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When data pays: Alaska provides access to oil, gas drilling data

To attract energy companies  to Alaska's lease sale of large, contiguous acreage blocks in its hydrocarbon basin, officials at the state's Division of Oil and Gas have opened a trove of exploration data, including seismic surveys that had been confidential until recently.

DOG officials compiled data from multiple sources into a single Special Alaska Lease Sale Areas (SALSA) tool  that investors and researchers can use ahead of the sale to better understand the land that’s available, who owns it, its bidding history, what wells are present, which exploration wells had hydrocarbons flow to the surface and details about rock samples taken from those wells.

“There’s a number of different repositories for some fairly complex data, and everybody’s gotten much better at distributing it -- using websites and different tools that you can use -- but it’s still a little confusing,” said Kevin Frank, a petroleum geologist at DOG, part of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. “The core of our effort here is to bring some focus to where do you look for this stuff, what do you want to ask for.”

Individual agencies such as the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys and Geologic Materials Center collect the data, and the tool serves as a roadmap to tell users which agency to go to for what data. It also lays out the types of data available for three specific areas: Harrison Bay, which encompasses more than 66,000 acres; Storms, which has about 30,000 acres; and Gwydyr Bay/North Shore, which has 23,000 acres.

“It’s not frictionless access,” Frank said. “What we’re trying to do is reduce the friction to point to what’s germane to these areas that are available in this upcoming sale.”

The tool takes the form of a PDF slideshow rife with maps, images, graphs and links that take users to not only the data, but research on where the data came from and how interested parties can get copies of it. For example, one slide offers a link to a map of the three areas that lets users zoom in to see dots, indicating wells, and polygons, indicating areas. Clicking on a well brings up a pop-up window that tells the its name, the operator’s name, geographic area and depths. Clicking on a polygon brings up a window with information such as name, permit number and the cost of buying the dataset on that area.

That’s because the report, released in July, is also a way for the state to recoup costs it incurred as part of the seismic data-collection process. Completed by exploration companies, the surveys can be released a decade after they were completed, according to a requirement of Alaska’s tax credit program that started in 2003 to promote oil and gas exploration and subsequent development. Under it, the state covered a portion of the costs for the work.

“This tax credit program provided credit for work performed, such as seismic data acquisition, well data, exploration drilling and other things,”  Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Mark Wiggin said. “It turns out, the state for paid an enormous portion of the work -- somewhere between 45 and 85 percent of every dollar.”

Some of the data is gathered via seismic shoots, in which a high-explosive charge is set off underground and measurements from the resulting ultrasonic sound waves provide clues about where to drill.  

“They’re tens of millions of dollars to shoot these seismic shoots, maybe even up to $100 million for the very biggest,” he added. “If you’re shooting $50 million up to $100 million, the state’s paying $40 [million] to $85 million for a $100 million dataset," he said. "Luckily, there weren’t that many of those.”

The first seismic dataset was created in 2006, so this is the second year the state has been releasing such data, which is sizable. One dataset is 270 terabytes, he said.

“What do we do with the data? We’re state agencies. We’re not oil and gas explorers. We are resource managers and regulators,” Wiggin said. “We were trying to find a way to maximize the benefit of this seismic data, to get it out there.”

The datasets can be delivered in several ways: via FTP, download or printouts, for instance.

To access the SALSA data, prospective users need to know it exists, and they need to know to visit Natural Resources’ website and search for it by name. That’s hugely limiting, said Noel Isama, senior policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation.

“If this information is being sought after by many, the State would have done well to publicize the release as much as possible and provide easy access to it,” he wrote in an email. “Making it prominent on the relevant website or making it accessible in multiple places would help here too.”

“This a positive step in the right direction, but more can be done to make this easier to use and increase the level of transparency,” Isama added. “The State should consider setting up a special website or portal, which makes it easier for them to upload information in ways that aren’t solely PDFs. Increased transparency, with equal and free access should always be the goal, especially when it comes to issues that are of major concern to the community and other interested stakeholders.” 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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