NEW ORLEANS — Standing in front of a brightly colored, 3-D image of the geology far below the floor of the Chukchi Sea, Steve Phelps pointed to the "giant opportunity" that has prompted Shell Oil to pour billions of dollars into the Alaska Arctic.
"Burger -- that's the name you are going to get to know," Phelps recently told reporters gathered here to learn about the huge oil company's plans and promises for Alaska.
Phelps is Shell's Alaska exploration manager, a geologist whose job it is to find big oil. The Burger field, part of a Shell naming theme that revolved around junk food, has been eyed by various oil companies for years. But it's more than 70 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea -- between Siberia and the northwest coast of Alaska -- and until recently was thought to be too expensive to develop. Now Shell -- for the second time -- holds the leases.
Armed with promising new seismic science, a sort of undersea sonogram of the earth's belly, the Dutch company says Burger is a signature find. It's the spark for ramping up controversial efforts to drill off the northernmost coast of the U.S. in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth.
"This is the stuff that most of the world was finding in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1960s, in places like Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, Nigeria," Phelps said. "This one potential resource far outweighs any single field we've got in the Americas' portfolio."
More than in the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling rigs checker the ocean and Shell led the way into deep-water zones that produce more oil than anyone predicted.
More than in Brazil, where Shell is the second biggest oil producer after the state energy company.
More than in Canada, where Shell is investing billions to extract thick, sticky crude from tar sands.
As a result, Shell is at the center of a classic Alaska development battle, gearing up to explore for oil as it confronts ever-higher regulatory hurdles and court challenges by environmentalists who say a big Arctic oil spill would be a disaster.
So far, Shell has spent nearly $4 billion on leases, groundwork and specialized equipment, including a new icebreaker being built in Louisiana.
At stake are billions in oil income and the reputation of a corporation that promotes a culture of safety but has been tarnished by troubles overseas.
In a sense, Shell is an old Alaska hand. Back in the 1960s, the company was the first to produce oil in Cook Inlet waters, where it had to engineer platforms able to withstand harsh winters and severe tides. Some of those platforms still produce today. But Shell sold those interests in the late 1990s, after their heyday.
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