Friday, December 27, 2013

Alaska's eggs are all in the oil basket, like Norway, we have screwed up

Alaska’s Legislature and Governor like to point to Norway’s success with its savings account from Norway’s oil development. Over the last 50 years, Norway has managed to sock away $740 billion in the Norwegian Oil Fund (NOF), Norway’s savings account from oil development royalties. Is Norway’s fund truly the outstanding example of sound fiscal management pointed to by our politicians?

Jerome Vitenburg, an international political analyst, citing a 2011 study by Michael Hudson of the University of Missori, in the Washington Times says no, Norway has not been a good steward of the incredible wealth afforded by the oil boom. Bad investments, a rapidly expanding welfare state, and the failure to invest in Norway’s industry and infrastructure raise serious doubts about Norway’s financial future. Like Alaska, Norway has failed to invest wisely in itself.

Norway has failed to improve its non-oil related industrial infrastructure. Norway has invested heavily outside of Norway. Alaska has done the same.

There is no requirement under Alaska statutes for a percentage of Alaska’s Permanent Fund to be invested into Alaska. (AS 37.13)

Increased production threatens Norway’s oil revenues as oil prices are expected to fall with new production coming on-line in the U.S. and elsewhere from shale deposits and new technologies improving recovery. Alaska faces the same potentially draconian economic future.

Alaska is also particularly vulnerable to such a decrease in oil revenue. This year is expected to be the first year of deficits between spending and revenue, by -$500,000,000, since the precipitous drop in the price of oil in the 1980s and in 1999, when oil dropped to $20 per barrel. Delays in building a natural gas pipeline to tidewater further accelerates Alaska’s coming fiscal collapse, because of the failure of the Legislature to understand the LNG market and Governor Sean Parnell’s insistence in adhering to Sarah Palin’s failed AGIA policy until very recently.

Governor Parnell has finally closed the Alaska Gasline Incentive Act (AGIA) office. Prior to his Natural Resources Commissioner recently announcing that the State would consider a direct investment to secure 20% of the project ownership, Parnell steadfastly stood by Sarah Palin’s Alaska Gas Inducement Act (AGIA) guidelines. Now, it looks as if the Parnell Administration has realized that Bill Walker was correct in his promoting the State’s involvement in a major natural gas infrastructure investment.

Unfortunately for Alaska, Parnell has yet to ask the Legislature to provide the legislative authority to make such an investment and to set a time table for construction. Governor Parnell continues to wait for the oil companies to make that decision. Something that they have been extremely reluctant to do, as they do not want Alaska’s North Slope gas doing other than pressurizing the North Slope oil fields until technology can allow the recovery of most of the 20 billion barrels of oil from oil sands deposits under the surface of the North Slope. The "money" for the oil companies is in oil production, not natural gas production. They have plenty of natural gas from foreign sources and shale plays in the lower-48. They do not need nor want Alaska’s natural gas in the world market competing with these other interests.

There are serious conflicts of interest on the part of the oil companies with their foreign developments, which would compete with Alaska LNG for market share in Asia. TransCanda also has a conflict of interest with its contract with Shell for a natural gas pipeline to Kitmat, B.C., Alaska’s competition as an LNG export terminus. Unfortunately, the AGIA legislation and subsequent contract with TransCanada never required "conflict of interest" as a condition to justify cancellation by the State of Alaska. Only economic conditions are stated as a basis for cancellation by the State. An example of poor business judgement on the part of former Governor Sarah Palin.

Meanwhile, Japanese LNG customers are paying $16 per million British thermal units (MMbtus) for delivered LNG. In 2010, a study by Woodward MacKenzie demonstrated delivery of Alaska LNG to Japan could be done for approximately $8.50/MMbtus. Yet, in the intervening time period since the 2010 elections, the Parnell Administration failed to move any natural gas pipeline proposal forward, preferring instead to seemingly ignore the natural gas issues altogether, putting any lack of progress into the lap of the oil companies. The Legislature was given free reign by this governor to establish policy and direction. Parnell did manage to reduce the oil companies’ production taxes in a modification of Sarah Palin’s Alaska Clear and Equitable Share Act (ACES) of 2007.

