Lawmakers leave Tuesday for hearings on natural gas pipeline

Posted: Monday, June 09, 2008

It's almost time for lawmakers to pack their bags. On Tuesday, they will close up shop in Juneau and head out of town.

No, the special legislative session hasn't ended. Not by a long shot.

Members of the House and Senate will continue hearings on Gov. Sarah Palin's natural gas pipeline proposal in cities outside the state capital.

Once on the road, many lawmakers will spend the next four weeks making stops in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Palmer, Kenai, Barrow and Ketchikan.

The travel is designed to give the public face-to-face access to lawmakers entrusted with one of the more crucial votes in decades: Whether to award TransCanada Corp. a pipeline license.

Lawmakers have 60 days to decide on a plan by TransCanada and opted to spend some of this time in other towns.

TransCanada proposes a line that would travel 1,715 miles from the North Slop southeast to a pipeline hub in Calgary, Alberta, that connects to all the major markets on the continent.

In some cases, the gas line may be a secondary issue.

With the state mired in energy prices that far exceed national averages, the hearings could produce additional public comment, said House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage.

Before the session ends, the Legislature could also be voting on an energy relief plan drafted by Palin, so these discussions would hardly be moot.

"All this energy stuff, is part of the same mosaic; they all fit together," Samuels said. "So, the subjects will not be limited to all the specifics of (the gas line)."

For a few more days, however, discussions will focus on Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.

Hearings continued through the weekend with lawmakers quizzing TransCanada vice president Tony Palmer and Palin's gas line team and consultants.

Questions remained pointed both days, but the often contentious tone was clearly underscored on a Saturday afternoon that featured accusations of disrespectful politicking.

Terse exchanges among several lawmakers ensued during a 20-minute round of questioning featuring Republicans Rep. Jay Ramras and Sen. Fred Dyson, and Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan.

Ramras, an outspoken opponent of the plan from Fairbanks, says the state is limiting its options by backing TransCanada.

He says the state's priority should be an in-state gas line to help its residents offset soaring heating costs.

"I intend to continue to make this point as we move across the state, that this is a fool's errand that we are on," he said.

Ramras continued pushing back on Revenue Commissioner Pat Galvin, calling the presentations supporting TransCanada as "propaganda."

This ultimately set off biting responses first from Dyson of Eagle River then Doogan of Anchorage.

"I consider the remarks from my colleague to be out of line and a cheapshot," Dyson said.

Doogan was next.

"My intention is to be at every meeting that we have on this subject until the time that we vote," Doogan said. "I would like to know what the proportion of questioning to political posturing is going to be during these hearings."

Upcoming hearings in other cities could get just as feisty and contentious as any thus far in Juneau.

In Fairbanks, lawmakers are expecting a huge push from Ramras and local officials who believe the gas line plan ignores the prospects of building an in-state line because Palin's year-old law is too restrictive.

Discussions on an in-state line will kick off the Legislature's road show hearings in Fairbanks' Carlson Center on Thursday and get a second hearing in Anchorage on June 13.

In Anchorage, they will discuss the role of the North Slope's Point Thomson field, which is operated by Exxon Mobil Corp. The field's leases are in dispute with the state trying to revoke them. Exxon Mobil has promised to move forward on a field development plan it believes is an essential first step in its role to shipping gas down the pipeline.

The state, however, says Exxon waited too late and the field's gas is not essential to the initial shipping of gas in 10 to 12 years when a pipeline is projected to be complete.

Samuels says the public may never get this kind of an opportunity to mingle with lawmakers about a pipeline project that has the nation's attention.

"Here is the public's chance; it will be interesting to hear what they have to say - if they participate," Samuels said.

"We are going hit towns that make up 85 percent of the state's population. If five people show up, it failed. But, here's your chance to get 30 or 40 legislators coming to your town."

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