ANCHORAGE (AP) -- North Slope Inupiat Eskimos called on Alaska's big oil companies Thursday to abandon the idea of building a natural gas pipeline from the Prudhoe Bay oil field through the Beaufort Sea to Canada.
At a hearing in Barrow that was at turns folksy, funny and stormy, Native leaders, Gov. Tony Knowles and numerous gas development advisers questioned oil companies' tentative plans for a pipeline development that would take natural gas out of Alaska with minimal benefit to the state.
One by one, the leading political bodies of Alaska's Arctic laid down their opposition. The North Slope Borough, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. all oppose a possible offshore route through the Beaufort Sea.
''If (the oil companies) choose the Beaufort (route), we will oppose that project with all the resources available to us. We will fight,'' said Charles Neokuk, a Barrow whaling captain who spoke on behalf of the whaling commission.
Alaska's big oil producers, Exxon Mobil, BP and Phillips, own most of the known 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas on the North Slope. The companies have joined in a $100 million study to assess two potential natural gas pipelines to get the gas to the Lower 48. One route would follow the Alaska Highway south. The other would run offshore through the Beaufort to the Mackenzie River delta, then south. Both are expensive, $15 billion to $20 billion, but the Beaufort route appears less expensive.
The Inupiat who live along the oil-rich North Slope generally support oil development onshore. But they vehemently oppose the companies venturing offshore into the waters where they hunt bowhead whales.
The opposition is deeper than the threats to whaling. An offshore pipe would mean no local property taxes. Currently oil and gas taxes provide more than 90 percent of borough revenue.
An offshore pipeline also would do little to stimulate development of gas reserves in the Brooks Range foothills, south of the gas fields on the Arctic coast, said Richard Glenn of ASRC. The Native corporation owns about 4 million acres on the Slope, including areas being explored for natural gas.
Curtis Thayer, spokesman for the industry gas development team, made a brief statement about the companies' study of the two routes. As Thayer attempted to leave the microphone, sharp questioning kept him on the spot.
''How will you quantify this testimony you have heard here?'' Knowles asked.
Thayer promised it would be considered but was vague about how the companies would incorporate Native opposition.
''It's worth an awful lot,'' he said.
Carl Marrs, chief executive of Cook Inlet Region Corp., who sits on the governor's natural gas policy, attempted to pin him down.
''Look, I don't think you answered the governor's question. How do you respond to this?'' Marrs asked.
Thayer was noncommittal.
''We've got an ongoing analysis of both routes,'' he said. ''Right now, we don't have an economically viable project.''
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