What progress has been made on a pipeline proposal has been in favor of the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline (ASAP), which is the former bullet line. In late 2012, Congress authorized a 7 mile right of way through Denali National Park using the Parks Highway right of way. This surprise on the part of the Obama Administration coincided with the oil companies (Exxon, Conoco and British Petroleum) decision to "study" a pipeline terminus at Nikkiski, rather than use the established TAPS corridor to Valdez for any natural gas pipeline to move North Slope natural gas to tidewater. The economic viability of the ASAP line has been debated since first proposed as the bullet line under then pipeline coordinator Harry Noah appointed by then Governor Sarah Palin. AGIA limits the volume to no more than 500 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/da), making the ASAP pipeline, like the bullet line, uneconomical. The interesting aspect is that the State would have to fully finance the construction.

Bill Walker was heavily criticized during the 2010 gubernatorial primary for suggesting even a partial State buy-in as part of his all-Alaska natural gas pipeline plan. Such a buy-in to control management and to set time lines was termed "socialism", even by Ralph Samuels who was a proponent of the to be 100% State financed bullet line scheme concocted under then Gov. Sarah Palin.

By contrast to Alaska’s lack of measurable new oil and gas exploration/development since the 2010 elections, Texas is now back up to 2 million barrels a day of oil production from shale deposits, doubling its production of two years ago. Texas expects to exceed that production and to see production rise to the levels of the 1960s and 1970s when oil production was well over 2 million barrels per day. As of December, 2012, oil production in North Dakota reached 770,000 barrels per day. North Dakota’s oil production now exceeds Alaska’s oil production. Alaska’s oil production is declining rapidly and is presently at 549,936 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids per day.

Improvements in production technology is resulting in the ability to recover more and more oil from shale plays and oil sands deposits. New technology is also allowing recovery from wells where production was reduced to the point of being uneconomical, because of paraffin impeding the oil flow. Increasing domestic U.S. oil production has led to demands by the oil companies for legislation allowing the export of crude oil from domestic U.S. production for the first time since the 1960s. For the first time in decades, energy independence is being spoken of with certainty in the U.S. The increasing supply should lead to a decline in oil prices.

Norway’s oil fund is limited to investing no more than 4% of its NOF in Norway. The bankers and accountants who consulted to the Norwegian government applied a model of immediate return. Ignored by this economic investment model are the major government-level investments that are designed to facilitate growth in industry, to insure an educated and motivated work force, and to provide the transportation infrastructure needed to support commercial growth. However, the bankers and accountants won out with the argument that to invest in Norway’s small economy beyond 4% would cause inflation that would eventually devastate the local economy. The Alaska Permanent Fund was set up using a similar, shortsighted philosophy.

This same mentality of a quick turn around for money, investment in financial schemes rather than creation of equity through manufacturing and building, resulted in the ponzi schemes of the 80s and 90s of the ".com" stock failures and the sub-prime mortgage disaster, leading to the current recession with the bailouts, quantitative easing by the Fed, and the incredible spending of our Congress and President to no good end.

Europe was doing its own version, and the economic fall out is continuing there like it is here, with high unemployment, currency inflation, and an ongoing recession. Asia, mainly the PRC, is feeling the pinch as well, as the West is the primary beneficiary of its cheap labor and communist controlled economy.

Yet, the historical precedent for the growth of the Western economies was based upon the idea that government facilitated such growth by investing in the public sectors of utilities, transportation, and education to give the private sector the tools necessary to grow the country’s economy. The Tennessee Valley Power Authority is a prime example of a national initiative to increase power production in the U.S. in the 30s.

Instead of growing Alaska, Alaska’s leaders of the time, as had Norway’s leaders previously, decided to grow government as the means of giving the greatest benefit to the people of Alaska. A government that soon tired of public projects, and devoted itself to keeping the ‘hands out’ crowd happy and complacent by increasing welfare gratuities and growing government to do so, thereby directly benefitting fewer and fewer people, largely government employees. "Can’t" has become the new Alaska State Government policy to excuse the continuing lack of infrastructure. The only thing created these days is more welfare spending programs and a bigger bureaucracy at every level of government.

There are people who worked in Alaska for a city government, vested, then vested with a borough government, then did the same with the State, as some local subdivisions required vestments of only five years. Once they retired from the State, they left the State with multiple retirement vestments from three levels of government, full life-time medical, and great retirement benefits. In other words, they raped us, and they are still doing this today.

Former Governor Jay Hammond, the father of Alaska’s Permanent Fund and Permanent Fund Dividend program, never intended that the PFD become an entitlement. It was always intended that either the PFD would be offset by an income tax, or discontinued when the oil production declined beyond a sustainable level for government to justify the payment to the people. The PF was to be used as a ‘rainy day’ fund, similar to the intent for the Norwegian Oil Fund. This flawed strategy is now coming home to Alaska’s current Legislature and Governor Sean Parnell. Neither is doing anything to prepare this State for a post oil economy.

