FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The major North Slope oil companies are poised to launch survey vessels from Prudhoe Bay this month to scout a proposed northern natural gas pipeline route, despite the fact that the route is widely condemned in Alaska.
The ''Over-the-Top'' pipeline route would transport the North Slope's huge natural gas reserves offshore to the Canadian Arctic, then south along the MacKenzie River on the way to the Lower 48.
That route is roughly 350 miles shorter than the main alternative, a route paralleling the trans-Alaska oil pipeline to Fairbanks, then along the Alaska Highway.
The Beaufort Sea proposal faces opposition from Alaskans concerned that jobs and gas would bypass the state. A state law was even passed with the intention of killing the Beaufort Sea route.
''At the same time this (Over-the-Top route) survey is going on, we have people walking the trans-Alaska pipeline route,'' said Curtis Thayer, spokesman for the pipeline consortium of BP, Exxon Mobil and Phillips Petroleum.
The sonar study of the Beaufort Sea is slated to begin in mid- to late July, pending the expected issuance of a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
A pair of survey vessels would scout near the shoreline of the Beaufort Sea off the northern coasts of both Alaska and Canada.
The vessels would chart the sea floor to find any hazards there.
There have been similar studies in the Beaufort Sea, Thayer said, but this is the first by the pipeline consortium.
''We don't know what the bottom of the Beaufort Sea looks like,'' Thayer said. ''We don't know what we are going to find.''
The companies are conducting a $75 million feasibility study on possible pipeline routes and design.
Thayer, the spokesman for the industry consortium, said the law barring issuance of permits for the Beaufort Sea route is an issue to be dealt with later.
''That is a discussion that needs to be held between the state and the (companies) down the road, once a route selection has been made,'' he said.
Thayer said it might become a question of whether the state is willing to lose a natural gas pipeline project entirely if the northern route turns out to be the only one that would be profitable.
State legislators and the governor say the market is hungry for Alaska's natural gas and sending it across the Beaufort Sea would mean allowing an Alaska-owned resource to be extracted with minimal benefit for state residents.
The Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center says a pipeline should not run just offshore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
A national environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently announced its opposition for the same reasons. Both environmental groups say an Alaska Highway route would be preferable.
The influence of Canada, however, will be a huge factor in any route decision.
Leaders of the Yukon Territory favor an Alaska Highway route. But officials in the Northwest Territories want the line across their land in the MacKenzie River valley, providing local jobs and allowing their gas reserves to be developed as part of the same project.
Last week, a group of aboriginal leaders in Canada, representing some of the Northwest Territories land that would be crossed by the MacKenzie River route, publicly endorsed the proposal.
Houston-based Arctic Resources Company Ltd., which is pushing the MacKenzie route, is suggesting the northern Canadian portion of the pipeline could even be owned by the aboriginal groups of that area.
''The endorsement of the aboriginal leaders marks a major milestone in getting to the right answer quickly on this important project,'' said Forrest Hoglund, CEO of Arctic Resources, which wants to operate the pipeline.
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