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Geology of possible petroleum provinces in Alaska

January 1, 1957

The history of petroleum exploration in Alaska and the geology of possible petroleum provinces in Alaska are reviewed. Maps showing Alaska's major Mesozoic and Tertiary tectonic elements, possible petroleum provinces, and indications of petrol, are included in this report. Annotated references in Geological Survey publications relating to petroleum and oil shale in Alaska are given at the end of the report.

For the purpose of appraising its petroleum possibilities, Alaska is divided into the southern, central, and northern major geologic-physiographic regions.

Southern Alaska includes the arcuate mountain chain formed by the Alaska and Aleutian Ranges and the Mentasta- Nutzotin Mountains, the coastal range and valley area to the south, and the southeastern Alaska "panhandle" -- an area of 185,000 square miles.

Oil seeps on the west shore of Cook Inlet in southern Alaska were known as early as 1853, and claims were staked in this region in 1882. Drilling began near the oil seeps in the Katalla district about 1901, and this started Alaska's first period of oil activity. From 1902 to 1933 the Katalla field produced 154,000 barrels of oil from fractured shale and sandstone of Tertiary age the- first and only commercial production in Alaska.

On the basis of geology, surficial indications of petroleum, and test wells drilled, six possible petroleum provinces are indicated in southern Alaska. They are Heceta Island area, Keku Islands area, Cook Inlet Mesozoic province, Gulf of Alaska Tertiary province, Cook Inlet Tertiary province, and Copper River basin.

The exposed rocks in the Heceta Island area include lower Paleozoic graywacke-type sandstone, sandstone, conglomerate, and massive limestones with reeflike structures; igneous rocks are rare or lacking in much of the area. The Kosciusko-Tuxekan-Heceta synclinorium, the main structural feature, is modified by minor folds and faults. Some of the minor folds are reported to be broad and open, with flanks dipping 20°-145°. As far as known, the Heceta Island area has not heretofore been seriously considered as a possible petroleum province.

Rocks of Silurian to Cretaceous age are exposed in the Keku Island area and include moderately folded and relatively unaltered limestone and other marine sedimentary rocks.

The Cook Inlet Mesozoic province, a land area of approximately 18,500 square miles, includes a great thickness of unmetamorphosed marine sedimentary rocks of Jurassic and Cretaceous age. At least 23 test wells were drilled or started in this province by the end of 1955. Shows of oil and gas were encountered in many of these wells. During 1955 at least ten oil companies were active in this area and by the end of 1955 about 1 1/2 million acres were included in oil and gas leases applied for or granted.

The Gulf of Alaska Tertiary province includes about 5,200 square miles in which rocks of Tertiary age are exposed or are believed to underlie Quaternary deposits. Between 1901 and the end of 1955 about 47 wells were drilled or started in this province.

The Cook Inlet Tertiary province embraces an area of about 9,500 square miles, of which about 4,100 is covered by the shallow waters of Cook Inlet. Petroleum exploration has been in that part of the area which overlaps the Cook Inlet Mesozoic province. Eocene or younger Tertiary nonmarine sedimentary rocks are believed to underlie much of the province, and marine rocks of Tertiary age may also be present.

The Copper River basin is a topographic basin underlain by unconsolidated deposits of Quaternary age. Tertiary rocks favorable for the accumulation of petroleum may underlie part of the basin but this is not believed likely. Except for some leasing activity no petroleum exploration has been recorded in the Copper River Basin to the end of 1955.

Central Alaska is a region of about 275,000 square miles and consists of an irregular assemblage of intricately dissected uplands and alluvium-floored lowland basins. Scattered peaks of resistant intrusive igneous rocks surmount most of the upland areas.

In the vast region of central Alaska only six test wells are known to have been drilled for the purpose of finding oil and gas. The maximum depth reached was 350 feet and the holes were mostly or entirely in Quaternary deposits. In recent years several oil companies have investigated some parts of the region and large areas in the Yukon-Koyukuk province are now under lease. Oil seeps, gas seeps, and other indications of petroleum have been reported from many localities; samples from two localities have been analyzed and reported to be petroleum.

