The Elk Hills Naval Petroleum Reserve, on the auction block in President Reagan's fiscal 1987 budget, may eventually be worth two or three times what the administration expects to get for it next year, according to the General Accounting Office.
The report, released yesterday by Rep. Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind.), is the latest attack on the administration's attempt to put the nation's sixth largest oil reserve into private hands for an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion.
The GAO report calculated that the Elk Hills oil field near Bakersfield, Calif., would be worth as much as $9.1 billion in 1987 if oil prices rebounded to the $27-a-barrel level of late 1985. If prices rise more modestly to $22.80 a barrel, GAO's current "high" price projection, the field would be worth about $8.2 billion, the GAO said.
The effect of oil prices on the value of the field "underscores the significance of the timing of a potential sale of Elk Hills," the GAO said.
An Energy Department spokesman said yesterday that the $3 billion to $5 billion figure reflected a target price set by the Office of Management and Budget. "Those are current estimates," he said. "That's not what the department necessarily considers the selling price."
But Sharp said the report "demonstrates the shortsightedness of rushing to sell this valuable government oil field, despite low oil prices, just to meet current revenue needs. The taxpayers will get a better bargain if we wait to sell until oil prices rise."
According to GAO's analysis, Elk Hills' value in 1987, when the administration wants to sell it, would be only $2.8 billion if oil prices remain at current levels.
The federal government owns 78 percent of Elk Hills, which has an estimated oil reserve of 700 million barrels and also produces large quantities of natural gas and natural gas liquids. The government's share of sales brought in about $1.3 billion in fiscal 1985. The remainder of Elk Hills is owned by Chevron USA Inc.
Last month, Sharp released another GAO study that found the Energy Department had contracted to sell oil from Elk Hills for as little as $6.30 a barrel, less than half the going price in California. In response to that study and complaints from other members of Congress that high production levels at Elk Hills were damaging the field, Energy Secretary John S. Herrington recently ordered production at Elk Hills cut by about 16 percent.
An aide to Herrington said the complaints "got the secretary's attention, and it was his judgment that the taxpayers were not getting their money's worth." While current contracts were not canceled, he said, the bid process is being reviewed.
In a letter to Herrington yesterday, however, Sharp called the response "inadequate."
"The underpriced sales are continuing at a cost to the taxpayers of over $300,000 per day, and you can stop them," Sharp wrote. "I believe you have the authority to terminate the current contracts and seek new bids."
In another energy-related action, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel last week agreed to waive production requirements on any federal oil and gas lease threatened by "fluctuating prices." The decision means that well operators may stop production and wait for higher prices without having to give up their federal leases.
Hodel announced a similar reprieve in April for operators of "stripper" wells, which produce 10 barrels or less a day. The actions, he said, "will serve to protect our nation's energy and national security while all Americans prosper from the benefits of reduced fuel costs."