In a 2011 analysis "What Does Norway Get Out of its Oil Fund, if Not More Strategic Infrastructure Investment", economist Michael Hudson warned of impending problems with the Norwegian Oil Fund investment strategy. Norway has been investing its National Oil Fund in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and in questionable real estate in Europe and the U.S. The investments in China, Brazil and India being used to create industry and infrastructure that will compete with Norway’s indigenous industries.

In the current world economic recession, such investments are questionable in the long term, given the economic uncertainties and the current penchant for currency inflation to make products more competitive by the aforementioned countries. The infrastructure investments that are the responsibility of government to keep Norway competitive in a changing global economy remain underdeveloped and ignored, while the social welfare burden continues to increase in the face of declining oil revenues. Even in the face of $740 billion in its NOF, Norway has managed to accrue $657 billion in foreign debt. Norway has borrowed money even with the NOF.

The United States became the economic power house that it did, because the government invested in the infrastructure to facilitate the growth of business and to access natural resources through roads, airports, harbors, schools, utilities, and regulatory oversight. Regulatory oversight at the time was designed to facilitate, not to impede growth. Part of the infrastructure created being necessary to the national defense. The U.S. interstate highway system is a good example of military necessity also serving the needs of commerce.

Mr. Hudson opined that 60% of the Norwegian Oil Fund should have been invested in Norway to build non-oil industry infrastructure to hedge against the competing oil production increases resulting from the U.S. and other foreign shale and normal production and improvements in recovery technologies. With the increased supply in the market, oil prices should decline. Norway’s investment in foreign growth is now paying a negative dividend to the future of the Norwegian economy.

Hudson gave the following example of the shortsightedness of the use of Norway’s oil fund money by comparing how those countries that benefitted from Norway’s investments are using their funds:

"While investing at home to improve their quality of life, China, Singapore and other nations manage their Sovereign Wealth Funds with an eye to shaping their economies for the next twenty, thirty or even fifty years. They are buying control of the key foreign technologies and raw materials deemed most critical to their long-term growth. This broad scope invests export earnings directly to make their economies more competitive while raising living standards."

Norway’s oil wealth has gone to the benefit of other countries through investment in business and in direct investment in infrastructure projects, all of which serves to build their economies at no direct benefit to Norway’s economic future. Foreign investment makes it easier for those governments to make the needed investments in their infrastructure, and to procure foreign raw materials sources for future growth, because the Western investor is paying for the growth of their companies, both private and state owned enterprises, without consideration of the long term impact upon their home countries’ economies.

Unfortunately, for Alaska and Alaskans, our Permanent Fund is largely doing the same: investing outside of Alaska without benefit other than a check once year to each Alaskan, the continued expansion of a bloated self-serving government, and an increasingly demanding welfare state that will collapse with the decrease in oil production in the very near future.

Alaska’s Regional Native Corporations follow the same strategy, which benefits a few, and pays off the many to keep them quiet with respect to seeing any benefit locally. However, they can sell their losses to solvent companies as a tax break to that company.

Norway, like Alaska is a literal one-trick pony, almost completely reliant upon oil for its revenue to run its government, and to meet its growing social welfare state obligations.

Alaska’s Permanent Fund (PF) does not invest in Alaska. Anywhere but Alaska seems to be the strategy. The PF investment goal is an increase of Fund assets by 5% per annum. Our Legislature and Governors have concluded that Alaska is a bad investment: do not use the PF to build roads into the Bush, to improve harbors and airstrips in Alaska to reduce the cost of living and to provide for the defense of Alaska, or to access our natural resources for development, to increase the exploration and development of our hydrocarbon resources, or to provide for the basic services that government is charged to do for all Alaskans. Our budget, State and Federal funds last year was over $10B. Yet, not one mile of new road was built, nor were the current roads improved or repaired. Meanwhile, the PF continues to invest in the stock market, which is literally gambling with Alaska’s oil wealth. As of this year, Alaska’s public indebtedness was $8.2 billion.

Norway is not the standard to be followed. The debt structure alone is enough to dissuade the prudent man from believing that Norway’s government has been a good steward of the benefits of its oil reserves. Norway’s debt of $657 billion is foreign held debt. Meaning, Norway has borrowed money in the face of their oil fund’s wealth.

Alaska is again issuing bonds to finance purchases.

