Field fight over?
Alaska, Exxon have ‘resolution in principle’ on Point Thomson, Sullivan says
For Petroleum News
A top Alaska official signaled strongly Aug. 15 that the six-year fight for control of the Point Thomson oil and gas field might soon be over.
Dan Sullivan, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, told a legislative committee the state and ExxonMobil, the Point Thomson unit operator, have reached “resolution in principle” on terms to settle the legal conflict.
“We believe that this is a resolution that advances the state’s interests,” Sullivan told the Senate Resources Committee, meeting in Anchorage. “ExxonMobil now is discussing the provisions of the settlement with other working interest owners of the unit, who are also the other litigants in the current lawsuit.”
Terms of the settlement remain confidential, Sullivan said.
He noted the matter is more involved than simply the state and ExxonMobil reaching a deal, as the Point Thomson WIOs also are working out “internal commercial terms between themselves.”
Sullivan’s remarks are the most significant sign yet that the struggle over the rich but undeveloped field is coming to a close, heading off what easily could be years more litigation between DNR and the major Point Thomson stakeholders. Besides ExxonMobil the major players include BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.
Alaska economic development boosters are anxious to see the legal cloud lifted from Point Thomson, as it contains roughly a quarter of the North Slope’s 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Many believe that all the gas, including the Point Thomson reserves, are needed to make a North Slope gas pipeline a viable project.
A settlement also conjures intriguing possibilities for how the field’s considerable endowment of oil and other hydrocarbon liquids might be exploited. Full-blown development of these resources could generate a boomlet of industry activity on the Slope.
Private briefing offered
DNR began taking firm steps to break up the Point Thomson unit and reclaim the state-owned acreage in 2005, during the administration of Gov. Frank Murkowski.
The state’s beef is the lack of any production to date from Point Thomson, despite its discovery decades ago in the late 1970s.
The field is located along the Beaufort Sea coast next to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The oil companies went to court to block the state’s effort to break up the unit, and today the case rests before the Alaska Supreme Court.
In recent weeks, DNR and the oil companies have filed heavy legal briefs, suggesting that no out-of-court settlement was near.
Yet the two sides have been negotiating for a year or more, with Gov. Sean Parnell and ExxonMobil executives stating publicly they wanted to settle the dispute.
Sullivan offered to brief legislators on the settlement terms “in a confidential setting.”
“Thank you, commissioner, I think that we would probably seek to take advantage of that offer because I think ... it is a material step forward,” replied Sen. Joe Paskvan, a Fairbanks Democrat and committee co-chairman.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, asked Sullivan whether it was “fair to say that the state and Exxon are through negotiating and that negotiations that are taking place now are between Exxon and its partners. In other words, we made sort of our last best offer.”
Sullivan: “I think it’s fair to say.”
During the court proceedings, some friction emerged among the Point Thomson working interest owners, with Chevron, BP and ConocoPhillips complaining that they had been shut out of the negotiations between the state and ExxonMobil.
Deal timing unclear
ExxonMobil was measured in its response to Sullivan’s remarks. The company provided this statement via e-mail to Petroleum News and other media outlets:
“We’re aware of the State’s testimony on August 15, 2011 at the legislative committee hearings. We remain committed to working with Governor Parnell’s administration and the other working interest owners to finalize a settlement.
“Settling Point Thomson litigation and securing necessary local, state and federal permits is imperative to maintain the pace of Point Thomson development.”
The question naturally came up at the legislative hearing as to when a settlement could be finalized.
“When would you anticipate that the deal would be official and could be made public?” Paskvan asked Sullivan. “What’s the timeline on that — is that 90 days, 45 days?”
Sullivan replied: “You know, Mr. Chairman, I really don’t know. Our interest would be soon. In some ways those discussions right now are ... the timeline of those, we’re not necessarily driving that anymore.”
The other committee co-chairman, Republican Sen. Tom Wagoner of Kenai, said he’s been involved with the issue of Point Thomson development through three administrations, and he congratulated Sullivan on getting this far.
“I know it’s been a real battle that started with the Murkowski administration and went right on through,” Wagoner said. “Well, it’s very, very essential to the completion of the large pipeline.”
“Sen. Wagoner, we’re not, it’s not over yet,” Sullivan said. “As you know, anytime you work on settling litigation it’s never easy. You never get fully everything you want.”
What sort of development?
Sullivan noted that, while Point Thomson gas is considered important for a North Slope gas pipeline, the field also is rich in petroleum liquids, and production of those liquids could help stem the oil throughput decline on TAPS, the trans-Alaska pipeline system.
While construction of a gas line appears far from imminent, with no project yet confirmed, ExxonMobil itself created an incentive for wrapping up a Point Thomson deal as quickly as possible.
The company has pledged to begin production of 10,000 barrels a day of natural gas condensate, a liquid hydrocarbon, from Point Thomson by year-end 2014.
Already, the company has drilled two wells at Point Thomson, having obtained special permission from DNR in 2009 to sink the holes on two of the unit’s 31 leases. ExxonMobil and its partners proceeded with the drilling as part of a strategy to hang onto the field, which is worth billions of dollars.
But the Nabors 27-E rig used to drill the wells has been demobilized, and ExxonMobil would appear to have a tight window now for installing facilities to produce the condensate by the 2014 deadline.
A 22-mile pipeline also must be built to connect the remote Point Thomson field to the Slope’s existing pipeline network.
Of course, the deal now on the table between DNR and ExxonMobil might feature a whole new development scenario.
“The settlement is focused on the development of the Point Thomson unit which contains both hydrocarbon liquids and gas and we believe that the settlement of this litigation should help advance the strategic goals of filling TAPS and commercializing North Slope gas,” Sullivan told legislators.
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