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

Duncan jumped into Alaska's oil race at a dark moment in the state's oil history.

The day before Alaska state regulators opened Great Bear's oil lease bids, USGS dramatically downgraded federal estimates of the resource wealth in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

USGS calculated that the 23-million-acre reserve holds 896 million barrels of oil -- one-tenth of the 10.6 billion barrels reported by the agency eight years earlier. The agency's findings appeared to justify the major oil companies' declining investment in the region.

The very next day, however, Duncan raised new hope for Alaska's oil future when he bought 105 state oil leases for $8 million.

Duncan's aggressive lease grab was based on North Slope geological studies that he was part of in the 1980s when he worked for SOHIO, which later became part of BP.

"The seed kernel of the idea, if you will, was planted back when I was working on the North Slope on a summerlong field survey," he recalled. "It was specifically geared toward sampling source rocks from the central Brooks Range all the way around to the Canadian border."

Twenty-five years later, when new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies opened shale rock formations in Pennsylvania and Texas to new energy development, Duncan thought again of the northern Alaska rock formations.

"It didn't take long to convince me that the three world-class oil-prone source rock layers on the North Slope would be interesting targets to contemplate deploying the completion technologies that are so well-known now," he said.

Duncan decided to be the first-mover on Alaska's unconventional oil lands. "This was a classic case of being the early entrant and wanting to establish a dominant position early on," he explained. "That's key for a small company, particularly when the scene in north Alaska is dominated by companies that are global supermajors."

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