FAIRBANKS - The major North Slope oil companies are poised to launch survey vessels from Prudhoe Bay this month to scout a proposed northern natural gas pipeline route, despite the fact that the route is widely condemned in Alaska.
The "Over-the-Top" pipeline route would transport the North Slope's huge natural gas reserves offshore to the Canadian Arctic, then south along the MacKenzie River on the way to the Lower 48.
That route is roughly 350 miles shorter than the main alternative, a route paralleling the trans-Alaska oil pipeline to Fairbanks, then along the Alaska Highway.
The Beaufort Sea proposal faces opposition from Alaskans concerned jobs and gas would bypass the state. A state law was even passed with the intention of killing the Beaufort Sea route.
Oil company officials say they're examining both routes as part of a $75 million feasibility study.
"At the same time this (over-the-top route) survey is going on, we have people walking the trans-Alaska pipeline route," said Curtis Thayer, spokesman for the pipeline consortium of BP, Exxon Mobil and Phillips Petroleum.
The sonar study of the Beaufort Sea is slated to begin in mid to late July, pending the expected issuance of a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
A pair of survey vessels plan to scout near the shoreline of the Beaufort Sea off the northern coasts of both Alaska and Canada.
The vessels would chart the sea floor to look for hazards that could endanger a pipeline.
There have been similar studies in the Beaufort Sea, Thayer said, but this is the first by the pipeline consortium.
"We don't know what the bottom of the Beaufort Sea looks like," he said. "We don't know what we are going to find."
Thayer said the law barring issuance of permits for the Beaufort Sea route is an issue to be dealt with later. He said the question might become whether the state is willing to lose a natural gas pipeline project entirely if the northern route turns out to be the only one that would be profitable.
State legislators and the governor say the market is hungry for Alaska's natural gas and sending it across the Beaufort Sea would mean allowing an Alaska-owned resource to be extracted with minimal benefit for state residents.
Environmental groups also oppose the northern route because of potential damage from construction or accidents. The Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center and the national Natural Resources Defense Council prefer the Alaska Highway route.
Leaders of the Yukon Territory also favor an Alaska Highway route. But officials in the Northwest Territories want the line across their land in the MacKenzie River valley, providing local jobs and allowing their gas reserves to be developed as part of the same project. Last week, a group of aboriginal leaders in Canada, representing some of the Northwest Territories land that would be crossed by the MacKenzie River route, publicly endorsed the proposal.