ANCHORAGE - A new report from a prominent energy consulting firm says there is little chance that Alaska will see construction of a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48 anytime soon.
Massachusetts-based Cambridge Energy Research Associates concluded that in only one of four scenarios would a new Alaska gas line reach consumers by 2020. And that's only if gas prices stay high for 10 years.
In nearly all scenarios, North Slope gas would trail Canada's Mackenzie River Delta gas to market. The only exception is if North Slope gas were converted to a liquid and sent down the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
The report says the high cost of piping North Slope gas to the Lower 48, perhaps as high as $20 billion, "means that smaller, more easily digestible projects will continue to slowly push back the time at which this project might get under way."
Cambridge released the study in January to a list of high-priced subscribers including the state of Alaska, which paid $20,000. The Alaska comments are only a small part of the 200-page report, titled "New Realities, New Risks: North American Power and Gas Scenarios Through 2020."
The report builds on the growing stack of opinions, many sharply divergent, on prospects for developing North Slope gas.
A string of governors and lawmakers who see oil and gas as a way to pay for state government, plus Alaska businesses and other economic boosters, have tried for about three decades to bring the gas to market. But oil companies holding rights to the Slope's 35 trillion cubic feet of gas say a pipeline megaproject to ship it either to the Lower 48 or to Asia hasn't made economic sense.
However, over the past two years or so companies have shown more optimism that a pipeline could be built.
On Thursday, an executive with Conoco Phillips Alaska Inc., the state's top oil and gas producer, said his company believes a $19 billion, 3,600-mile pipeline to Chicago could get gas to market within 10 years.
But U.S. and Alaska lawmakers must pass laws immediately to firm up how much of the gas value government would take as taxes and royalties, and Congress would need to give producers a tax break if gas fell below a certain price, said Joe Marushack, vice president of North Slope gas for Conoco Phillips.
Given that, the company is "focused like a laser" on building a pipeline down the Alaska Highway across Canada to Alberta and then all the way to Chicago if necessary, said Marushack, speaking at the Pac Com industrial trade show that wrapped up Thursday at Sullivan Arena.
Marushack said he hadn't yet seen the Cambridge study and wouldn't comment on it "on the fly."
The full study isn't available publicly, but the state Department of Revenue wrote a summary.
The study sketches out four scenarios for bringing Arctic gas from either the North Slope or the Mackenzie Delta to market.
"The development of North America's Arctic gas is an old idea whose time has finally come," the study says. However, Mackenzie's clock is ticking faster than Alaska's under most Cambridge scenarios, which generally span different levels of economic growth, technology improvements, gas imports and world political stability.
Only under a scenario of modest economic growth, few tech advances, lower natural gas supplies and a price spike next year would a North Slope gas line be built by 2017, the study says. But Mackenzie gas would go to market sooner, in 2009.
One other Cambridge scenario, however, also would see much North Slope gas go to market, though not down a Lower 48 pipeline. Rather, large amounts would be chemically transformed to a liquid that could slide down the existing oil pipeline. That would happen beginning in 2009 under a "world in turmoil" scenario of high oil and gas prices and terrorism threats that could shut down liquefied natural gas ports, the study says. Under this scenario, Mackenzie gas would go to market by 2014.
BP, another major Alaska oil company, has an experimental gas-to-liquids plant at Nikiski, and Conoco Phillips is building one in Oklahoma. But Conoco Phillips executives recently have said they doubt the gas-to-liquids option is a winner for the North Slope.
The state Revenue Department stressed that the Cambridge study assumed no federal price supports for Alaska gas and that its scenarios do not constitute predictions.