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Concealed fortune. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline (background) could be in business for years to come carrying the oil predicted to exist off Alaska's coast.

David W. Houseknecht/U.S. Geological Survey

Arctic May Boost Oil and Gas Reserves

The first-ever comprehensive assessment of Arctic oil and gas deposits reveals that 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas could be trapped beneath the far north's barren land and icy waters. The potential resources are unlikely to alter world trends in oil and gas trade, however, and will probably keep Russia the king of natural gas for years to come.

Because of the Arctic's remote location and harsh environment, oil and gas exploration has been limited to just a few areas off the coasts of northern countries, such as the United States and Russia. But dwindling oil reserves (expected to peak in production by about 2020), waning opportunities for exploration elsewhere, and the melting of sea ice have recently made the Arctic a more attractive option. But just how much does the Arctic have to offer?

About 5 years ago, geologist Donald Gautier of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California, and his colleagues decided to find out. First, they created a geological map of the Arctic to identify sedimentary rocks, which have the potential to carry oil and gas. Then they subdivided the rocks into specific groups based on their geologic properties and compared them with groups elsewhere in the world known to contain oil and gas.

The researchers report online today in Science that the Arctic likely contains about 83 billion barrels of undiscovered oil. That represents about 4% of the world's remaining conventional oil and enough to sustain global demand for almost 3 years. At the same time, the Arctic probably contains about 1550 trillion cubic feet of natural gas--enough to meet world demand for about 14 years. Most of the resources lie offshore under less than 500 meters of water, which means they are accessible to drilling. But companies will probably drill in these areas only if there is adequate demand and if they have the technology to do it. The resources could take decades to exploit, says Gordon Kaufman, a mathematical statistician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who was not involved with the study.

Although it's too early to tell what the potential reserves might do to the price of oil and gas, Gautier says the findings will not cause a major shift in the major players of the world's oil and gas trade. The quantity of oil is too small to have an impact, and Russia, which the report estimates has the greatest amount of undiscovered natural gas, is already the world's largest producer. But the effects could be felt locally, he says, as would be the case for Alaska, whose offshore sediments contained the most oil in the assessment.

"It's an impressive piece of work that fills a big hole where we've had little information," says William Fisher, a geologist at the University of Texas, Austin. Although the estimates will change over time as exploration continues, he says that the report offers the best baseline to date.

Wildlife biologist Steve Amstrup of the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage points out that one of the high-potential areas identified in the assessment off the northwestern shore of Alaska is important for marine animals, such as polar bears, seals, and whales. How future oil and gas development plays out could be an "important consideration for the future welfare of some of those wildlife species," he says.