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North Slope’s small-time investors try to make a buck despite higher bidding costs

Low oil prices that have paralyzed some North Slope oil producers haven't deterred a visionary batch of small-time investors from remaining optimistic that an Alaskan can still strike it rich in a field of oil giants.

But they say a state decision in 2011 that sharply hiked bidding and lease costs has priced many of the "little guys" out of the market, making it too expensive for them to acquire and hold new oil and gas leases.

They say that's a problem in oil-dependent Alaska, where the mom-and-pop investors have aggressively promoted their leases, looking for companies with capital to buy them and develop fields.

If that leads to oil production, the state gets a royalty share that boosts the treasury. The individuals, who often liken themselves to gamblers who can win and lose fortunes, might also get a small royalty.

A spokesperson with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources said last week that the state holds its lease sales properly and does not set lease terms targeting groups or individuals.

Former commercial pilot and small-time North Slope investor Andy Bachner checks the engine of his floatplane. Bachner, 76, is one a few investors who try to make money selling oil leases on the North Slope to companies that will develop them. (Photo courtesy of Andy Bachner)

Fairbanks resident Andy Bachner hasn't bought a state lease since 2012, when he picked up two tracts. He also still holds a handful of leases near Exxon Mobil's Point Thomson field. He's currently talking with companies that might buy and develop the properties, he said.

He said the higher bidding prices have pushed out small bidders.

"They practically eliminated the individuals, the little Alaskans, and I think that was the intent," said Bachner, 76.

Bachner took an interest in Alaska's oil patch when he flew seismic crews to the Slope in the 1960s. A pilot for Wien Air Alaska, he landed jets on frozen lakes before runways were built.

The biggest oil field on the continent, Prudhoe Bay, was discovered in 1967.

Bachner said he started buying leases in the late 1960s. Over the decades, he kept flying, pumping scientists for details.

He said he and his partners practiced "close-ology" — they snatched up Slope leases on the edge of prospects that had attracted oil company interest.

It paid off. With partners, Bachner has sold more than 400,000 acres to oil companies over the decades after buying leases at low prices.

Some were part of big discoveries such as the Kuparuk River unit, now owned by ConocoPhillips and one of the United States' largest fields.

He's collecting royalties from two leases, receiving income from a thin slice of the oil produced.

"Alaskans including myself have made millions," he said. "But it's an expensive game to play."

Cliff Burglin, who died in Fairbanks in 2013, helped rally local investors after he began bidding for Slope leases in the 1950s. He won leases at fields that later hosted big discoveries, including Prudhoe.

Nick Stepovich, a former legislator, said Burglin got him involved in leasing.

Individual lease owners have played big roles sparking oil companies' interest in Alaska, said Stepovich, a Fairbanks restaurant owner convicted of cocaine possession in 2009 and whose father, Mike Stepovich, was a territorial governor before Alaska statehood.

Stepovich said he hasn't bought a state lease since the state boosted lease costs in 2011.

Before, a small group of investors could expect to pay bidding and lease expenses in the low six figures, Stepovich said. Now it can cost many millions of dollars.

"It's cost prohibitive to the little guy," Stepovich said. "The state has neglected their own people. They've made it harder and harder for Alaskans to make wealth from Alaska's oil riches."

In announcing the new bidding terms in 2011, Bill Barron, then director of the state's Oil and Gas Division, said the change was designed "to encourage financially sound, responsible operators" to develop Alaska's resources and boost oil production.

Barron, who no longer works for the state, could not be reached.

Elizabeth Bluemink, communications coordinator at DNR, said in an email the "state does not set terms that specifically target, advantage or disadvantage a particular group or person for any reason, and we are meeting our obligations in how we conduct lease sales."

Stepovich said he's still looking to invest in Alaska's oil fields, but he has a new approach. He's trying to find Alaskans willing to join with companies, and is no longer buying and holding leases.

"As Alaskans, we need a vehicle so Alaskans can take a stake in the oil," he said, suggesting a more valuable individual approach than the annual Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check.

Clinical neuropsychologist Paul Craig has been a part-time oil lease investor for over two decades. He calls it his “night job.” (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Paul Craig, a longtime Anchorage neuropsychologist, said he attempted to form such a business in 1992. He convinced a bank, and state banking officials, to take steps to allow him to host a public offering for a company he'd created.

The business would be owned by a wide range of Alaskans, and make money producing oil and gas.

But the idea fizzled after he raised only about $300,000 from Alaska investors, well short of the $4.5 million needed, he said. He returned the money and began buying and selling leases.

"It's my night job," said Craig, 63. "I've made money and lost money, but I haven't yet hit the home run."

Craig said he hasn't bid on a lease on state land in six years. The state's price hike was "astronomical," he said. It has pushed small investors and larger operators out of the picture.

But he's not giving up hope.

One of his best acquisitions came in 2002, when he acquired leases at the little-known Umiat field on federal land, he said.

Oil was discovered in the area, about 100 miles west of the Dalton Highway, starting in the late 1940s during a federal exploration program.

Not a geologist, Craig learned about the field researching federal records at Anchorage's Loussac Library. It has 1 billion barrels of oil in place, and recoverable reserves of up to 200 million barrels.

Craig sold the leases to an independent oil company that spent millions studying the area. Development was stymied by the oil-price crash that began in 2014. A new company, Malamute Energy, owns the leases.

Craig hopes to someday get a royalty share there, if or when development occurs: "I look forward to the day when it goes into production."

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