Alaskans are fond of saying “it’s our oil” when talking about the North Slope. Yet we as Alaskans have never invested in the development of “our oil.”
Instead, from the beginning of the North Slope oil era, Alaska has effectively out-sourced responsibility for investing in the development of its oil to independent companies — the “producers.”
Under the lease form used since statehood, the producers have agreed to pay an up-front bonus (the source of the $900 million received by Alaska in 1969) and bear the entire amount of the investment required to develop the lands. In exchange, the state contractually has agreed — since it is entirely the producers’ money — that the producers largely can set the pace and amount of subsequent investments they make once oil is discovered.
At various times, the state has attempted to direct oil company investment from the back seat, through regulation and, more recently, tax policies tilted to favor investment in some activities at the expense of others. Because continually evolving policies do not create a stable, long term economic environment and, at least with respect to the tax approach, put Alaska’s legislators — rather than investors — in the business of picking economic winners and losers, those policies largely have been ineffective in eliciting large-scale new investment and production.
While prevalent throughout the United States, the system Alaska historically has used for oil investment is not the only approach. Indeed, in other parts of the world, particularly where, as in Alaska, the resources are owned by the government, other approaches are much more common.
A consistent theme of those other approaches is that the state, usually through an independent, investment-oriented corporation in many ways similar to Alaska’s Permanent Fund Corp., retains a working interest and invests alongside the producers in the development of the state’s resources. In short, the state acts as an active — instead of passive — owner and contributes a portion of the investment and cost required to develop its oil.
As an investor, the state corporation assumes a proportionate voice in the pace and direction of the development of the oil resources. In addition, because it has paid for a portion of the development costs, the state corporation receives detailed information about the resources sufficient to enable it to understand the nature of the opportunities available for investment. Finally, the state corporation participates in the profitability of the oil by receiving a share of the production equal to the level of its investment.
Done in the right way, co-investment directly aligns the economic interests of the producers and the state in the development of the state’s resources at a level not possible under Alaska’s current, back-seat approach. Using common information and with the same objective of making money, both focus on investing in and developing the opportunities offering the greatest opportunity for returns.
The approach also brings added strengths. The state brings a focus — and money — to opportunities that otherwise might be overlooked. Because the state corporation suffers directly from any uncertainty, the approach also facilitates a stable, long-term economic environment.
If implemented here, co-investment also would profit Alaskans in another way. Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan has estimated that Alaska requires between $4 billion and $5 billion of investment per year in order to stabilize and begin growing North Slope oil production. Current investment levels are substantially short of that target. Co-investment could help close that significant gap while earning profits for the state and reassuring producer investors that the state will act rationally.
In other parts of the world, “co-investment” has produced significant success. For example, on a fact-finding mission last year along with other Alaskans, we saw evidence that, through co-investment, Norway has maintained ongoing levels of investment in oil and gas development that substantially exceed Alaska’s recent experience.
Alaska needs to revive the development of “its” oil. The co-investment model offers an opportunity for Alaska actively to partner in that process and share, as an investor, in the profits.
Bradford Keithley is a partner, co-head of the oil and gas practice at the law firm Perkins Coie, LLP, and publisher of the blog, “Thoughts on Alaska Oil & Gas.” Rebecca Logan is the general manager of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance. They live in Anchorage.