The exploration of the Arctic for petroleum is more technically and physically challenging than for any other environment. However, with increases in technology and continuing high oil prices the region is now receiving the interest of the petroleum industry.
There are 19 geological basins making up the Arctic region. Some of these basins have experienced oil and gas exploration, most notably the Alaska North Slope where oil was first produced in 1968 from Prudhoe Bay. However, only half the basins - such as the Beaufort Sea and the West Barents Sea - have been explored.
A 2008 United States Geological Survey estimates that areas north of the Arctic Circle have 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil (and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids ) in 25 geologically defined areas thought to have potential for petroleum. This represents 13% of the undiscovered oil in the world. Of the estimated totals, more than half of the undiscovered oil resources are estimated to occur in just three geologic provinces - Arctic Alaska, the Amerasia Basin, and the East Greenland Rift Basins. More than 70% of the mean undiscovered oil resources is estimated to occur in five provinces: Arctic Alaska, Amerasia Basin, East Greenland Rift Basins, East Barents Basins, and West Greenland–East Canada. It is further estimated that approximately 84% of the undiscovered oil and gas occurs offshore. The USGS did not consider economic factors such as the effects of permanent sea ice or oceanic water depth in its assessment of undiscovered oil and gas resources. This assessment is lower than a 2000 survey, which had included lands south of the arctic circle.
A recent study carried out by Wood Mackenzie on the Arctic potential comments that the likely remaining reserves will be 75% natural gas and 25% oil. It highlights four basins that are likely to be the focus of the petroleum industry in the upcoming years: the Kronprins Christian Basin, which is likely to have large reserves, the southwest Greenland basin, due to its proximity to markets, and the more oil-prone basins of Laptev and Baffin Bay.
Extensive drilling was done in the Canadian Arctic during the 1970s and 1980s by such companies as Panarctic Oils Ltd., Petro Canada and Dome Petroleum. After 176 wells were drilled at billions of dollars of cost, approximately 1.9 billion barrels (300×106 m3) of oil and 19.8 trillion cubic feet (560×109 m3) of natural gas were found. These discoveries were insufficient to justify development, and all the wells which were drilled were plugged and abandoned.
Drilling in the Canadian Arctic turned out to be expensive and dangerous. The geology of the Canadian Arctic turned out to be far more complex than oil-producing regions like the Gulf of Mexico. It was discovered to be gas prone rather than oil prone (i.e. most of the oil had been transformed into natural gas by geological processes), and most of the reservoirs had been fractured by tectonic activity, allowing most of the petroleum which might at one time have been present to leak out.
In June 2007, a group of Russian geologists returned from a six-week voyage on a nuclear icebreaker. They had travelled to the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater shelf in Russia's remote and inhospitable eastern Arctic Ocean.
According to Russia's media, the geologists returned with the "sensational news" that the Lomonosov ridge was linked to Russian Federation territory, boosting Russia's claim over the oil-and-gas rich triangle. The territory contained 10bn tonnes of gas and oil deposits, the scientists said.
Greenland is believed by some geologists to have some of the world’s largest remaining oil resources. Prospecting is taking place under the auspices of NUNAOIL, a partnership between the Greenland Home Rule Government and the Danish state. U.S. Geological Survey found in 2001 that the waters off north-eastern Greenland (north and south of the arctic circle) could contain up to 110 billion barrels (17×109 m3) of oil.
Greenland has offered 8 license blocks for tender along its west coast by Baffin Bay. Currently 7 of those blocks have been bid for by a combination of multinational oil companies and the National Oil Company NUNAOIL. Companies that have participated successfully in the previous license rounds and have formed a partnership for the licenses with NUNAOIL are, DONG Energy, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Husky Energy, Cairn Energy. The area available known as the West Disko licensing round is of an interest due to its relative accessibility compared to other Arctic basins as the area remains largely free of ice. As well as a number of promising geological leads and prospects from the Paleocene era.