Will opposition pose a problem for gas line?

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2007

The executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League says a statement printed in this column last month is incorrect. AWL doesn't oppose all development in Alaska, especially oil and gas production.

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My concern was, and is, even if Gov. Sarah Palin reaches an agreement with a company, or consortium, to build the natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay, will opposition by environmental groups discourage the builders? That concern still stands.

AWL's Cindy Shogan wrote: "Alaska Wilderness League is not opposed to all development in Alaska. We would support a gas pipeline as long as it follows the path of existing infrastructure in Alaska and is built in accordance with all environmental regulations and safeguards."

Sounds like AWL supports the gas pipeline if it follows the trans-Alaska oil pipeline corridor to Valdez. If it doesn't, and several gas producers have said that route is not economically feasible, then what?

Shogan and her AWL are not great promoters of development in Alaska. Their home page emphasizes only opposition to industrial development, "industrial threats," they call it. They are especially opposed to ever opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.

They advocate, instead, wilderness status for the area.

This is straight from AWL's home page:

"Alaska Wilderness League strives to protect Alaska's most significant wild land from oil and gas drilling and other industrial threats. Currently, Alaska Wilderness League is working to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Tongass National Forest, Special Areas of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska, and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas."

"Protect" the Tongass? What does that mean?

Shogan's Web site indicates Alaskans must prepare for a tough fight ahead. That fight was won once, over the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, but by only one vote. Maybe it can be won again.

After the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was delayed three years by lawsuits by the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups, Alaska's bi-partisan Senate delegation, Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat, and Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, came up with an amendment to legislation before the Senate to circumvent the courts and approve the oil pipeline. Can a current all-Republican delegation do it again in a Democrat-controlled Congress?

Pipe had arrived and was stacked in Alaska in 1973. Everything was ready to go except the environmental community. However, to Alaska's advantage, there was an oil crisis in the United States. Oil exporting countries slapped an embargo on the United States. There were brownouts and long lines at gas pumps. Even the nation's Christmas tree wasn't lit that year.

At that, there were members of the U.S. Senate who opposed the Gravel-Stevens amendment to get the pipeline construction approved. Some, such as Walter Mondale, wanted to study a Canadian pipeline route for three or four years. Some, such as California's Alan Cranston, just opposed any Alaska development.

Then, as now, for some crazy reason, all of the West Coast senators opposed Alaska - Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson in Washington, Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield in Oregon and Cranston and Jim Tunney in California. When the oil finally moved, guess where it went!

To Magnuson's credit, he declined to show up and vote against his friend Ted Stevens, with whom he would create the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act in 1976.

Anyway, when the key vote came in a parliamentary maneuver for pipeline approval, the vote tied 49-49. Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew, as president of the Senate, cast the deciding yea vote so the pipeline went ahead by one vote.

To those who credit Democrats with obtaining oil pipeline approval, the record shows: 33 Democrats voted against pipeline approval along with 16 liberal Republicans such as Oregon's Hatfield and Packwood. Only 23 Democrats joined with 26 Republicans supporting the pipeline.

Today, we have Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress, as in 1973, but no oil or gas crisis, except what happens in Alaska when oil revenue runs out. Most of those outside of Alaska, especially environmental groups, Democrats and West Coast senators, have no concern for that and offer no alternatives.

Alaskans must prepare for a big fight ahead.

• Lew M. Williams Jr. is the retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News who has been a Southeast Alaska journalist since 1946.

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