Where did all the oil go?

The NPRA was thought to contain 10.6 billion barrels
Josh Dehaas
Where did all the oil go?
Getty Images

The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a chunk of the state about twice the size of Nova Scotia, has less than one-tenth of the oil than it was previously thought to have. The NPRA, created by president Warren Harding in 1923, was thought to contain 10.6 billion barrels of liquid gold when it was last studied in 2002. However, recent surveys with new 3-D technology revealed that the deposit is more like 896 million barrels, says the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). (Estimates of natural gas deposits in the NPRA are also down 13 per cent.) The much lower figure was a surprise for Philip Weiss, a senior energy analyst with Argus Research in New York. “Estimates change from time to time,” he says. “That one seemed a little extreme.”

It isn’t the first time 3-D seismology has caused such a surprise. In 2008, the USGS announced that the Bakken shale formation (which runs through North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan) may contain 25 times more than was estimated in 1995. In Alaska’s case, though, less is bad news for almost all of the state’s 700,000 residents. Each Alaskan receives an annual “dividend” payout funded by royalties charged on oil, gas and minerals (it’s been as much as $3,000; in 2010, it’s $1,281 each). Now that the NPRA is smaller, future cheques could shrink, too.