Alaska editorial: Restricting gas line lawsuits not smart

Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Let's see if this makes sense.

Take an issue of crucial importance to Alaska, such as the state's eagerly awaited deal for a North Slope natural gas pipeline. A deal that is already tarred and feathered by critics complaining about secrecy, alleged giveaways to big companies, an unpopular governor leading the negotiations and much public anticipation but no public results.

It doesn't matter if any of that is true; it only matters that a lot of Alaskans believe it.

And add to the mix legislators who are growing more skeptical of the governor's tentative deal with the companies. These are the same legislators who will be asked to approve a gas line contract.

And what does the governor's office do to start winning over skeptics and give supporters more comfort? Why, introduce a bill in the final weeks of the legislative session to severely restrict legal challenges to the gas line deal.

Smart politics by the governor this is not.

When you need to win the support of 11 state senators, 21 House members and thousands of Alaskans; when much of the state doesn't trust you; why throw gas on a political fire?

The law requires the state Revenue commissioner to issue a finding that North Slope gas is indeed "stranded" in order for the state and project developers to enter into a long-term tax and royalty contract. The commissioner also has to determine that the contract is in the state's best interests.

At some point this summer or fall, the commissioner will issue those findings, assuming the governor and the companies can strike a final deal. Senate Bill 316 would ban any legal challenges against the findings except on constitutional grounds. Gov. Frank Murkowski fears opponents of the deal could use legal challenges to delay legislative hearings on the contract itself, said Becky Hultberg, his press aide.

The governor expects the full contract will draw a legal challenge. So, the thinking goes, why risk delays with lawsuits against the best-interest finding.

The answer is two-fold: This legislation creates the appearance of rushing the deal and reducing the public's right to question the reasoning behind it. And, second, legal challenges are part of the system that governs this nation. Short-circuit the process and you shortchange the public.

Our advice is to set this bill aside. It's too late to change the legal rules, and it's bad policy.

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