State considering investing billions into a pipeline project

ldemer@adn.comNovember 18, 2013 

The state of Alaska is considering investing billions of public dollars in a natural gas pipeline venture in the hopes that will make the long-sought mega-project happen.

A state-commissioned study released Monday suggests direct state investment -- an ownership share -- as a way to improve the economic footing of a liquefied natural gas project that could cost more than $60 billion. The $424,000, 188-page study was by a team that included Black & Veatch, an employee-owned consulting and engineering firm based in Overland Park, Kan., and Daniel Johnston & Co. Inc., a New Hampshire-based oil consultant.

State investment could "align" the interests of Alaska with Exxon Mobil, BP and ConocoPhillips and reduce the project costs for those producers and pipeline company TransCanada Corp, the study said. But it also "potentially exposes the State to additional risks," it found.

The possibility of state ownership registered favorably among two lawmakers whose political views often are polar opposites.

"LNG projects are capital intensive, complex, multi-stakeholder investments," state Sen. Cathy Giessel, a conservative Anchorage Republican who chairs the Senate Resources Committee, said in a written statement. "How a project is structured and how risk and reward are allocated can make or break a project."

She said she supports a state ownership share. Experts told legislators at a natural gas symposium in July that can be "a very beneficial arrangement," she said.

House Democrats also are interested in that approach but need to know more, said state Rep. Beth Kerttula of Juneau, the House Democratic leader.

"I want to see a real ownership interest," Kerttula said. "I want to see the state at the table. I want to see the state getting the information that's fundamental to being sure that the state gets its rightful return. I also want to be sure that we have an absolute say in the decision-making."

The state shouldn't invest just to "bankroll multinational companies that don't need bankrolling," she said.

Kerttula, a former state oil and gas lawyer, said the state has been at a disadvantage in dealings on the trans-Alaska pipeline because it lacks an ownership stake.

"The state always ended up on the short end of the stick under thousands of boxes of documents," she said.

Joe Balash, the newly appointed natural resources commissioner, said the study tells him an Alaska project is realistic and "we don't need to make big concessions to get it."

"No. 1, Alaska LNG can compete for buyers and for capital," Balash said. "It's not a slam dunk, but we can do it."

The real opportunity identified in the study is "state participation in the project," he said. "We're not talking about a tax break or a royalty reduction. We are talking about being able to come in and do as well or even better by taking on this equity role."

Royalty refers to the amount of oil and gas, generally 12.5 percent, set aside for the state under lease terms.

But the state investment needed to push the project from hopes to reality would be significant, in the range of 20 to 30 percent, or $9 billion to $13.5 billion, Balash said. The Legislature would have to sign on to any direct investment, he said.

The state has estimated the project cost at $45 billion. That's lower than the high-end figure used by the oil producers because they are factoring in new North Slope production wells and pads, Balash said.

The project includes an 800-mile large-diameter pipeline from the North Slope to Southcentral Alaska, a North Slope gas treatment plant, and an LNG plant that Exxon has said it hopes to build in Nikiski to liquefy the gas and ship it to markets in Asia.

The state might need to change its tax system for natural gas from a 35 percent net profits tax, not counting various tax breaks, to one that taxes the gross, to give more predictability to producers, Balash said. But the state shouldn't have to lower what it gets from taxes or royalty if it buys into the project, he said.

Over the history of North Slope oil production, royalties have generated the majority of the revenue for the state, though in recent years, taxes have brought in more.

Some industry representatives said they were looking over the study and weren't ready to comment on whether $10 billion or so from the state would be enough. But the state's effort to dig into the finances was a good sign, they said.

"The LNG project seems to be making pretty favorable progress right now, and it's important that everybody -- the companies and the state -- move it forward," said Dawn Patience, a BP spokeswoman. "It's positive to see the state having those kinds of discussions."

"We are encouraged that state departments and the state legislature are engaging with consultants on this world-scale LNG mega-project," Davis Sheremata, a TransCanada spokesman, said in an email Monday afternoon.

The House Resources Committee is holding a hearing Friday on the natural-gas pipeline.

Balash estimated production would begin in 2024.

There will be a market for Alaska's natural gas by the 2020s, said Larry Persily, the federal coordinator for a natural gas project. Big LNG projects being built around the world including in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia will come on line before anything can be developed in Alaska, but demand will grow and some producing fields will be in decline by then, he said.

If the state buys in, that lessens the risks for producers but elevates those for Alaska's government, he said.

And if the experience of Norway, where the government owns a stake in many oil-and-gas leases, holds true here, it will take years for the state investment to turn a profit, Persily said. Development costs must be covered before natural gas can be produced.

At the state's request, the study examined the risks and benefits of the state shipping and marketing its share of the natural gas. The study concludes that would be highly risky for the state, which has no experience in that area.

"You get into highly complex tariff issues, you get into highly complex marketing issues, deliverability issues. How are we going to ship it?" said Marty Rutherford, a former deputy Natural Resources commissioner who was then-Gov. Sarah Palin's gas-pipeline adviser.

Producers would have the advantage, and they always have pushed for the state to market its own share if it wanted an ownership interest in a pipeline, Rutherford, who is now working as an oil consultant in Anchorage, said.

A project that allowed state ownership -- and let the state sell its royalty gas directly to producers -- would be great for the state, she said. But historically "that has not been a position the companies have been open to."

Why not let private market forces determine whether a natural gas project survives?

"We could try that, but we've been trying that for 40 years," Balash said.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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