It's sticky, gooey, gritty. And Alaska is fortunate to have a lot of it.
It's a kind of oil known as heavy or viscous crude. Tens of billions of barrels of this unconventional oil exist on Alaska's North Slope.
So far, industry has not produced much heavy or viscous oil. Companies historically have focused on the Slope's light oil, which is cheaper and easier to get out of the ground. But over the years, company experts have chiseled away at the technical and cost challenges of producing heavy and viscous oil. And the Slope's two top producers, ConocoPhillips and BP, have some exciting plans to boost production. What's more, a new player, Hilcorp, is about to take over as operator of a field with good viscous oil potential.
Major challenges remain, but it appears major slugs of new oil could be entering the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in coming years. That's important for Alaska, where light oil production has declined steeply. State Senator Hollis French, himself a former oil field worker, has heard plenty of legislative presentations about progress toward unlocking the North Slope's heavy and viscous oil riches. The oil is "hiding in plain sight," he says, sitting in shallow pools overlap ping the light oil reservoirs.
Extracting the heavy and viscous oil isn't a matter of reducing the state tax burden so much as figuring out the nuts and bolts, French believes.
"It's just a technological challenge that will be solved," he says. "And then look out. It's going to be a huge, huge boom in North Slope production."
Like Syrup and Molasses
Much of the heavy and viscous oil resides in geologic formations known as West Sak, Schrader Bluff, and Ugnu.
A great deal of it exists, perhaps 30 billion barrels or more. In all likelihood, much of the oil will remain trapped forever underground. But producing even 10 percent of it, or 3 billion barrels, would be akin to discovering a monster new oil field.
North Slope oil exists in various grades, each increasingly more difficult to produce.
BP breaks it down this way:
Light oil is almost like water, flowing easily. It's found in famed Prudhoe Bay, the state's largest oil field, at upwards of ten thousand feet deep.
Viscous oil is like maple syrup. It's viscous, meaning resistant to flow. This oil is prevalent in the West Sak and Schrader Bluff formations, at about five thousand feet deep.
Heavy oil is even more viscous, like molasses, much thicker than West Sak and Schrader crude. Heavy oil is found in...