Polar oil prospecting resumes in Canada, but quick-profit hopes are gone

In summing up the 1983 summer drilling prospects in the Beaufort Sea, a senior petroleum-industry expert recently remarked that the frontier exploratory effort reminded him of the economic dilemma often posed by a secondhand automobile:

Usually far too much has already been invested in it and - like the Arctic offshore expeditions - it has been around too long to be abandoned now. Yet no one knows whether it can go the distance to make the whole exercise worthwhile.

All four drill ships of Dome Petroleum Ltd. have taken up stations to begin sinking new holes or to reenter wells suspended in the previous year.

The financially strapped company, in fact, is no longer doing any work of its own on its extensive offshore acreage, but rather supplies the tools and the rights to tantalizing crude oil and natural gas prospects through a series of ''farm-out'' arrangements with new partners.

In debt to the tune of $6.3 billion Canadian ($5.3 billion US), Dome Pete is obviously hoping for commercial strikes before its interest in more than 20 million gross acres of federal permits gets too diluted.

Its half-owned affiliate, Dome Canada Ltd., which has worked the Beaufort for the past two summers, is this year partnered with Home Oil Ltd. as cosponsor of the annual $1 billion-plus (Canadian) exploration venture conducted over approximately 100 miles of open water.

In the Arctic seas, a 4,000-meter well can cost as much as $150 million (Canadian) and often climatic conditions prevent the completion of wells during a single season.

Gulf Canada Resources Inc. and Esso Resources Canada Ltd. are each continuing their respective exploratory programs.

Gulf and Dome Canada this year will become the first pair of operators to acquire and exercise year-round capabilities using Caisson drilling systems built for that purpose.

(Both Gulf and Esso had previously drilled during the winter months from artificially created island platforms - gravel scooped up from the sea bottom with a conventional drilling rig on top.)

The Gulf drilling vessel is now en route from Japan, where it was built, and is expected to arrive in the Beaufort Sea later this month.

Esso will be drilling at least a pair of shallow water probes to follow up on promising earlier discoveries of oil and gas in the MacKenzie River delta.

Dome Canada and Home Oil will have a seven-well program this year (including the winter probe) providing, of course, that the weather cooperates.

Breakup of ice in the Beaufort this year has been described as ''early and orderly.'' But whether the pack ice peeling off the receding permanent polar icecap also behaves itself remains to be seen.

The Dome program includes wildcat wells in locations yet untested and follow-ups to previous successes for evaluation of those finds.

Dome Pete and Dome Canada so far have scored oil at Kopanoar; Nerlerk; Nektoralik (along with gas); Koakoak; and, in conjunction with Gulf, at Tarsiut.

Kenalooak and Uviluk are ''good'' gas finds, but - like all Beaufort Sea discoveries to date - will need further ''proving up.''

Gulf is going back to Tarsiut. Esso will be conducting a shared venture, also with Home Oil and a collection of smaller firms, on its own extensive permits covering both land and offshore prospects along the shallow coastal waters.

In fact, 1983 will be a record year from the point of view of actual work commitments in the Beaufort and activity there.

In the light of the elusive nature of Arctic hydrocarbon prospects and the mounting difficulties of operating on the top of the world, few experts now expect commercial oil production to begin, as earlier forecast, by 1986.

Dome Petroleum's new president and chief executive officer says the Beaufort ''is a good bet for the latter part of this decade, but especially the 1990s.''

President J. Howard MacDonald concurred with previous commitments that virtually guarantee the present high level of expenditures and exploratory effort for the next five years.

No one really doubts anymore that oil and possibly natural gas exist in the Beaufort in commercial volumes.

But many are increasingly concerned about the economics of such future developments, given the long lead time required from preliminary studies through the exploratory work to the exploitation stage of all frontier deposits.

They point out that at today's price of $29 (US) a barrel, the Beaufort Sea crude ''would be just too expensive'' for a stagnant world market.

And Arctic oil may indeed have to be shipped far away - to Japan or through the Northwest Passage to Western Europe - to be sold.

According to recent industry calculations here, Beaufort Sea oil would not be an economic proposition at any price under the existing Canadian federal fiscal terms.

Ottawa now pays up to 80 percent of all such exploration costs, but royalty payments, taxation, and provisions for state oil company Petro-Canada to ''back in'' - get a 25 percent stake in all commercial finds - make for a ''most onerous fiscal regime,'' experts say.

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