Gov. Bill Walker used the word "momentum" a half-dozen times during a press conference Wednesday on the gas line, but the unspoken message from the governor and the three oil companies conveyed anything but Big Mo.
Though the governor and the executives had nothing to announce, their guarded and vague comments struck me as a warning that the upheaval in the oil and gas markets means the industry has grown more hesitant about directing tens of billions toward a project in Alaska.
From what no one was willing to spell out, a reshuffling of the four-way partnership with the state, BP, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips is in the wind.
"There may be a structure where the commercial arrangements are different than originally anticipated," Walker said, adding that "some options for this project to move forward" are likely to become public in the next month or so.
Are the oil companies officially pulling out or putting the project on hold?
Not yet. But based on what they didn't say, the options could include an increase in the state role, getting new financing and/or recruiting new investors in case the companies balk.
The executives of ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and BP repeated long-held positions, mainly that they plan to finish a preliminary analysis later this year before deciding if the project will advance to detailed engineering and design, a commitment of $1 billion to $2 billion, with hundreds of millions from the state.
Joe Marushack, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, said the "economic head winds are pretty tough right now" and he doesn't know what to expect after the fall.
Walker said later the three oil companies are still in the project, but he wants to see if there is "another ownership structure that makes more sense" just in case. Whether this means greater participation by the state or the entrance of new investors, Walker didn't say.
The talks have just started, Marty Rutherford, deputy commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources said Thursday. "We don't know what might emerge, if anything," she told legislators.
If the state is to take on a larger role, it has the legal ability to borrow money based on the project, but unless the state can stabilize its finances, the bond market will be full of skeptics. The state faces economic headwinds of its own.
If other companies enter the mix, perhaps in the form of utilities in Asia that want to buy natural gas, an option that Walker promoted long before he became governor, another set of complex issues would arise — starting with whether the negotiations with the oil companies would ever get past the talking stage. Investors wanting to buy gas are likely to be interested in relatively small pieces of the project, which would add to the negotiation quandary.
Much of what is happening with this gas project is secret by design under a framework created by the Legislature and former Gov. Sean Parnell with some modifications by Walker, but what little we know so far is that it is hard to get all the partners to agree on anything. That's to be expected in a project that could cost $45 billion to $65 billion and requires years of planning.
While two top administration officials said Tuesday a constitutional amendment to lock in long-term tax rates won't happen this year because of delays with oil company negotiations, Walker said an amendment may not be necessary. This represents either a change of heart by Walker or a new legal interpretation — either of which would be a surprise — or a new approach to financing.
One thing to keep in mind is that the price of natural gas today is so low the project is not economical. If the gas line is built, it will be because of an expectation that future prices will be higher. Still, the companies are under pressure to perform by shareholders and generate profits today and they can't spend cash they don't have.
Walker, always a gas line true believer, said the "really good news" is the state and the companies are motivated to find a way to get the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas on the North Slope to market. Some of the parties are more motivated than others, with the state at the top of that list.
Since the 1970s, boosters of one gas line plan or another have proven adept at detecting increases in momentum.
There is one sense in which the current situation differs from the many proclamations of the past. Since the late 1970s, when now-retired workers first looked forward to years of employment on a pipeline, the gas has been used to add pressure to the reservoir, leading to the extraction of billions of more barrels of oil than first thought possible.
The inevitable decline of oil production means we are gaining momentum — through a combination of reservoir management and economics — and approaching the point where the companies must find markets for the gas or risk losing the value of the resource.
Dermot Cole, a Fairbanks-based columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News, has been writing about Alaska politics for 40 years. His oldest daughter is a deputy press secretary for Gov. Bill Walker. The views expressed here are Cole's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.