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Science & Environment

How Much Oil And Gas Is At Stake In ANWR?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much oil and gas is really at stake at ANWR? Well, nobody's really sure. NPR's Martin Kaste reports this decades-old political fight is based on rough estimates of what's really in the ground.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Matt Berman is an economics professor in Anchorage. And in Alaska, economics equals oil and gas. But even he doesn't know what the true energy potential is in ANWR.

MATT BERMAN: I think the politics of it sort of affect all the information that you're going to get from anybody who has some interest in either opening it or closing it.

KASTE: The basic numbers come from the United States Geological Survey. Its mean estimate is that ANWR contains 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That sounds like a lot, but...

DAVE HOUSEKNECHT: Because that data is somewhat dated, we have a large range of uncertainty around that estimate. USGS researcher Dave Houseknecht helped to do the last seismic survey there the 1990s. The technology they used then isn't as good as what's used today, he says. And there hasn't been any exploratory drilling in ANWR either, with one exception.

HOUSEKNECHT: The so-called KIC well.

KASTE: It was drilled in the 1980s by Chevron. And Houseknecht says no one seems to know what they found. When you talk with people from even the companies that were involved with drilling, it is a significant secret within the company. And there are usually only two or three people who have ever got to know what really was encountered in the well.

KASTE: It's a safe bet that ANWR has oil. It's east of Prudhoe Bay, the biggest oilfield in America. The question is does it represent the kind of bonanza that can prop up the state economy, even as flow Prudhoe Bay tapers off? At the University of Alaska, Anchorage, Matt Berman says that hope has faded somewhat.

BERMAN: It's unclear that it still has the same importance today, partly because of the growth of the fracking in the Lower 48. But also because right now, the price of oil is quite low. And the price of oil would have to be fairly high to make it be really attractive.

KASTE: But though the market may not seem conducive to drilling new wells in the Arctic right now, when that changes, most Alaskans don't want the federal government standing in the way. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.