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Petroleum Exploration Onshore Svalbard: A Historical Perspective on the Start of the Norwegian Oil Adventure


Norway is a major petroleum exporting country, and revenues from the petroleum sector represent a major part of the state budget. The Norwegian petroleum industry is centred on the prolific fields of the North Sea (production started in 1971), the Norwegian Sea (production started in 1993) and large potential in the frontier Barents Sea (production started in 2007). The beginning of the Norwegian oil industry is often attributed to the discovery of the supergiant Groningen field onshore Netherlands in 1959. This was followed by the first exploration drilling in the North Sea in 1966, the first discovery in 1967 and the discovery of the supergiant Ekofisk field in 1969. However, petroleum exploration started onshore Svalbard in 1960 with three mapping groups from California Asiatic Oil Company and Texaco Overseas Petroleum Company (Caltex). In addition to the American companies, there were also exploration efforts by Dutch company Bataaffse (Shell) and Norwegian company Norsk Polar Navigasjon AS (NPN). NPN was, however, the first company to spud a well at Kvadehuken near Ny-Ålesund in 1961. This drilling marked the start of an exciting period of petroleum exploration on Svalbard, with eighteen exploration wells drilled in the period from 1961 to 1994 by a mix of Norwegian and international companies. The deepest borehole thus far, Caltex’s Ishøgda-I near Van Mijenfjorden, reached 3304 m in 1966, the same year that the first exploration licenses were awarded in the Norwegian part of the North Sea. Norsk Polar Navigasjon, a small Norwegian private-equity firm from Trondheim, was involved in nine of the eighteen wells. The remaining wells were drilled by American (Caltex/Amoseas), Belgian (Fina), French (Total), Russian (Trust Arktikugol) and the Norwegian companies Norsk Hydro and Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani. None of the wells resulted in commercial discoveries, though several wells encountered gas in measureable quantities. Furthermore, more recent research and coal exploration boreholes have confirmed moveable hydrocarbons in close proximity to the Longyearbyen and Pyramiden settlements. In this contribution, we present a historical and brief geological overview of the petroleum exploration wells onshore Svalbard, the often overlooked but important part of the Norwegian oil exploration history. We illustrate that the eighteen exploration boreholes have together penetrated over 29 km of stratigraphy, with the Palaeozoic-Mesozoic successions in particular well covered. As such, the petroleum exploration boreholes represent an important window to decipher the tectono-stratigraphic evolution of Svalbard and the greater Barents Shelf.