ANCHORAGE - Gubernatorial candidates Tony Knowles and Andrew Halcro told an audience of BP employees Monday they would take different approaches to negotiate a contract that could lead to construction of a North Slope natural gas pipeline.
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Democrat Knowles and independent Halcro spoke for nearly 90 minutes and took occasional shots at the third, empty chair on the dais. They had the floor to themselves because Republican Sarah Palin was a no-show.
Palin campaign spokesman Curtis Smith said Palin has participated in more than 20 debates, listened to oil industry executives and met countless oil industry employees at public functions.
"There's only so many hours in the day," Smith said. "Sarah's schedule was just packed."
Smith said Palin visited three schools and was interviewed at her house in Wasilla by a television station Monday.
"She was locked in and committed to other functions," he said.
Knowles, a two-term former governor, and Halcro, a two-term former legislator, agreed that construction of a natural gas pipeline was crucial to Alaska's economic future.
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Halcro said he would push for a natural gas pipeline using the framework of a proposed contract negotiated by Gov. Frank Murkowski, but with more than a handful of changes.
Halcro called for project labor agreements for Alaskans to be hired for the pipeline.
He said oil and gas taxes should be not be linked, and that if the proposed developers do not believe the project is feasible, the state must have access to the gas anyway.
"If it's not economical, the state needs to have the ability to go back and say, 'OK, maybe we can make this thing work,"' he said.
He said disputes between the state and pipeline builders must be settled in court, not by an arbitrator or a tribunal.
Knowles acknowledged similar flaws in the proposed contract and added that there must be access to gas for customers in Southcentral Alaska.
Knowles said he would take advantage of the hard work already put into a contract, but also seek proposals from other companies.
"I think there will be some sharpening up of the pencils if we lay out our terms clearly," he said.
A consortium, he said, might best match the state's terms.
"There's plenty of room, perhaps, for many more people at the table," he said.
Murkowski's proposed contract included 20 percent ownership for the state in the pipeline itself. Halcro said he would embrace the idea. He quoted former Gov. Jay Hammond expressing regret that the state had not bought into the trans-Alaska pipeline.
"He thought the state lost out by not having a seat at the table," Halcro said. "I think having a 20 percent equity ownership makes us a partner, gives us a seat at the table. Sometimes I think this state is really afraid to manage. We're an owner state, we have to get up every morning, we have to manage our oil and gas and manage our timber, our fish, our tourism."
Knowles expressed hesitation over the $4 billion price tag for 20 percent ownership.
"That's a lot of money," he said.
The state should be a co-owner only if it makes good business sense, he said. The state's interest can be protected by regulations and litigation, he said, without "a seat at the table."