Canada hopes for summer verdict on size of its far north oil fields

Canada should find out this summer if the energy prospects on its northern frontier are big enough for quick exploitation. Dome Petroleum Ltd. plans to drill another half-dozen offshore wildcat wells this year in the far north. But it is the evaluation of Beaufort Sea hydrocarbon discoveries of past seasons that is regarded as crucial.

If any of the evocatively named locations -- Kopanoar and Nektoralik in particular -- prove to be commercial crude oil and natural gas finds, initial small-scale production from below the Arctic waters could begin by 1985.

What if the results from the forthcoming tests prove disappointing?

It would not be disastrous. A modicum of success at any of this year's wildcat targets could have both oil and gas flowing from the Beaufort Sea by the end of the decade.

Gordon Harrison, president of Canadian Arctic Marine Drilling Ltd. (Canmar), a wholly owned Dome subsidiary, said in an interview that Beaufort Sea oil and gas production is merely a "matter of time. We are getting to be quite familiar with the geology and the conditions out there and, of course, we have confidence in our technology." It is the company's fifth consecutive summer drilling season.

The betting is that at least Kopanoar, where a follow-up well will be sunk this year, will be confirmed as the first commercial oil find in Canada's far north.

It would also be the first commercial offshore oil well in the northern polar region.

The Kopanoar result "is relevant" to a 1985 production date, Mr. Harrison says. But the success of the entire Beaufort sea program does not hinge on a single well, he points out. Taking a long-term look at the prospects there, he says, "we feel fairly optimistic" about the potential of the Beaufort Sea.

The latest slate of targets yet to be drilled have already been defined as closely as possible by seismic exploration. Dome's offshore maps trace the tentative boundaries of the two reservoirs suspected beneath the Kopanoar structure.

Each of the oil traps would have to yield a minimum of half a billion barrels of oil to be considered commercial.

Actually, proven reserves of even that size alone will not guarantee success in the Beaufort Sea. "We also need deliverability, reaching high production volumes in a short space of time" and maintaining those levels, Mr. Harrison says.

Kopanoar, for example, tested at 14,000 barrels a day last year. It would be required to sustain similar production volumes in a cluster of wells feeding into a platform gathering facility. Only high production volumes could make the costly offshore gambit pay off.

About $200 million will be spent by Dome this year on offshore prospects, including up to $50 million on each of the wildcats. In the past, Canmar wintered its four drill ships, supply vessels, and icebreaker.

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