Construction industry outlook ‘challenging’

Alaska’s contractors will begin to feel the effects of the new oil reality in 2016 as statewide capital spending declines about 18 percent from last year, according to a construction industry forecast.

The University of Alaska Anchorage Institute for Social and Economic Research projects just more than $7.3 billion will be spent on capital projects in 2016. About $8.9 billion was spent on construction projects in Alaska last year.

“Our short-term outlook is challenging,” Associated General Contractors of Alaska Executive Director John MacKinnon said during a Jan. 28 presentation in Anchorage.

ISER compiles the industry data for AGC of Alaska’s annual spending forecast.

MacKinnon noted that the contraction in outlays is neither positive, nor a catastrophe; it takes the industry back to 2013 spending levels.

Statewide construction employment in 2013 peaked at 20,700 jobs in late summer and averaged 16,600 workers throughout the year, according to the state Labor Department. Preliminary Labor numbers show the industry averaged 18,100 workers in 2015.

Not surprisingly, the spending decline will be led by the oil and gas sector, which is expected to be down 25 percent at $3.1 billion from an all-time capital spending high of $4.2 billion last year, according to ISER Professor Emeritus Scott Goldsmith.

The annual wellhead value of North Slope crude has fallen from about $20 billion several years ago to $10 billion in 2015 and is projected to be roughly $5 billion this year, Goldsmith said.

Less revenue translates directly into less spending on exploration and maintenance of existing fields, he said.

However, spending on oil and gas development projects is often separate from immediate price fluctuations, as evidenced by the record 2015 industry capital spend in Alaska while oil prices fell throughout much of the year.

Several major projects, including Shell’s offshore Arctic exploration, the Point Thomson gas project led by ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips’ CD-5 oil development, mostly wrapped up last year, leading to an organic spending vacuum.

A bright spot for this year is ConocoPhillips’ $900 million Greater Moose’s Tooth No. 1 oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which was sanctioned late last year.

The age of the North Slope fields — Prudhoe Bay is closing in on 40 years of production — also helps spur workforce demand that is disparate from oil prices, Goldsmith said.

“One of the things that is a positive is that jobs in oil and gas related industries — construction related oil and gas — continue to grow as production declines,” he said. “Aging fields require more maintenance and smaller fields require more workers for a given barrel of oil.”

Projections were mixed for other industries outside of the dominant oil and gas sector, which supports about 40 percent of the total capital spend in the state.

Transportation spending, pegged at just more than $1 billion, will be down slightly due to less work on the state’s ports and harbors. 

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s Port MacKenzie rail extension, which has relied on state capital appropriations, is also stalled this year for lack of money.

Large state capital appropriations in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years have supported many projects across Alaska; however, expenditures from public-supported capital projects will fade in the coming years if the state continues with sparse capital budgets. According to ISER, money from public projects “hits the street” over six years after the initial approval, with peak monies available two years following the appropriation.

Gov. Bill Walker’s administration has proposed a $500 million general obligation bond package to fund capital projects in the 2017 budget being debated in Juneau now.

Utility spending is expected to be down by a third to $459 million in 2016 mainly because, similar to oil and gas, several large projects wrapped up in 2015. Matanuska Electric Association and Golden Valley Electric Association both commissioned new power plants in 2015 and Anchorage’s Municipal Light and Power is nearly done with its replacement plant started in 2014.

Most of the utility spending will be from nearly 50 small projects going on across the state, according to ISER.

Long-term, Alaska’s Railbelt electric utilities are currently debating whether major upgrades, estimated at upwards of $900 million, are needed for the region’s transmission system.

Defense spending is projected to reverse a several year trend and increase by more than 25 percent to $552 million this year. Work scheduled at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks includes a new flight simulator in preparation for new squadrons of F-35 fighters and upgrades to the base’s heat and power plant.

Upwards of $1 billion will be invested in missile defense systems over the coming years at Clear Air Force Station near Nenana and Delta Junction’s Fort Greely.

“Anytime that kid in North Korea starts playing with fireworks it bodes well for defense spending in Alaska,” MacKinnon quipped.

Construction spending by Alaska’s large mines will remain flat at about $180 million in 2016, despite depressed metal prices, Goldsmith said. He noted lower oil prices can help the bottom lines of the state’s mines, many of which are remote and rely heavily on diesel fuel for not only equipment but for electrical generation as well.

“I was surprised to find that all of the existing world-scale mines in Alaska are spending at higher rates than they have in years past and that’s to upgrade their facilities, to expand their facilities to be able to take advantage of new discoveries that will extend the lives of their mines,” Goldsmith said.

Health care’s capital spend will be down about 20 percent at $195 million, ISER projects, again, as new construction in Anchorage, Kenai and Ketchikan is completed.

Alaska’s health care industry has grown steadily both on the capital and employment sides for more than a decade.

One major hospital project expected to start this year is the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.’s new $287 million clinic and hospital in Bethel. YKHC received a $165 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan for the project, the largest single loan the USDA has ever approved, according to corporation leaders.

Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.