Some will argue that politicians shouldn't get involved in the selection of a route for a natural gas pipeline. Leave such technical details to engineers and other professionals, critics may suggest.
No doubt that view would find favor on Wall Street and within the boardrooms of oil companies holding petroleum leases to gas-rich tracts on Alaska's North Slope.
But Alaska has too much at stake to simply rubber stamp industry's plans for developing the Slope's vast gas deposits.
It's true this state's treasury stands to share in the revenues flowing from any project bringing the Slope's stranded gas to market. But industry's interest in the resource cannot be assumed to mirror Alaska's own; the shortest pipeline route, jumping offshore to collect gas from the Canadian Arctic before swinging south, might save a billion dollars or more in construction costs -- shaving a few dimes off future transportation tariffs -- but it slams the door on numerous other prospects of keen interest to Alaskans.
Our state has much more to gain in the way of short- and long-term jobs, as well as the consumer savings flowing from a new alternative source of clean-burning energy from gas piped through the Interior on down the Alaska Highway to market. Routing the new pipeline in-state for the longest extent possible spreads the opportunity for spin-off developments, such as petrochemical manufacturing and liquefied natural gas exports.
The southern route also dodges litigation and political heat to be expected from environmental groups fearful of constructing a lengthy offshore pipeline paralleling the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Since producers can count on Mackenzie Delta's gas on the northern route, they may be willing to assume the risk of time-consuming delays completing the undersea leg to Alaska. Any frustration over stalled gas development would be borne by Alaskans alone, as has been the case for the past 30 years.
All things being equal, gas lease holders and the engineers on their payrolls can't be counted on to assign reasonable weight to Alaska's interests -- without government intervention.
Acknowledging this natural divergence of public and private interests, Gov. Tony Knowles staked out his pipeline preference in memorable fashion last winter. ''My way is the highway,'' Alaska's governor declared, signaling the state's intent to pursue gas development on the most favorable terms.
Members of the Alaska Legislature took matters one step further, passing a new law against issuing permits for pipeline construction along the so-called over-the-top route.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, earlier this month sent the same message on the federal level. The congressman's inclusion of a similar permit restriction in a pending House energy bill serves notice that Alaskans won't be buffaloed by industry's chorus, or Canada's desire for the northern route.
''It doesn't matter if there's a cheaper route if you can't get it built,'' Young told the News-Miner. ''A north-south route through the state is the most realistic way to build a gas pipeline, and it's the most realistic way to ensure that Alaska gains the most benefit from its gas.''
Engineers and corporate leaders may bristle at the political interference, but they should appreciate the clarity of Alaska's message.
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