JUNEAU, Alaska — A massive plan to move natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope to North American markets will cost an estimated US$35 billion, according to its planners, setting the stage for a high-stakes showdown with a competing project led by a Canadian company.
Details of the Denali project, a joint effort of ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) and BP PLC (NYSE:BP), were released Wednesday in a filing with the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Denali proposes a pipeline stretching more than 2,735 kilometres, with delivery points along the way to help meet gas needs in Alaska and Canada. It bills the project as “one of the largest private investments in the history of North America.”
Denali is competing with a proposal being advanced by Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP), and Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM) of Irving, Texas.
That project, which has been promised up to US$500 million from the state for eligible costs, has estimated its cost at between US$20 billion and US$41 billion, depending on the route, with an option crossing Alaska and into Canada estimated at US$32 billion to US$41 billion.
TransCanada plans to begin courting gas producers and seeking shipping commitments as early as May 1 as part of what’s called an open season. Wednesday’s filing by Denali sets up expected back-to-back open seasons, with Denali hoping to hold its own as early as July.
Both projects aim to be in service by 2020, with plans to deliver about 4.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day to North American markets via larger lines to Canada.
Which one will prove to be the more viable? Will either?
“No one is going to build two pipelines,” said Larry Persily, the federal co-ordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects. The question then becomes who gets on board with which project, and what will be needed to make a project more economical.
It’s already widely anticipated that bids made in the open season process will be conditioned, with companies wanting to negotiate with the state on long-range tax and royalty terms.
Earlier this year, Tony Palmer, TransCanada’s vice-president of Alaska Development, said he believed the most effective way to move his project ahead was by forming an alliance with the state, Exxon Mobil, Britain’s BP and Houston-based ConocoPhillips, the North Slope’s current major players.
Denali, which is moving ahead without the state support that TransCanada’s plan is getting, notes the risks involved.
It is seeking leeway to consider other options — a scaled-down project, an entirely different project, such as a line to a liquefied natural gas facility, or allowances to drum up additional support for the original — if it doesn’t get commitments for at least 85 per cent of the line’s capacity at open season.
TransCanada successfully bid for a state pipeline licence and the promise of a US$500-million reimbursement under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act pushed by then-governor Sarah Palin. It’s proposal also has an option for a liquefied natural gas facility that would export the fuel by ship.
For years, a natural gas pipeline has been billed as a way for Alaska to shore up royalty revenues, since projections call for a continued decline in North Slope oil production. While oil is still king in the state, estimates have put proven reserves of gas on the North Slope at 35 trillion cubic feet.
Debate has focused on how best to capitalize on that resource, but in recent months that debate has also been coloured by skepticism among some legislators.
They wonder if the idea of a mainline to North America is an idea past its prime, with other gas plays ahead of Alaska’s, and whether there will be sufficient demand beyond the next decade to make a major project succeed for all involved.
A recent report by IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates referred to a “shale gale” that is changing supply and price outlooks for gas and competition among energy choice. By 2035, the report found, shale gas could account for 50 per cent of the U.S. natural gas supply, up from 20 per cent currently.
The report also credited shale with helping to bring the level of North America’s discovered gas resources to an amount sufficient to meet current energy needs for more than 100 years.
But Doug Reynolds, a professor of energy economics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that shouldn’t be seen as a death knell to an Alaska pipeline project.
While acknowledging the potential of shale gas, Reynolds also noted environmental concerns associated with developing it as well as infrastructure and other costs that he believes would allow room for Alaska gas to be competitive and make money on the market.
He said the volume of gas envisaged by the Alaska pipeline proposals is a “small part” of the demand. U.S. consumers used about 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day in 2009.
“It’ll happen,” Reynolds said of a pipeline project. “It’ll happen. … This is all a game,” with the major players waiting to negotiate terms with the state, he said.