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As co-chairs of the Governor's Natural Gas Policy Council, we've spent the past six months talking with Alaskans about a proposed natural gas pipeline. Gov. Tony Knowles has declared "my way is the highway" and has detailed a host of benefits to Alaskans of building a natural gas pipeline along the Alaska Highway, from jobs for Alaskans and gas for communities to revenues for public services.
While most Alaskans tell us they are eager to build a gas pipeline, there is one proposal the public simply does not support. Alaskans strongly oppose an "over-the-top" pipeline through the Beaufort Sea.
The North Slope gas producers continue to examine two pipeline routes - a southern route through Fairbanks down the Alaska Highway to Alberta, versus a northern route where gas would reach Canada via an offshore pipeline through the Beaufort Sea. The companies insist on keeping both doors open, saying it's premature to preclude any options. But we believe it is time for the producers to acknowledge that vehement public and legislative opposition to an "over-the-top" pipeline makes this route unfeasible.
Last month, the Policy Council traveled to Barrow to listen to residents of the North Slope. Local government and village leaders told us emphatically they will support a natural gas pipeline only if it follows the Alaska Highway route.
Speaking on behalf of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Charlie Neakok, vice president of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association, said: "The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is prepared to work cooperatively with the gas producers" if they bring the pipeline down the highway.
"However, the AEWC and the whaling captains of all 10 whaling villages will oppose, absolutely, any attempt to build a gas pipeline through our Beaufort Sea."
Overcoming the strong opposition voiced by the residents of the North Slope is only the first in a series of insurmountable roadblocks stopping a northern pipeline. State law also stands in the way. In April, our state Legislature passed a bill - sponsored by all 20 members of the Senate - prohibiting the state commissioner of Natural Resources from authorizing leases on state land in or adjacent to the Beaufort Sea. In simple terms, this law, signed by Gov. Knowles, bans the development of a pipeline through the Beaufort Sea.
Congressman Don Young is pushing to put the same law on the federal books. Young authored an amendment, which passed the House and is poised to move through the Senate, banning any federal licensing, permitting or leasing of a northern route.
In addition to legislative resistance, the northern route faces vigorous opposition from state and national environmentalists. At our Juneau public hearing, Sue Schrader of the Alaska Conservation Alliance, a coalition representing 46 conservation groups statewide with over 35,000 members, testified to her organization's strong opposition to the "over-the-top" route. "This route has the greatest potential for environmental impacts and will be vigorously opposed by the state and national environmental communities," Schrader said.
With insurmountable opposition stacking up against the northern route, the real question has become: How long will it take for the producers to believe that laying a pipeline across the Beaufort Sea isn't going to happen?
The choice facing the producers is not which route to pursue, but whether to invest in a highway gasline. Failing to acknowledge the strong public sentiment against an "over-the-top" line will soon start to damage the gas producers' reputation with Alaskans.
No one can afford to waste any more valuable time pursuing a route that is not feasible; if Alaska doesn't capture the market while it is available, somebody else will.
It's time for North Slope gas producers to listen to Alaskans and focus all of their resources on the quick development of a highway project.
Not only will they save time and money, they will quickly garner widespread public support and cooperation. Alaskans are ready to get behind a highway project that will provide jobs for Alaskans, in-state access to gas, and a fair share of revenues for the state.