Lack of public information about BP to Hilcorp sale leads to concerns
Late last year, Hilcorp Energy Company announced that they intend to purchase all of BP’s Alaska-related assets. These assets include approximately 49% interest of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.
Assuming the deal goes through, Hilcorp will take over BP’s facilities on Alaska’s North Slope and their affiliate Harvest Alaska LLC will take over BP’s share of the pipeline and terminal. Harvest’s specialty is “midstream” operations, which means moving oil from the production site to a destination such as a refinery or shipping terminal.
Harvest representatives have stated that their company has grown mostly through acquiring existing facilities and operating them through the end of the facility’s life. They have said that their experience with issues that occur in aging facilities, such as corrosion, would be a benefit for the pipeline and terminal, which is now over 40 years old.
The pipeline, the Valdez terminal, and the tanker escort system are all managed by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Currently, Alyeska is jointly owned by BP Alaska; ConocoPhillips Transportation Alaska, which owns 29%; ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, which owns 21%; and Unocal Pipeline Company, which owns a little over one percent. Alyeska is directly responsible for all maintenance, operations, legal, accounting, and personnel activities in these facilities. Hilcorp and Harvest have stated that Alyeska will retain control and responsibility over these facilities. They also said that decisions would still be made by consensus between the three majority owners: Hilcorp, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil.
Overseas Shipping Group is planning to purchase Alaska Tanker Company, from whom the new owners will charter tankers to transport oil from the terminal. This means the current tankers are expected to remain shipping oil from the Valdez Marine Terminal for Hilcorp.
Sale pending approval
Before the sale can be completed, the Regulatory Commission of Alaska must approve the transaction. This commission regulates utilities and pipeline carriers in the State of Alaska. Other state agencies will weigh in on the transaction as well.
After the announcement, questions arose about whether Hilcorp has the financial and organizational capacity to safely operate the system and to prevent and respond to oil spills and other safety or environmental incidents.
Hilcorp and Harvest requested that the commission keep their financial documents and the sale agreement confidential. The companies are private, meaning they do not sell shares of stock to the public and are subject to less oversight. The companies provided all requested financial documents to the commission, but argued that because they are private, divulging financial information to the public would put them at a competitive disadvantage during future business negotiations.
Many of the submitted comments, including the Council’s, recommended release of financial documents and a more transparent process. The commission has not made the decision whether to grant this request.
Concern over incidents and regulatory citations
The commission held a public comment period on the sale in late 2019.
“The Council is concerned over Hilcorp’s documented track record of significantly reducing operating costs,” the Council stated in their comments. The Council cited Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s online spill records, which shows that over the course of Hilcorp’s operations in Alaska, which began in 2012, over 90 crude oil spills or discharges were attributed to the company. These incidents included the death of an employee in 2018, and a 2017 gas leak in Cook Inlet that lasted over four months.
The Council pointed out that Hilcorp’s disproportionately high number of incidents were during operation of systems much smaller than the pipeline system they plan to purchase and recommended heightened scrutiny of the sale.
Implications for end of life of the pipeline system
Part of the lease agreement for the pipeline includes an obligation on the part of the owners to dismantle and remove the equipment and restore the land to a satisfactory condition after the system is shut down. This includes the pipeline and the terminal. As part of the sale agreement, BP will retain the responsibility to pay for these expenses. It is not clear what regulatory agency will have the authority to ensure BP’s resources are available at that time.