Well, is the trans-Alaska oil pipeline a marvel of engineering with a sterling track record or a disaster waiting to happen?
It's the wrong question, because the alternate answers are not mutually exclusive.
Has Alyeska done a flawless job of operating the pipeline? That level of performance doesn't happen over 25 years in any human enterprise. Still, the operators say they'll stack up their record against any other pipeline in the world.
But past performance isn't the issue. Future performance is the issue. After 25 years of use, it's fair to ask serious questions about whether maintenance, repairs and refitting have kept up with the wear and tear on a system that has been pumping oil since Jimmy Carter's first year in the White House.
That's what state and federal regulators, who will decide on a 30-year right of way permit renewal for the pipeline, must decide.
Realistically, there is no chance the federal operating permit will not be renewed. Nor should there be. The pipeline is an essential asset to the state, the nation and even the world. The permit must be renewed. But there are still issues to consider.
Critics of Alyeska's performance argue that the public comment period on the permit renewal should be extended, that citizens need more time to digest an environmental impact statement on the operators' request. Bureau of Land Management Director Kathleen Clarke denied the request because no new construction is involved.
That rationale misses the point. Alaskans are not worried about the procedures of permitting. Alaskans want to know that the pipeline will continue to be a safe, reliable system for years to come. Jobs, a clean environment and the state treasury depend on it.
Another 30 days would cost the government little and would give interested Alaskans a better chance to digest an enormous amount of information in the environmental impact statement. We don't how much more comment and testimony 30 more days would provide, but chances are it would be better informed.
We do know this: Relentless public pressure from Alaskans who want the line to run as cleanly, efficiently and safely as possible has made a difference in oil operations in Alaska.
And we know this: Everyone pays a high price for complacency. That's a lasting lesson from the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, when Alaska and the rest of the world found out just how unprepared we were to prevent or handle such a disaster.
Complacency doesn't seem to be the rule of the day. But Alaskans want pipeline operations that run with the firefighter's mentality -- always vigilant, always ready. There's too much at stake for anything less.
And Alaskans should never let up in demanding an A+ performance from pipeline operators. It's a standard few of us are held to, but it's the only passing grade.
Give public comment another 30 days. Barring disaster, federal and state regulators will renew the permits. Regulators should renew them with a clear-eyed, careful look to the future, not the past. The question is whether the pipeline that has served well for a generation can do so for a generation more.
Oil companies may groan at the thought of another month. But if that's what it takes to ''do it right,'' as the governor likes to say, then we shouldn't hesitate.
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