Somewhere in Anchorage, the state is hiding four giant suitcases, filled with top-secret pictures of the ground.
The Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, Mark Wiggin, said they weigh about 150 pounds a piece.
“…And in there are stacked these blocks. These seven to eight terabyte-per-block basically floppy drives,” Wiggin said.
Add them all up and those drives hold about 300 terabytes of valuable information from seismic testing and exploratory wells — essentially a map of what lies beneath the surface of Alaska.
It’s just one of the data sets the state has slowly been collecting from oil and gas companies since 2003. That’s when it launched a tax credit program that required companies to turn over that data if they wanted to redeem the credit.
Alaska’s Oil and Gas division is releasing valuable oil exploration data from leases on the North Slope and Cook Inlet.
As part of a tax program created in 2003, companies could claim a credit in exchange for turning over seismic information and exploratory well data.
The state agreed to hold onto the data for ten years. Now, they’re going public with it — for a fee.
So far, the state has collected at least 50 of these data sets stretching all the way from the North Slope to Cook Inlet. The information is key to developing theories about geological formations — theories like where oil might be located.
And they are expensive to produce. Companies spend millions of dollars buying leases, transporting equipment to explore and drill, hiring specialized imaging companies to scour remote fields, hoping to strike it big.
The information is valuable and it’s the state’s responsibility to keep it confidential when companies turn it over in exchange for those credits.
They don’t deliver it in armored trucks, but Wiggin said that’s not too far off-base.
For years, when companies wanted to bring in well log data from the field, they had to fly it from far-flung places, back into Anchorage. Wiggin knows, because it was his job when he worked for Arco as a test engineer.
“In essence, I would bring it in and you’d basically nearly have it handcuffed to you, as you brought it into town,” he said. “I think we might have overdone the secrecy at times… I didn’t wear handcuffs. But, we indeed did not send them in with just anybody.”
Under this program, the state released its first two data sets in 2016. One set included a 3-D seismic survey from the North Slope that covered a huge chunk of ground near Prudhoe Bay. And the state saw a burst of activity, requests from university researchers, companies, and contractors.
And even getting the data that is open to the public is still vaguely super-spy-ish. Acting Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources Steve Masterman says they ask people to provide a brand new hard drive, still in the wrapper.
“So we know it’s never been touched by a computer, so we know that it’s clean,” he said. “We will load on the data and send it back to them.”
Wiggin said there’s already a company using that data to decide where it’s going to drill.
It’s an independent newcomer to the state, Alliance Exploration. The Nevada-based company bought its first leases from the state in December.
“We released it and they are working diligently to drill a well based on that seismic data this coming winter,” Wiggin said.
And that is a best-case scenario for the state, he said. “They were able to access inexpensive seismic data and develop prospects of their own that would lead to exploration and surely, hopefully development.“
Using this kind of oil field data to attract new investment to the state is an uncommon idea. At least in the U.S.
Wiggin said he doesn’t know of any other states that do it. But a few other countries — like Norway and Mexico — do release seismic data.
This fall, the state plans to release a second batch of data. Some of it is seismic data that covers areas of the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. Some of it is well data from a Cook Inlet field that BlueCrest Energy is currently exploring.
And, along with that second release of data is a new set of fees. They’ll charge $300 a square mile for 3-D seismic data, plus another $1.50 per gigabyte.
That means that getting copies of the data in those four suitcases could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Though, Masterman said there is an option to cherry pick parts of a data set, to avoid running up costs.
Wiggin said the DNR needs to recoup some of the state’s costs for archiving and maintaining the huge amounts of information that companies generate when they’re exploring.
Editor’s note: Mark Wiggin is a member of the Alaska Public Media Board of Directors.