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Pushing Frontiers of Oil Exploration

Old Alaska Fields Stir New Interest

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ON the northern edge of the continent, the oil industry is pressing the fringes of the Alaska frontier. Beneath the tundra of a usually frozen lagoon, wells are being designed to stretch miles under the Arctic ice to siphon oil from the sea floor - farther north than any North American petroleum production.

The field is Milne Point, with reserves totaling only a fraction of the riches at nearby Prudhoe Bay. Prudhoe's 1969 discovery triggered construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the Alaska oil boom. Modest Milne Point, also discovered in 1969, sat idle for years. But now British Petroleum touts the field as a model for a leaner post-boom future on the North Slope, source of about a quarter of US domestic oil.

''I think it's fair to say that what we're doing today at Milne Point is pretty typical of the way development will be in the future on the North Slope,'' says Howard Mayson, manager of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.'s Milne Point facility.

No longer are oil companies hunting the North Slope for another ''elephant'' like Prudhoe Bay, already six years past its production peak. Instead, they are concentrating on maximizing return from existing fields. Enhanced-recovery measures, for instance, have boosted Prudhoe Bay's projected production to some 13 billion barrels from the 9.5 billion barrels originally predicted at discovery. Companies are also seeking to tap small fields on the edge of existing developments that a few years ago would have been considered uneconomic.

Milne Point is one example. Thanks to new technology and efficiencies in cost and production, BP in the past year has more than doubled its estimate of Milne Point's total recoverable reserves, to about 200 million barrels.

To stimulate the flow of oil, BP is using electric submersible pumps in Milne Point wells, a North Slope first. The company is also using angled wells that reach from the existing shoreline to avoid the costs of building an island and causeway.

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