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North America



Greenland’s onshore geology is dominated by crystalline rocks of the Precambrian Laurentian Shield however, large sedimentary basins exist offshore of the east, west and north of the territory as well as onshore near the coast and below the ice-cap. In the intervening offshore areas there are extensive Lower Tertiary basalts below which there may be older basins.

Northeast Greenland - Extensive areas of northeast Greenland may have petroleum potential based on extrapolation from the adjacent onshore outcrops where oil source rocks and reservoir lithologies are present. These are analogous to the North Sea and Barents Sea with Devonian to Recent sediments and unconformities in the middle Permian and Cretaceous. Late Carboniferous to Early Permian salt is also interpreted. However no wells have been drilled in this remote area.

East Greenland - A number of sedimentary basins are present in an East Greenland rift system and these may also have hydrocarbon potential. The area includes the onshore Jameson Land Basin which is late Devonian to Mesozoic in age which was part of a rift complex that lay between Greenland and Norway before the opening of the North Atlantic.

The Danmarkshavn basin to the north comprises a northern section of similar age, with thick salt beds and diapirism, and a southern section with a very thick series of sediments. To the east of this basin the Danmarkshavn Ridge separates it from the Thetis basin, holding a relatively young (Late Mesozoic to Cenozoic) succession. Between Jameson Land and Thetis is the Liverpool Land Basin, another independent rift system associated with the opening of the North Atlantic.

No wells have been drilled in any of these basins. The region is environmentally sensitive with sea-ice .

West Greenland - Sedimentary basins, containing up to 10 kms of sediments, offshore central and southern West Greenland cover a large area. From north to south they are the Melville Bay Graben, the Nuussuaq basin, the Kangeq High, the Sisimiut basin, the Kangamiut ridge, the Nukik platform, the Nuuk basin and the Atammik and Fylla structural complexes. The discovery of extensive oil seeps in the onshore Nuussuaq Basin confirmed the potential of this area in the early 1990s.

The margin of West Greenland was formed by extensional opening of the Labrador Sea in late Mesozoic to early Cenozoic time. A complex of linked rift basins stretch from the Labrador Sea to northern Baffin Bay. Initial opening of the Labrador Sea was accompanied by volcanism. Thermal subsidence of the basin continued after cessation of sea-floor spreading in the Labrador Sea, probably in Eocene time, but there appears to have been an episode of uplift of the basin margin in the Neogene.

The stratigraphically deepest well offshore West Greenland (Qulleq-1) has only penetrated mid-Cretaceous sediments but on seismic data, several deeper sequences can be seen that may contain possible reservoirs and seals. Several wells have been drilled on and offshore West Greenland targeted at different play types but with no commercial success.


The first geological mapping of Greenland took place in the early 20th Century. From 1946 the Geological Survey of Greenland (GGU) began research and mapping which was later continued by GEUS (Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland).

Meanwhile the search for hydrocarbons in the Arctic had begun in the 1930s in Canada and Alaska, intensifying in the 1960s. Potential was confirmed by the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska in 1968. Consequently, in 1969, Greenland began to attract the interest of the oil industry.

The first phase of exploration activity was concentrated in the west where environmental conditions are the least challenging and where, in the Disko-Nuusuaq-Svartenhuk area of West Greenland, considerable thicknesses of Cretaceous to Tertiary sediments had been recognised. During 1969 to 1974 seismic, gravity and magnetic surveys were undertaken. Three areas were opened for licensing and, in 1975, 6 groups were awarded blocks.

Seismic was acquired and 5 wells were drilled in 1976 and 1977 but all were dry, although a wet gas kick was recognised in one of these wells. By the end of 1978 all the concessions had been relinquished. Some early interest was also shown in North Greenland where geological studies and an aeromagnetic survey were carried out between 1969 and 1972.

With the discovery of fields in the North Sea in Norway attention was re-directed to potentially analogous sediments in east Greenland. Some seismic was collected from 1975 to 1977 and In 1978 the North Atlantic D project (NAD) was initiated by the Danish Energy Authority. This incorporated all geophysical data available and added a large aeromagnetic survey onshore and several thousand kilometres of offshore seismic between 1980 and 1982.

The final report in 1985 pointed to the northern part of East Greenland as being most prospective. In 1984 a licence over the onshore Jameson Land Basin was acquired but no drilling ensued and it was relinquished in 1990.

The KANUMAS (Kalaallit Nunaat Marine Seismic) Project was initiated in 1989. This involved the granting of a prospecting licence to a consortium of companies to investigate the potential for oil and gas in the area off the coast of Northwest and Northeast Greenland. Between 1990 and 1996 the KANUMAS Project collected over 7,000 kms of seismic data, covering the extreme northern areas.

Meanwhile the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland mapped oil seeps on Disco Island and in neighbouring areas of West Greenland and 5 onshore wells were drilled in 1995 and 1996. New licences were awarded offshore in 1996 and a dry offshore well was drilled in 2000 by Statoil.

Oil and gas licensing of offshore areas started again in the early 2000s, with licensing rounds in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2012. In addition, Greenland offered a separate open door procedure in the Jameson Land and South West Greenland areas in 2002 and 2008, respectively.

The only company that has undertaken extensive drilling to date is Cairn Energy. In 2010 the company drilled 3 wells, followed by a further 5 in 2011 all in West Greenland, but its efforts have resulted in no commercial discoveries.

Despite repeated phases of activity around the coast of Greenland no oil or gas production is forecast for the territory. There has been insufficient success in any of the wells drilled since 1976 to warrant including Greenland in Globalshift’s global production model.

This is particularly true in view of the harsh environment of the region, the continued pressure of environmentalists wishing to protect the Arctic from the oil and gas industry, and lower oil prices brought on by the advent of light tight oil production in North America.

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