Permanent fund to hire adviser on gas pipeline

Consultant would decide whether North Slope gas line project would be a wise investment

Posted: Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., which oversees the state's $33 billion oil-wealth savings account, plans to hire by next month an adviser who will recommend whether the fund should invest in a North Slope natural gas pipeline.

The corporation sent out a request for proposals at the end of February for an adviser who would first educate the corporation's trustees and staffs on the pros and cons of investing in energy projects. The adviser would then determine whether the North Slope gas pipeline project is a worthy investment and whether it fits in with the permanent fund's portfolio.

Permanent Fund Chief Executive Mike Burns told the House Ways and Means Committee on Monday that the decision to invest will be determined solely on whether the investment is for the good of the fund.

BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips have agreed in principle to fiscal terms with the state, a key step in moving ahead with the pipeline project from the North Slope through Canada and to markets in the Midwest. The pipeline has been estimated to cost $25 billion or more to build.

The negotiations with the producers have included the state owning part of the pipeline - up to 20 percent.

According to the corporation's request for proposals, the permanent fund could put up half of the state's ownership interest, or $2.5 billion at the $25 billion estimate.

The terms must still be released for public comment and be ratified by the Legislature. That won't happen until a bill changing the state's oil and gas production tax passes the Legislature and can be incorporated into the contract, Gov. Frank Murkowski has said.

Burns said nine potential bidders participated in a conference call last week. The proposals are due on March 20 and the corporation plans to announce the winning bid on April 5.

The initial portion of the contract would begin immediately afterward, but the remainder of the contract would depend on when the state and producers release an agreement, Burns said.

Burns also told lawmakers Monday that the confidentiality regulations the corporation released last November have not changed the information the permanent fund keeps out of the public eye.

The regulations implement laws that have been in existence since 1980, Burns said. The information being kept confidential is typically proprietary information of the fund's managers of particular types of alternative investments, such as hedge funds, Burns told the committee.

Rebecca Braun, publisher and editor of the independent newsletter Alaska Budget Report, wrote Ways and Means committee members that her publication has had 13 public records requests denied or else portions of the records redacted by the corporation since Dec. 27.

The possible permanent fund investment in a gas pipeline is an example of why public scrutiny is needed, she wrote.

"Using the fund to support in-state projects rather than managing it for maximum return would be a deviation from the practices and, arguably, the principles that have guided fund investments to date," Braun wrote.

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