I Want My Oil Yesterday!

Why it takes so long to drill in Alaska.

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The neighborhood’s safe—for now

Republicans in the House dropped their support for a measure to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The death of the proposal in the House comes just a week after the Senate voted to approve it. Even if Congress passed the legislation, experts say that no oil would be produced at ANWR until 2015. What’s the holdup?

Permafrost. Unless the oil companies take special precautions, their heavy trucks and oil rigs would sink into and damage the Alaskan tundra. This isn’t as much of a concern in the winter months, when the ground freezes over and hardens. In the initial stages of oil exploration, companies can work only four months out of the year. Later, they could set up permanent drilling pads and roads that rest on a few feet of gravel.

Getting the pads and other equipment in place could also take a while. Most of the heavy stuff—feeder pipelines, for example—gets produced in the mainland United States and then sent up to Alaska. The shipping barges can navigate to the oil-rich North Slope only during the summer months, when there’s no ice in the waterways.

There are also plenty of bureaucratic issues to deal with before drilling could start at ANWR. The Bureau of Land Management must work out a leasing program by soliciting proposals from the oil companies and asking for public comments. The government would also take time to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. After a company secures a lease to work in a particular area, it sends in a team to do seismic surveys—which can themselves take several months or a year.

It takes a long time to extract oil under any conditions. First, oilers must drill one or more exploratory wells on the basis of their seismic data. Even if a rig is staffed at all hours, that doesn’t mean the drill is in continuous operation. The bit might turn for half of each day or less, depending on the hardness of the rock. Workers have to stop the drill periodically to run pipe down the hole. Every once in a while, a drill bit will wear out; replacing a bit can take more than a day.

A typical 10,000-to-20,000-foot oil well takes between one month and three months to excavate. Exploratory wells take even longer because petroleum engineers stop the drilling every once in a while to take a core sample for analysis. It might take eight months (more than two winters) to drill an exploratory well in ANWR and another couple of years to plan and build the infrastructure for more substantial drilling.

It’s hard to say how long it would take to get oil out of ANWR. Some experts say 10 years, but others suggest it might be done in half that time. It all depends on how the oil company decides to approach the site. They can start slow, with extensive surveys and exploration, or they can jump in at the most promising spot and hope it all works out for the best.

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Explainer thanks Philip Budzik of the Energy Information Administration and Hand Juvkam-Wold of Texas A&M University.