Gov. Tony Knowles' announcement of the state's preferred route for a gas pipeline is the first shot in what could be an interesting battle.
The governor said he prefers a route down the Dalton and Alaska highways to Fairbanks and then to Alberta and is getting his administration geared up to make it happen. The producing companies and the Canadian government may have other thoughts, but the case for the governor's choice is compelling from Alaska's standpoint.
The 1,800-mile route's advantages to Alaska -- and to the cost and timing of the project itself -- are great. It would provide more jobs, more in-state investment, a clean energy source for Alaska homes and businesses and feedstock for a wide variety of spin-off industries. As Knowles put it: ''The Alaska Highway pipeline will be the beginning of a new economy for our state for the next 50 years and longer.''
The alternative Mackenzie route -- across the Beaufort Sea to the Mackenzie River Delta, then south to Alberta -- would involve about 150 miles of line offshore Alaska, but the rest would be built in Canada. Most of the economic benefits would go to Canada and the provinces involved.
Knowles said the Alaska Highway pipeline could be built much sooner than that alternative. For one thing, the Alaska portion of a Mackenzie line would be built through the waters off ANWR, which would draw heavy fire from environmentalists and create political problems for all involved.
A Mackenzie pipeline would be somewhat shorter than an Alaska Highway line, but any cost savings could easily be offset by the cost of delaying the project for burdensome environmental studies and political haranguing. And much of the permitting, international agreements and environmental issues for a highway route were resolved in the 1970s. Since time is money -- in this case, big money -- building a pipeline now rather than later will be a vital consideration for all parties.
It will be interesting to see how the Canadian government comes down on the route issue. Ottawa may find itself mediating between its own provinces. The two routes offer varying advantages to the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, British Columbia and Alberta. And the Mackenzie route would pick up stranded gas reserves in Canada's Arctic, primarily in the Northwest Territories. A Mackenzie line could be Canada's best hope for getting that gas to market.
Knowles said last summer that Alaskans could be breaking ground on a gas pipeline within two years. Whether that prediction can hold remains to be seen. But his taking a firm stand on a route should be an important step in that direction.
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