The geology of central Alaska is similar in a general way to that of the area between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra-Cascade belts of the United States. Sedimentary rocks, probably equivalent to the Precambrian Belt series, and rocks of the Cambrian and all younger geologic systems have been recognized in central Alaska. The structure of the region is known to be complex, but except in local mineral districts, it has not been mapped in detail. Based on the limited amount of available information, the region cannot be regarded as distinctly favorable for significant accumulations of petroleum. However, three pre-Cenozoic provinces, the Yukon-Koyukuk, the Kobuk, and the Kandik, and several large Cenozoic basin provinces may be worthy of further investigation.

Northern Alaska includes the Brooks Range and all the treeless tundra north to the Arctic Coast, an area of about 125,000 square miles. The presence of oil seeps along the Arctic Coast has been known at least since 1900 and a description of the Cape Simpson oil seeps vas published in 1909. Since then oil and gas seeps have been described from nine localities, and oil shales and oil-bearing sandstones are known from many localities in the Arctic Foothills province. Oil and gas deposits have been discovered and geologic conditions are favorable for oil and gas accumulations in approximately half of the region.

In 1923 approximately 37,000 square miles in northern Alaska was reserved by Executive order as Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4. In 1944 the U. S. Navy began a vast petroleum exploration program which was suspended in 1953. In the years 1945 through 1955, 37 test wells and 45 core tests were drilled on 18 structures. Three oil fields, Umiat, Simpson, and Fish Creek, and two gas fields, South Barrow and Gubik, were discovered. Total reserve estimates for all discoveries of oil to 1955 range from 30 to 100 million barrels, and for gas, from 370 billion to 900 billion cubic feet.

All northern Alaska, with the exception of the Brooks Range, can be considered a possible petroleum province, but the region can be subdivided into provinces of somewhat different potentialities. These subdivisions roughly correspond with the geomorphic provinces and sections, which in turn reflect differences in geology. The known oil-bearing beds are of Mesozoic age, primarily Cretaceous, and thus the possible petroleum provinces could be designated as Mesozoic. However, Paleozoic and Cenozoic rocks with favorable reservoir characteristics are exposed in the region and possibly underlie, in favorable structural situations, some of the areas as yet not tested.

The Arctic Coastal Plain province includes gently folded and flat-lying Mesozoic beds that overlie a basement complex of Paleozoic and early Mesozoic age. Near the southern edge of this province the basement rocks are at depths of at least 20,000 feet, and to the north these rocks rise to within 2,500 feet of the surface.

The Teshukpuk Lake section of the Arctic Coastal plain includes many of the known oil seeps; it is the most accessible to sea transportation, and lies almost completely within NPR 4. Thirteen test wells and 35 core tests have been drilled here; one gas field and two (at present, noncommercial) oil fields have been discovered. The possibility of further discoveries may depend largely on locating porous sandstones in stratigraphic rather than anticlinal traps.

The White Hills section is distinguished topographically from the Teshukpruk section by its white-gravel-covered hills and fever lakes, and geologically by the presence of Tertiary rocks, including 2,000 feet of nonmarine beds in the west and at least 7,000 feet of marine beds to the east, in the vicinity of Carter Creek. This section appears to be more complex structurally. No test wells have been drilled in the White Hills section.

The Northern Foothills section includes many closed anticlines. Twenty-four test wells and ten core tests have been drilled on 11 structures and two discoveries have been made -the Umiat oil field and the Gubik gas field. All these tests have been drilled in Cretaceous rocks.

The Southern Foothills section is structurally similar to the Alberta Foothills and to the northern part of the Brooks Range. Great thicknesses of marine shale of Lover Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic age are exposed. The outcropping Mesozoic sandstones are generally poorly sorted, nonporous, and impermeable. To the south the section is bordered by mountainous exposures of Mississippian limestone, which probably underlie at least part of this section.

The rocks that underlie the deeply eroded complex structures of the Brooks Range include schist, slate, argillite, and limestone. Some exposed limestones have a strong petroleum-like odor and contain traces of petroleum residues.

Publication Year 1957
Title Geology of possible petroleum provinces in Alaska
DOI 10.3133/ofr5772
Authors Don John Miller, Thomas G. Payne, George Gryc
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 57-72
Index ID ofr5772
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse