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Test Well in Arctic Wildlife Refuge Keeps Its Secrets

Energy: In 1985, Chevron bored three miles below the tundra to see if oil underlies the protected site. What it found remains a mystery, even as debate over drilling intensifies.


ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Alaska — The hood of Karl Brower's parka is trimmed with the nut-brown pelt of a wolverine. He trapped and skinned it. Its yellow claws cradle his chin and rattle in the bitter wind.

For 40 years, the Inupiat Eskimo hunter--caribou in the summer, bowhead whale in the fall--has chipped a scant living from this place, much closer to the North Pole than his nation's capital.

Right now, Brower is pondering a question, squinting into the gloom that poses as high noon during the Arctic winter.

"It's out there," he mutters. He scans the same treeless, frozen frontier--The White--that some industrialists and politicians have scornfully compared to a blank sheet of paper, ripe for oil exploration. The "it" he speaks of could be crucial to determining whether that exploration occurs.

"I worked it," he says, recollecting the date. "19 . . . 1985."

Brower straddles his snowmobile. He wedges a Marlboro into a jaw that once held several teeth. In minus-30-degree weather, he flicks his lighter with a bare thumb.

Can he still find it? Brower puffs for a moment.

"Let's go," he declares.

And without another word, Brower roars into The White in search of the biggest mystery in a 19-million-acre unknown--the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It's an iron pipe, said to be sticking six feet out of the permafrost, the top of a 3-mile-deep shaft.

Or, more correctly, the mystery is what may be down the pipe. Way down.

The pipe marks the only oil well ever drilled into the bedrock beneath the refuge. Discovering how much oil is at the bottom could determine whether more drilling is permitted.

KIC-1, the test well is called.

It was drilled into the coastal plain southeast of Kaktovik, pop. 260, Brower's hometown and the easternmost native village on Alaska's North Slope. The for-profit Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. owns land within the refuge. Sixteen years ago they leased it to Chevron and British Petroleum for a test bore.

Exploration geologists, aided by roustabout laborers like Brower, augered into the underlying sandstone.

On April 24, 1986, according to state court documents, they reached a depth of 15,193 feet at a cost of $40 million. Then they quit.

The oil companies capped the well and dismantled the wooden drilling platform. Eventually the tundra healed.

The companies won't discuss what they found at the bottom of KIC-1.





Ten years ago, Chevron won a lawsuit upholding KIC-1's confidentiality. It remains a secret.

"Only a handful of people know what's down the KIC well," said BP Explorations spokesman Ronnie Chappell. "They've never talked about it. I'm not even sure who they are."

Chappell continues: "In January we flew low over the coastal plain, but we didn't bring the coordinates. We never did find the well that day."

Passions Plentiful, Data Sparse

No single well can characterize an oil field's potential, but that's no longer the point. KIC-1 has become the stuff of myth in a state that was born amid legends of gold, freedom and cold.

"KIC-1 is the only direct data from the subsurface of ANWR," said Catherine Hanks, a research geologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

"Those companies have one more piece to the puzzle, a piece that nobody else has. Everybody else is guessing."

Rarely has such a fundamental political battle been waged with so little information.

In January the National Academy of Sciences appointed a panel to investigate the impact of Alaskan oil and gas development. Its report isn't due for 18 months, which may be after Congress takes up permitting oil exploration here.

The rest of the scientific data--much of it nearly 20 years old--is as sparse as the tundra itself.

In 1984-85, a private seismic survey in a section of the coastal plain known as Area 1002 mapped a 1,400-mile grid that researchers crisscrossed in tracked vehicles. Working in six-mile squares, they fired explosive charges into the permafrost and measured the return of the seismic waves.

Different rocks produce unique acoustic signatures. Recorded in squiggly lines and graphs, the results were intriguing but not conclusive.

"We did the whole thing from the bottom to the top," said Anchorage geologist Arlen Ehm, who directed the survey.

It showed that the coastal plain is split diagonally by a steep underground ridge known as the Marsh Creek anticline. It runs from the foothills of the Brooks Range to the sea near Kaktovik.

New Calculations Hold Surprises

Three-quarters of the available oil was believed to be southeast of the anticline in a zone riddled with complex faults, folds and subterranean dead ends that split the oil-bearing layers into two dozen deposits, or "traps."

Most seemed small and difficult to tap, but two or three traps appeared to be Saudi-sized--big enough to hold billions of barrels of petroleum, although there is no direct proof that they contain any. The KIC-1 well is said to have been drilled into one of these.

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