In support of its drilling program, Great Bear conducted a 3-D seismic survey last winter and the company anticipates expanding that survey during the coming exploration season.

Lidar survey

The company has also conducted a Lidar survey, a laser-based system for measuring surface topography but which, in the form used by Great Bear, can also measure the bathymetry of lakes. The results of the Lidar survey will feed into an environmental assessment for the shale oil project and eventually into an environmental impact statement, or EIS, for a full-scale development program.

"This is a core part of our program to move towards a regional environmental assessment and EIS to support regional development planning," Duncan said. "It's a huge piece of work on our part. We're just starting the EA (environmental assessment) as well as a regional aquifer study here in the coming months."

Thick aquifer

With plentiful supplies of water being critical to the type of hydraulic fracking used in shale oil development, Duncan said that the presence of a major aquifer under the North Slope is particularly fortunate. The shallow aquifer, charged with brackish and salty water, unsuitable for drinking but usable for fracking, consists of multiple sands 50 to 100 feet thick, with a total thickness of 2,000 to 3,000 feet and representing a massive amount of subsurface water.

"That aquifer is one of the gifts that Mother Nature has given this area, in addition to having great source rocks," Duncan said.

Shale oil development in the area of Great Bear's leases, a few miles south of the Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk River fields, would enjoy the dual benefits of being close to an existing oil infrastructure and having access to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, a line that is currently running well below capacity and that has declining throughput. And oil service companies with the technical expertise required for the envisaged development already operate in the state, Duncan said.

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