Will the Murkowski administration reach agreement on a stranded gas contract this fall? Gov. Frank Murkowski says it will. House Democrats hope he's right. Alaskans have waited far too long to get our North Slope natural gas to market.
The gas pipeline is a big opportunity for Alaska. It means increased economic activity, good jobs and money to pay for education, public safety - all the government goods and services Alaskans need. It can help meet Alaska's energy needs, and America's as well.
But these benefits will only flow to Alaska if the people involved in deciding the contract stand strong. Those people include the governor and his negotiators, legislators and you. Individual Alaskans will be asked to review and comment on any contract, and we hope you accept that invitation and that responsibility.
Democrats in the state House of Representatives are ready to do our part. The law says the legislature must approve any contract proposal, and we plan to go over the proposed contract with a fine-toothed comb to make sure it is good for Alaska.
What does that mean? We have been saying for more than a year that any contract must include certain important provisions. Earlier this month, the bipartisan citizens' group Backbone II, chaired by former Gov. Wally Hickel and Anchorage businessman David Gottstein, wrote to the governor "to communicate the several essential provisions that must be included in the contract for it to be in the best interest of the people of Alaska."
How do these positions line up? Our position and that of the citizens' group are nearly identical. We all believe that any stranded gas contract must contain:
An absolute commitment to build a gas line with a definite construction start date in Alaska (no contingencies). Backbone believes the Stranded Gas Act requires this commitment.
A fair return to the state for the use of our resources and no surrender of the state's constitutional authority to tax in the future (Article IX, Section 1).
Access to enough gas for the Railbelt at a fair rate that doesn't include the cost of shipping the gas to Chicago.
A project labor agreement that ensures Alaska hire.
Access to the gas liquids for in-state value-added processing, including the production of propane for Alaska's rural energy needs.
In addition, House Democrats believe that the contract must contain provisions to allow any future gas producer to use the pipeline.
We don't know exactly what the governor is negotiating for, or how those negotiations are going. The talks are secret. We hope that the governor is bargaining hard for what Alaskans must have, and that he is successful.
Fortunately, under the provisions of the Stranded Gas Act, Alaskans will have at least 30 days to review the contract for themselves, and to tell us what you think of it. But, in the end, it will be up to those of us in the legislature to decide whether we're being offered a good deal.
If it is a good deal, you can count on us to support it. Getting started on a gas pipeline is too important for partisan politics.
If it's not a good deal, you can count on us to lead the fight to get a better deal.
We don't want to have to do that. We hope the governor lives up to his responsibilities to Alaskans. We plan to live up to ours.
Rep. Ethan Berkowitz is the House minority leader and represents District 26 in Anchorage.