‘Polar Bear’ Warns Against Arctic Gas Boosterism
A spreading revival of enthusiasm for Arctic natural gas prospects has lured an elder statesman of the Canadian resource hunt out of retirement to broadcast reminders of bearish lessons learned the hard way during the last burst of polar drilling.
Star “explorationist” Robert Meneley is telling all who will listen that senior industry veterans know more than they sometimes wish they did about visions of fabulous Arctic oil and gas treasure. He led the professional clan that tried to make the dreams come true for Panarctic Oils, Petro-Canada and industry partners including U.S. pipeline and producer investors.
“It was brutal,” Meneley said in an interview recalling lessons taught by polar drilling campaigns he mounted in the 1970s and 1980s. “We never got a good surprise.”
In retirement as a consultant and member of the Canadian Gas Potential Committee, the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame and learned technical societies, the former exploration vice president maintains his professional tickets in both geology and engineering. His credentials, coupled with genuine annoyance at promoters, fuel his new mission as he turns 75.
He is roving an international lecture circuit, on a campaign reaching from Alaska to Alberta so far, to put reality checks on born-again romance with northern bonanzas that has started to spread into the United States.
Meneley does not mince words about the new-wave Arctic visionaries. They range from Canadian political leaders looking for reasons to spend taxpayer fortunes on asserting national sovereignty over polar regions to academic theorists in Calgary’s Arctic Institute of North America and Las Vegas investors selling shares in Arctic Oil & Gas Corp.
“These guys love to promote Arctic programs and spend summer holidays in the Arctic. They don’t really understand the process of exploration,” Meneley said.
“It wasn’t easy. It was expensive like nobody ever imagined,” he recalled. From the late 1960s to mid 1980s, Alberta-based business organizations part-owned by the Canadian federal government spent an estimated C$900 million employing thousands of professionals on ice and airborne drilling projects. Rigs spread out to geological targets beyond the North Magnetic Pole, beneath barren islands too chilly even for mosquitoes to breed and under frozen seas where safety precautions included polar bear guard dogs.
The visions were partly a legacy of desperate hunts for fuel sources during World War II, when colossal sums were spent on a temporary oil pipeline from Norman Wells in the Canadian Northwest Territories to U.S. military operations in Alaska. The era also gave birth to drilling offshore of Canada’s East Coast.
The 1960s Prudhoe Bay oil discovery escalated the interest among industry and government professionals in a northern investment land rush that only ended when every available drilling prospect in Canadian Arctic territory was bought up, Meneley recalled.
The industry, investor and government interests eventually coalesced into Panarctic and an allied consortium that proceeded to stage a spectacular remote exploration campaign. It grew into a Canadian counterpart to the U.S. space program and was highly celebrated in its day as a feat of can-do determination and technical know-how.
“Prospects of giant Middle East oilfields danced in the heads of promoters. The presence of giant oilfields was viewed to be an absolute certainty,” Meneley said, admitting he was not immune to the enthusiasm. But the Arctic has always been famously unforgiving and eventually forced its fans to face reality. “The group quit because they ran out of prospects, not because they ran out of money,” Meneley reported.
Successes among the campaign’s 176 wells were modest by international, Alberta and Alaska industry standards. Discoveries — totaling 1.9 billion bbl of oil and 19.8 Tcf of gas — were scattered. None of the finds could support multi billion-dollar production and transportation schemes proposed to put Arctic supplies on energy markets. Paper projects, which sometimes made it as far as applications to Canada’s National Energy Board, ranged from colossal sea-floor and barren-lands pipelines to atomic-powered submarine liquefied natural gas tankers.
Geological reality overtook the theorists. “It’s a total mistake to make any kind of analogy with the U.S. Gulf Coast. It’s an amateur’s gimmick to try and make any comparison like that,” Meneley said, adding that full records of the northern campaign’s results are publicly available.
Oil- and gas-prone northern sedimentary rock layers are much older, and eons of earth crust movements left a legacy of fractured formations far more complex than the geological reservoirs of the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
“What you’re dealing with is a leaky system,” he said. In the Arctic, the tops of salt domes, which elsewhere trap oil and gas deposits, are exposed and broken on the planet’s surface, letting their contents drain or evaporate away long ago.
Global warming, currently seen as melting barriers to development by opening up frozen seas to ships, does not change the geology, he said. Nor is a thinner polar icecap a potential silver lining to southern greenhouse gas emissions, he warned. “Climate change isn’t making it any easier to explore in the North,” Meneley said. Ice was his crews’ friend when fashioned into essentials from roads and runways to artificial drilling islands made like big outdoor skating rinks.
But Arctic ice was also an enemy in its natural forms because currents and wind kept the frozen sea “pack” in constant motion. “Even in the 1970s it wasn’t safe to go out offshore and shoot seismic. The ice was just too mobile. It’s even more mobile now,” Meneley said. “The Northwest Passage is well to the south. That’s a potential transportation corridor. It’s got nothing to do with oil and gas exploration,” he said.
“Somebody who wanted to go back and start drilling up there would also face a very substantial hurdle getting the infrastructure in place.”
Panarctic faded into history in the early 1990s after a series of “demonstration” summer tanker voyages from an Arctic oilfield called Bent Horn to northern industrial sites and Montreal. The transportation technology worked. The problem was a geological reality — Bent Horn ran out of oil.
Northern exploration landing strips, work camps, weather forecasting networks, aircraft-portable equipment and expert crews were dismantled or disbanded.
As heir to the discoveries by virtue of its original status as Ottawa’s Crown or state oil and gas corporation, Petro-Canada is studying possibilities for an economy-model production project using liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers. But the firm takes care not to raise expectations, saying it is impossible to predict whether or when development might happen. Petro-Canada President Ron Brenneman, who participated in frontier exploration earlier in his career as an Imperial Oil executive, has described the idea as a “personal” favorite — but also stressed it is only that.
In the U.S. fledgling Arctic Oil & Gas Corp. has attracted North America-wide attention, including coverage on CNN as well as front-page appearances in Western Canada, by firing off a barrage of publicity releases predicting it will find the world’s last great energy bonanza.
But compulsory disclosure reports in public files maintained by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission make it plain that the Las Vegas firm’s shares are not safe bets for widows and orphans.
Until adopting a new name and mission last fall, Arctic Oil & Gas called itself Bulldog Financial Inc. Its declared specialty was taking over and collecting on “non prime” or high-interest loans made by vacuum cleaner dealers to risky or delinquent buyers of their machines on installment plans.
Meneley has little patience for a Las Vegas variation on the northern riches theme that vows to take the drilling far out onto the polar floor of the Arctic Ocean. “The prospects out there are no better or no worse than they are in the Atlantic Ocean. There’s no magic about being in the North,” said the Canadian industry veteran.
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