AJOC EDITORIAL: The discoveries that almost didn’t happen

  • Supporters of an effort to repeal the oil tax cuts approved by the state Legislature in 2013 wave signs on primary day in 2014 in Anchorage. The effort failed, and the evidence shows the state is better off for their loss. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

We aren’t hearing much from the opponents of the 2013 oil tax reform lately.

Facts tend to get in the way of rhetorical hyperbole, and it appears that reality has finally caught up with Democrats and Gov. Bill Walker, who collectively agitated for the repeal Senate Bill 21 in a 2014 voter referendum.

Losing that fight didn’t end the debate, however.

Nor did the undisputed evidence from Walker’s own Revenue Department that SB 21 was bringing in more money than the previous system as prices started to slide late in 2014.

Record employment and record drilling on the North Slope in 2015 didn’t stop the noise, either.

The 2016 fiscal year increase in production — the first since 2002 — was barely noted as the news came amid a chaotic end to the session and Walker vetoing some $1.3 billion in spending on June 29, about half of which was cutting the Permanent Fund Dividend to $1,000.

The calendar year also closed with an increase in production, which followed by only a couple weeks the third-best lease sale on the North Slope since the area-wide offerings began in 1998.

Now comes the news that ConocoPhillips has followed the Nanushuk formation now under development by Armstrong Energy and Repsol with one of its own in the same play that holds 300 million barrels of oil that could flow at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day.

The Armstrong-Repsol project in the neighboring Pikka Unit could flow at a rate of 120,000 barrels per day.

Those two projects combined are a bit less than half of the current fiscal year average through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System of 510,000 barrels per day, and both companies are further exploring their acreage this winter with the belief there’s even more to be found.

Add in ConocoPhillips’ Greater Mooses Tooth 1 and 2 now in construction and permitting, respectively, and that’s another 60,000 barrels per day with GMT-1 to provide half that total beginning late in 2018.

 Should the more longshot prospect being explored by Caelus come to fruition with up to 200,000 barrels per day from Smith Bay, we now have developments that nearly equal the current throughput potentially coming online by the early 2020s.

As we ring in the new year with the state expected to lose 7,500 jobs in 2017 and the sharply divided Legislature convening with its last best chance at fixing a $3 billion-budget deficit, it is the oft-maligned oil industry that is providing a lone ray of hope for the Alaska economy.

When the Legislature inevitably takes up oil tax policy this session, it is important to remember who was completely wrong about SB 21. All of the current developments and the 2016 increase in production would have been at risk if the Democrats and Walker had their way in 2014.

Walker, for his part, had a convenient case of amnesia in responding to the ConocoPhillips announcement after he proposed tax increases on the oil industry just last session.

“It demonstrates that Alaska remains an attractive place to do business and look for oil,” Walker said.

Certainly it does “remain” attractive, but that’s no thanks to Walker or Democrats whose preferred policy resulted in continued annual decline and no discoveries.

It is not hard to draw a straight line from the change in policy in 2013 with the increase in activity and possibly the biggest find since Kuparuk on the North Slope with the Nanushuk play.

ConocoPhillips drilled no exploration wells in 2010, 2011 or 2012. It drilled three last year, made a big find and snapped up hundreds of thousands of acres around its discovery in December despite losing billions in 2015 and 2016 as prices cratered.

The only good thing about that was a temporary pause in Sen. Bill Wielechowski’s banal quarterly press releases pointing to ConocoPhillips profits as a reason to jack up its taxes.

“There is a direct correlation between investment and tax policy,” ConocoPhillips Alaska President Joe Marushack said on Jan. 13 as he described the company’s process for allocating capital between Alaska and the rest of its global portfolio.

“If the tax changes, the economics change, the allocation changes,” he said. “It’s very simple.”

So simple even the Democrats and the governor should be able to get it.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
01/18/2017 - 12:21pm

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