Will environmental lobby curb interest in gas line?

There's money to be made in being anti-development

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2007

Gov. Sarah Palin has signed her Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. Alaska is home free for more revenue, right?

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Wrong. Some wonder whether any company will offer to build the gas line from Prudhoe Bay, not for fear of rising construction costs but for fear of the cost of the political clout needed to obtain construction permits.

A strong new industry has sprouted up to oppose development of any kind in Alaska. It's the professional environmentalists - the Sierra Club, the Alaska Coalition, the Wilderness Society, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and others. One of the newest and most influential is the Alaska Wilderness League.

Officers, lawyers, consultants and staffers of those organizations make good money opposing Alaska development. The industry started its expansion into Alaska when environmental groups filed suit in 1970 to stop construction of the then-proposed trans-Alaska oil pipeline. After more than three years, a judge ruled in favor of the environmentalists, blocking pipeline construction. The issue eventually went to Congress where permission to build the line passed by only one vote, that of Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew, who broke a 49-49 tie in the Senate.

Recently, environmental groups were successful in blocking construction of the Kensington Mine near Juneau by obtaining a court order blocking tailings disposal. These organizations constantly fight against mining, logging and road building in the Tongass National Forest.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, said recently that a second generation of rich lawyers in the environmental movement has grown up to block any development allowed under the revised Tongass Land Management Plan. Recalling the history of the oil pipeline, he is considering legislation to approve the upcoming revision of the Tongass plan.

Now we have the Alaska Wilderness League, founded in 1993 by a group of environmental activists in the Pacific Northwest. Its honorary chairman is former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. Tom Compton, a Seattle sporting goods retailer, is chairman. Also from Seattle on the 15-member board is Marilyn Heiman, who was on the staff of Alaska's last Democrat governor, Tony Knowles. She also served in the Interior Department under President Bill Clinton, who once vetoed Arctic National Wildlife Refuge development.

Lawyers and activists from other environmental organization comprise the board. According to its 2005 report, no director receives a salary but the league spent $107,000 on directors expenses, plus $145,000 for travel. The 19-member staff gets roughly $321,000. Consultants, some of whom are on the board, were paid $423,000.

Executive Director Cindy Shogan, with the league's Washington, D.C., office, earns $76,000 a year. She spammed Alaska with an e-mail urging people to ask AlaskaU.S. Rep. Don Young to support an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill by congressmen from New Jersey and Ohio that would ban road building in the Tongass.

Eighty-three percent of the league's $2.4 million in income in 2005 came from foundations and major donors, such as Seattle's Wilburforce Foundation, which has given the league $110,000 the past two years. Wilburforce receives its money from contributors who wish to remain anonymous. There are eight foundations in Seattle that make grants to Alaska environmental organizations.

See? There is money in anti-development in Alaska, and that industry won't sit quietly while the gas pipeline project advances.

The Alaska Wilderness League lists its goals as stopping oil development on the coastal plain of ANWR, blocking oil exploration and development in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, blocking road building and logging in the Tongass National Forest, and blocking offshore oil and gas exploration and development.

For Palin, Stevens and most Alaskans, it won't be as easy getting the gas line approved as it was for the oil line in 1973, if one vote can be called easy.

The big question for Alaskans: Will the threatening presence of this new industry curb interest in bidding to build the gas pipeline and can Alaskans and any builder beat that new industry?

• Lew Williams Jr. is a retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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