Without diversification of Norway’s economy by government investment to build the infrastructure to support non-oil related industry, Norway is ill prepared to compete in a world market once the oil is gone. Norway will have to compete with those very economies in which Norway’s oil wealth has been invested. China, Russia, India and Brazil continue to garner more and more world market share across industry sectors, while Norway is frozen in the belief that it can continue to expand its welfare state without investing in its economic future.

Sadly, Alaska follows this shortsighted course by our Governors’ (primarily Palin and Parnell) and the Legislature’s refusal to recognize the hydrocarbon market trends and act accordingly to invest in the infrastructure necessary to access and to support development of the tremendous resource wealth of this State. Instead of investing in Alaska, we have invested in our competitors’ economies, and in policies and regulations by a distant federal government through federal bonds that serve only to further restrict Alaska’s ability of self-determination. Alaska’s debt structure is not as far along as Norway’s, but our lack of a viable transportation infrastructure makes much of Alaska as remote and our resources as unreachable as in most of the third world. Only there, they do not have a hostile and interfering federal oversight that serves other interests to deny Alaska its rightful self-determination as a State in the Union of States.

Given Alaska’s $10B budgets of late, $8.2B in indebtedness, how long will our $50B in the PF last? The trend is ever larger State budgets in the face of an average 6% loss of North Slope oil production each year. If there is a drop in the price of oil below $80 a barrel, Alaska will be in serious financial straits. Further, it is doubtful that the TAPS can deliver oil when production reaches 300,000 barrels per day or less. That day is not long off, given the 549,936 barrel per day level of production at present.

The Parnell Administration has continued to ignore the construction of a natural gas pipeline to tidewater that would, with the right governor at the helm, increase State revenues slightly, but have the potential to do much more. The long term benefit of such a project would be to provide any remaining gas liquids for use in Alaska to create a petrochemical industry for the Interior, and use part of the gas transported with the export volume to provide cheap heat and power for Alaska’s communities in the Interior and in South Central Alaska. Such in-state use of North Slope natural gas would impact industry across the board, and enable kilns for timber, refridgeration for agriculture, and the creation of jobs across industry to provide opportunity beyond just building and maintaining a pipeline. There is the true benefit of our resources, not in a mere export scheme to feed a bloated and inefficient State government that benefits a few, and not the many.

Such an in-state energy infrastructure project would further enable increasing the available gas in Cook Inlet, until exploration and development could catch up with increasing demand. The LNG terminal at Nikkiski would continue to export Cook Inlet LNG to Japan, as is still being done after 43+ years, without concerns about shortfalls in supplies for home heating.

A good indication that increasing natural gas supplies will positively impact the State is the December, 2012 air quality permit by Agrium to restart the fertilizer plant at Nikkiski on the Kenai Penninsula. Agrium shut down its Nikkiski plant in November, 2005 resulting in the loss of 230 local jobs.

Long term, well paying jobs would be the benefit of the correct application of governmental responsibility and involvement in large scale infrastructure projects, the natural gas pipeline being such an example of potential State participation. 30% of Alaska’s private sector jobs are oil industry related. Such State support would increase the size of the private sector beyond just the oil/gas industry support and services. The all-Alaska natural gas pipeline proposed by the Alaska Gas Port Authority during Sarah Palin’s campaign of 2006, and again in 2010 during Bill Walker’s run for governor in the Republican Primary was such a project.

High oil prices have kept the wolves of recession away. This keeps a private sector that largely serves government from facing the reality of the current world recession. However, the fires of growth are cooling, contrary to our federal government’s protestations to the contrary. Like Norway, the prospect of lower oil prices, declining production, and an indifferent Governor and Legislature point to uncertain and turbulent times for Alaska’s economy.

In 1999, the price of oil hit $20 a barrel. Today, that would mean the Permanent Fund would have to be used to defray the costs of government until the price of oil returned to sustainable levels. Something that could take longer than the PF would last.

Alaska First must be the only policy on the part of our Legislature and Governor, or Alaska will be the last to the world LNG market party and the loser by virtue of a retiring, reluctant and recalcitrant State government that has failed to see the need to invest in Alaska First. Vision, courage, commitment and leadership must replace the "can’t" in the Governor’s vocabulary. That means a change in governor.

Norway’s example as a steward of its oil wealth for the benefit of its people is not a good example for Alaska. Once again, our leaders have been short sighted in their consideration of Alaska’s future.

For more information:

Alaska Statutes:

AS 37.13.020

Alaska Division of Oil and Gas, Dept. of Natural Resources, SOA

Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Risk Vortex:

Alaska Public Debt 2012-2013

Michael Hudson is the President of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), Wall Street Financial analyst, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the U. of MO.

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