Alaska's gas line dream is out of alignment

 

October 25, 2023 | View PDF



Alaska officials who say the stars are aligned for the long-dreamt, long-on-the-odds multibillion-dollar North Slope natural gas project are confusing shiny stars with black holes.

Like the black hole the state already has poured close to a billion dollars into over the past two decades, thinking that international markets would like expensive Alaska gas better than lower-risk, less costly gas from anywhere else.

But unlike black holes, where the force of gravity is so strong that nothing escapes, the Alaska gas line dream continues to survive another day or another decade.

The latest straw that pipeline believers are drinking through is the subsidized belief that if the federal government throws billions of dollars in aid to the project, maybe all that free money will make the overpriced project look better to investors and customers.

Ironic in a state that consistently supports candidates who criticize federal spending. No matter, Alaska is a resource development state, so a little political inconsistency is to be expected.

Gas line supporters believe the federal aid will help lift the project from the discard pile of proposed liquefied natural gas export projects worldwide, moving it to the featured display table for shoppers looking to sign purchase contracts.

The federal aid the Alaska LNG export project might receive could include tax credits for sequestering carbon dioxide underground, along with attractive federal guarantees of the construction debt that project developers would owe to lenders.

Even if federal subsidies were good public policy, the stars-in-alignment believers are missing, or ignoring, some crucial sales points in the marketplace.

The U.S. Gulf Coast, the largest LNG producer in the world, just keeps getting bigger. Already there are five export terminals in operation, with two more — among the largest in Texas and Louisiana — scheduled to start operations next year, all producing the fuel at a lower cost than Alaska.

Sure, the Gulf Coast is a lot farther away from Asia than Alaska, driving up shipping costs, but their construction and operating expenses are much lower, and all are connected to an existing, diversified pipeline supply of U.S. and Canadian gas more than 40 times the volume that would come from the North Slope. No gas supply risk there — a big selling point to utilities that will not accept supply chain excuses.

If buyers really are partial to North America LNG from the West Coast, the Shell-led project in British Columbia is nearing completion and should be up and running in 2025, with an affordable option of doubling its capacity in the years ahead.

Not wanting to sit out the market, a coalition of nine Canadian gas producers and a First Nations are backing a second British Columbia West Coast project.

On Mexico’s West Coast, two LNG export terminals are under construction or development, both relying on a plentiful supply of affordable U.S. gas from just across the border.

There are some stars in Alaska’s favor, but not enough. We’re like the overpriced home that shoppers tour for the free cookies and to see the flooring and tile work but never come back to make an offer.

Meanwhile, government-run South Korean banks are helping to finance a new LNG project in Texas — the eighth on the Gulf Coast — with a targeted in-service date of 2027. Industry majors like ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, TotalEnergies and Shell are investing in Qatar’s massive expansion of LNG production, adding two and a half times as much capacity as the proposed Alaska project. Japanese gas buyers are looking at signing on, too.

It doesn’t mean Alaska’s stargazers are wrong to hope, they just need to check the focus on their telescope. Financial reality, not astrology, determines multibillion-dollar gas investment decisions.

 

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