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As Alaska's Prudhoe Oil Declines, Wildlife Refuge Eyed As Source

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RISING along the tundra shores of the Arctic Ocean, 1,200 miles from the North Pole and hundreds of miles from the nearest tree, is a complex of gleaming metal edifices, pipes, flares, electric lights, and gravel roadways. A quarter of the domestic oil supply of the United States is pumped from the oil fields here. Still steaming from subterranean heat, it is fed into the mouth of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field with 11 billion recoverable barrels, accounts for 15 percent of the US domestic supply.

But after 13 years, America's biggest oil source is starting to run dry. In 1988 Prudhoe production started a 10- to 15-percent annual decline. Within 10 years, state estimates say, production from all North Slope oil fields will be less than half of the current output of 1.7 million to 1.8 million barrels a day.

The decline worried producers long before the Persian Gulf crisis erupted. To squeeze as much oil as possible from the sandstone 6,000 to 10,000 feet below the surface, British Petroleum Exploration (Alaska) Inc. and Arco Alaska Inc., the major North Slope operators, have started enhanced-recovery techniques, such as reinjecting water and natural gas beneath the tundra to increase subterranean pressure on remaining oil.

They are also working on increasing the natural gas that is pumped up along with oil. However, gas prices are too low to make it worthwhile to ship the gas to market; it is either reinjected or burned off.

After the invasion of Kuwait, the US Department of Energy called for North Slope producers to speed up production. But trying to meet short-term demand poses risks of sacrificing long-term recovery. One enhanced-recovery technique, known as ``fracturing,'' which involves cracking oil deposits and filling in the cracks with porous sand granules, can result in cave-ins or clogs that permanently seal wells.

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