No. 3 well drilled in 1992 targeted a Cretaceous horizon in an area between the two older wells but proved to be a dry hole, Bird said.
Since 1980 at least four oil pools, the West Beach, Niakuk, Point McIntyre and North Prudhoe pools, as well as Prudhoe Bay satellites, have been delineated and developed in the area immediately around the Gull Island wells, Bird said. The four pools in the immediate Gull Island area are all currently in production: According to Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas 2007 annual report, Point McIntyre had a cumulative production of 395.6 million barrels of oil at the end of 2006, with 164 million barrels of remaining reserves. The other three pools are much smaller than Point McIntyre.
“Both the geologic evidence and the small area not yet developed into oil fields around the Gull Island wells preclude the possibility of a giant oil accumulation,” Bird said.
But the Gull Island legend seems to persist. And just to cap it all, used versions of Williams’ book “The Non-Energy Crisis” have appeared on Amazon.com as collector’s items — on July 7 three copies were listed with prices ranging from $1,299 to $1,499.
Maybe there’s money to be made from Gull Island after all.