Arctic Refuge Oil Bonanza More Likely to Be Bust for GOP Budget

The Polar Pioneer drilling rig, pictured in 2012 while contracted to Shell to drill an exploratory well in Alaska’s North Slope in the Chukchi Sea . Photo: Shell Alaska

By Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Alex Nussbaum (Bloomberg) — Congressional Republicans counting on a $1 billion windfall from selling oil-drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to help pay for tax cuts may be in for a disappointment.

Data from previous Arctic oil lease sales suggest the U.S. is likely to collect less than a fifth of that billion-dollar goal over the next decade– about $145.5 million — from auctioning off territory in the sprawling northeast Alaska refuge where caribou calve and polar bears roam.

Oil companies may be scared away by the controversies and costs of drilling in that remote and fragile terrain. Even if they aren’t, crude prices would have to be some $15 more per barrel than they are today to make the effort pay off at all.

The potential revenues from drilling on Alaska’s north coast are in the spotlight because a Senate-passed budget resolution instructs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to come up with $1 billion in deficit reductions over the next decade to help offset the costs of a $1.5 trillion tax cut package. The panel is scheduled to hold a hearing on drilling in ANWR on Thursday.

“It’s pure fantasy that the Arctic refuge is going to generate anywhere close to the kind of revenues that are being spouted about right now,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, which opposes ANWR drilling. “This is a dry hole in the budget.”

The idea of tapping the 19-million acre preserve for its potential oil bounty has long been debated in Washington, pitting energy industry advocates who see it as a way to revive production on Alaska’s North Slope against environmentalists who argue the activity would jeopardize a pristine wilderness with arctic foxes, polar bears and caribou herds.

For decades, industry allies argued ANWR drilling was necessary to boost energy security and to create jobs. Now, after a shale drilling boom made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, proponents argue it’s essential for the state and federal budget.

Republicans are using congressional budget rules to advance both Arctic drilling and a planned tax overhaul. Legislation following the budget resolution’s instructions is immune from the kind of Democratic filibuster that has blocked previous bids to drill in ANWR, making the prospects for drilling there more likely than it has been than at any time in the last four decades.

Selling ANWR oil leases could yield significant royalties down the road. But that would only come after successful discoveries and construction of production facilities — not to mention near-certain lawsuits along the way.

By contrast, congressional revenue projections are built on a 10-year time frame, counting only the government’s possible haul from selling drilling rights — not royalty checks tied to possible later oil production.

It’s not clear how many energy companies would actually pursue the opportunity.

A 2005 U.S. Geological Survey review based on decades-old data said the refuge might hold between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of undiscovered but technically recoverable crude. That would rival the size of the mammoth Prudhoe Bay field that sparked the Alaskan oil rush four decades ago.

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But the government analysis did not project the commercial viability of ANWR development. Oil prices would have to be about $70 per barrel to justify production there, analysts say. The benchmark U.S. price was less than $55 Monday. Drilling in Alaska typically costs three times as much as in the Lower 48, according to industry researcher IHS Markit Inc.

“The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge does not have promising oil-bearing rock formations,” says Christopher Lewis, a retired petroleum geologist who worked for BP Plc on the Prudhoe Bay field and was a member of the American Petroleum Institute’s exploration committee. “There is not great interest in developing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are safer bets.”

Oil companies eager to maintain North Slope production and find new resources to fill the Trans Alaska Pipeline System are more likely to turn to the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23.5-million area in northwest Alaska explicitly set aside for energy development. It’s closer to existing infrastructure and less controversial.

ConocoPhillips already has operations in the petroleum reserve, but says that if ANWR were open for leasing, “we would consider it against other opportunities in our portfolio.”

“That being said, we see tremendous potential in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and remain focused on our projects and exploration plans there,” spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said.

To tackle ANWR, oil companies would have to navigate “costly logistics, lengthy permitting and opposition from environmental groups,” the research firm Wood Mackenzie said in a report last year. And all of that could be undone by the next presidential election.

“A future shift in the political landscape could put development of a potential discovery at risk,” the firm wrote. Studies show ANWR’s coastal plain holds “the largest undeveloped conventional oil resources to be found in the U.S.,” and they “could be developed in an environmentally responsible way,” said Erik Milito, a director with the American Petroleum Institute.

But the cost and complexity of operating in the Arctic magnify concerns about “regulatory uncertainty that discourage investment of the large amounts of capital required for projects in the Arctic,” he said.

Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, said companies that do step up to the auction block probably would discount their bids because of the policy and legal uncertainty — and the bad publicity.

“If you’re a CEO, that’s the X factor — how much do we put in a pot of litigation,” said David Murphy, an assistant professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University who has analyzed North Slope lease sales.

Aside from those risks, the average bid for North Slope leases, both offshore and onshore, since 2000 is $194 an acre, according to an analysis Murphy prepared for the Alaska Wilderness League. Bids on ANWR’s coastal plain would need to be more than six times that — $1,333 an acre — with every single acre drawing a bid in order to raise $2 billion. The U.S. and state of Alaska would likely split the proceeds, so that would make the net for the U.S. Treasury $1 billion.

“You’re counting in assumption after assumption after assumption,” Murphy said. At a certain point, “you’re just making stuff up about what the future might hold.”

Even a 2008 Chukchi Sea lease sale — in which Royal Dutch Shell stunned observers by spending $2.1 billion snapping up offshore leases — had an average price below the necessary threshold, amounting to $977 per acre.

Doug Reynolds, an energy economist at the University of Alaska, says the Trump administration’s projections on ANWR-related revenue over the next decade sounds ambitious, but that shouldn’t deter lawmakers from allowing drilling there.

“No one really knows what’s in ANWR,” he said. “Why not open ANWR as an oil security back stop? It can help national security and possibly save American lives.”

To argue against the move, environmentalists have been appealing to unlikely allies: fiscal hawks in Congress.

“Counting on any kind of revenue from leasing in the Arctic refuge — let alone the numbers that are being thrown around — is the height of fiscal irresponsibility,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. This “is a way to increase the federal deficit, not decrease it.”

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