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Early Exploration for Hydrocarbons in the North American Arctic

Earle F. Taylor

Hydrocarbons were known along the Arctic coast of Alaska at least as early as 1917, when A. M. (Sandy) Smith reportedly "discovered" the Simpson oil seepages. This caused sufficient interest in the region by private oil companies to warrant a field party in 1921, led H. A. Campbell, which examined the Simpson seepages in some detail and staked claims to the acreage.

Our nation had learned during World War I that the Navy required vast quantities of petroleum products for its worldwide operations and, in February 1923, President Harding issued an executive order establishing Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 in Arctic Alaska, based in part on the presence of the Simpson oil seepages. Three other reserves were established at the same time in the lower 48 States, the purpose being to furnish the Navy with petroleum products when and if needed.

In the early twenties, very little was known of the North American Arctic, except for certain coastal areas where surveys had been conducted both by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Geological Survey. The interior was almost unknown. From 1926 to 1943, the new Petroleum Reserve received very little attention. A U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 815 was published in 1930 giving a general outline of geologic patterns, but since there was no real shortage of petroleum products, far away places like the Alaskan Arctic were of little concern to the U.S. Navy.

However, the advent of World War II, and the greatly increased requirements for petroleum products, again focused attention on Alaska and the Simpson oil seeps. Beginning in 1944, the Navy and the U.S. Geological Survey initiated programs of intense oil exploration that were to last for at least 10 years. I was one of the geologists, engineers, and geophysicists recruited from the Navy's ranks to participate in this intensive oil exploration program. As chief of Field Party No. 5, I spent most of 1945 in Arctic Alaska. Thereafter, until 1957, as an employee of DeGolyer and MacNaughton, who were advisors to the director of Naval Petroleum Reserves, I continued to participate in this early Arctic oil exploration effort. All of this was, of course, the forerunner of the greatly expanded exploration program by private industry in the Arctic regions of the U.S. and Canada.

AAPG Search and Discovery Article #91028©1989 AAPG History of Petroleum Industry Symposium, September 17-20, 1989, Titusville, Pennsylvania.