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Shale Oil: Geologist's Alaska Gamble Could Turn Into America's Next Big Shale Play

He added: "The rocks are going to tell us what we want to do."

Duncan predicts that the North Slope could see massive new unconventional oil development, beginning with the Great Bear prospect.

"I think a reasonable pace of development for a play like this for our company would be eight development pads per year with perhaps as many as 20 to 24 wells per pad," he explained. "So if everything goes well, 200 wells per year would be a meaningful number."

In 2011 testimony before the Alaska Legislature, Duncan boldly predicted that the unconventional oil fields on his leases could produce 200,000 barrels of crude per day by 2020. He expects production to peak at 600,000 bpd in 2056. If the North Slope shale oil fields are as rich as Duncan anticipates, Alaska could see decades of unconventional oil and gas development.

"Just as we're seeing with the Bakken and the Eagle Ford and the Marcellus in the lower 48, these are plays that will be actively drilled through the next 30 or 40 years," he predicted.

Those rosy forecasts are making state officials bullish on Alaska's unconventional oil and gas future. "We're really just starting to unlock the unconventional plays here," Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan said. "The key is the technology and the cost to unlock it."

'Seed kernel' planted in the '80's

Great Bear's Anchorage conference room is dominated by a massive canvas map of Alaska's North Slope, with ownership of the oil leases marked in bright squares of color across the terrain. The company's leases, designated in yellow, stretch across the state's transportation spine -- the Dalton Highway and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

The proximity is no accident. Great Bear officials recognize that the gravel Dalton Highway, the only road that runs from Fairbanks to the North Slope oil fields, would provide year-round access to their drilling sites. The pipeline would be the ideal vehicle to ship crude to market.

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