The oil industry bid more than $2 billion yesterday for the right to drill for what is believed to be the largest pool of undiscovered oil and gas reserves in North America, about twice the amount Interior Secretary James G. Watt had predicted, but within the range expected by industry officials and analysts. The sale of drilling rights off Alaska's oil-rich northern slope had been eagerly awaited as a test both of industry confidence and of Watt's controversial offshore oil-drilling program, which will offer almost the entire national coastline for development in the next five years.
Industry and Interior officials both hailed yesterday's bidding -- a group led by Sohio put up $227 million for one tract -- as signs that they had passed the tests: The sale netted large revenues for the federal treasury, although not a record for offshore leasing, and the oil companies showed their readiness to invest heavily in new drilling despite a world oil glut and stagnant prices. "This is a big success any way you look at it," said an Interior spokesman.
But several industry analysts said the bids primarily reflect the rich energy potential beneath the icy Alaskan waters. Environmentalists, who have long criticized Watt's offshore plan as "too much, too fast," contended that oil companies would have been willing to pay even more if Interior had forced them to. "The more they take in today, the worse it may be for the taxpayers in the long run," said Michael Tanzer, an energy and minerals consultant and a critic of the Interior plan. "A really high bid may be a measure of how enormously profitable the investment is expected to be, and a measure of how much more money the government could have gotten for the taxpayers over the long haul."
The tracts offered for leasing yesterday lie in what is known as the Diapir Field, near the rich Prudhoe Bay field, scene of an enormous oil strike in 1968 and now the source of 18 percent of domestic oil production. In the wake of well-publicized disappointments for the oil industry in drilling off the East Coast, the Alaskan acreage took on an even greater importance.
"This is like the Nieman Marcus Christmas sale for the oil industry. It's a one-time thing," said an industry analyst. "In the view of most companies, this is it. They really had to go for it and go for it in a very big way."
Interior estimated that companies would find about 2.38 billion barrels of oil beneath the 338 tracts put up for bids. Although Interior will not award any of the leases until bids are analyzed, Sohio Alaska Petroleum Co. appeared to be the big winner.
A subsidiary of Standard Oil Company (Ohio), Sohio put in more than $401 million in high bids, alone or in joint ventures, for 24 tracts. Gasps and nervous laughter rippled through the crowd that jammed an Anchorage banquet hall for the bid-opening as Sohio's $227 million bid was read aloud. The same reaction greeted a $219 million bid on another tract by a group led by Texaco.
"We're very pleased with the results," said a Sohio spokesman. "The size of the bids confirmed the industry's opinion that this was an area of extremely high interest." Sohio is one of the leading explorers in Prudhoe Bay, and has extensive data on the area's energy potential.
Watt and his aides had been cautious about making bullish forecasts for yesterday's sale, in the wake of recent offshore oil offerings that drew little competition or industry interest. Watt conservatively estimated total bids of $1 billion, despite earlier predictions in Interior budget documents that yesterday's sale would net $3 billion.
Still, Watt said in interviews that he hoped the sale would generate enough money to silence critics of his leasing plan. "What we need is a big one -- something that will show that the oil industry wants this land," he said earlier this month.
Overall, Interior has predicted that the program will bring in $15 billion in federal revenues for this fiscal year, a figure criticized as overly optimistic by the Congressional Budget Office because of the current oil glut. CBO put the estimate at $10 billion.
The Alaskan waters pose a major challenge to the oil industry because of icy, rugged conditions that prevail most of the year. Drilling an exploratory well there can cost a company up to $60 million, according to industry officials, and some analysts were skeptical that companies would want to explore the area, despite the high probability of a strike.
To compensate for the difficult conditions, Interior extended the length of the leases from five to 10 years and reduced the standard royalty rate--charged on the total value of the oil produced--from 16 2/3 percent to 12.5 percent on some of the most remote tracts. Another plus for the area is that it lies near the Alaskan Pipeline, making transportation easier than in other frontier areas.
The suspense over the sale pervaded the oil industry and the Interior Department for weeks. Interior officials estimated they spent more than 1,000 hours preparing for it and even staged several "mock" sales to practice taking and opening bids.
Sohio beamed a broadcast of the bid-opening via closed circuit television to its San Francisco and Houston offices. In Houston, headquarters of many major oil companies, interest ran so high that a commercial radio station ran a live broadcast of the bid opening.
This was the fifth time since the start of the federal offshore leasing program in 1954 that a sale of drilling rights exceeded $2 billion. The record came in 1980 in the Gulf of Mexico, when companies bid $2.7 billion for 116 tracts. CAPTION: Picture, The icy Alaskan waters pose a major hazard to oil companies, and industry analysts say that drilling an exploratory well could cost up to $60 million.