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Northern Gas Pipelines: Liquefied Natural Gas Projects (LNG)

Extended News: 2003

Opinion: Anchorage Daily News
(Published: January 4, 2003)

Gas line authority

Proposition 3 has passed -- now what should happen?

It's a fair bet that a lot of Alaska voters didn't realize what they were doing when they overwhelmingly passed Prop. 3, the natural gas pipeline authority initiative. No doubt they wanted to send a strong message of support for a possible gas line, but in doing so, they authorized a risky and radical venture: giving state government the power to finance, build and operate a multibillion dollar pipeline to export liquefied natural gas.

But that's what voters did, so the question is: What now?

Initiative sponsor Scott Heyworth proposes the state spend $2 million to launch the development authority that Prop. 3 creates to pursue the project.

If a legislator or the governor were proposing to create a pipeline development authority with a budget of $2 million next year, it would be easy to say no. Legislators who can't finish their work in 121 days, who can't come remotely close to balancing their budget without huge withdrawals from savings accounts, shouldn't be entrusted with a government venture that would cost well over $10 billion.

But voters have spoken, and the gas line development authority is now on the books. Refusing to spend any money on it would subvert the will of the people. It would set a dubious precedent for future cases where voters might pass a more worthwhile measure that hostile legislators try to kill by refusing to fund.

Spending the $2 million Mr. Heyworth wants wouldn't commit the state to build a gas line, but the further along this track the state goes, the greater the potential for making a multibillion-dollar mistake. In this situation, the question is how to honor the will of the voters with least risk to the state treasury and least damage to prospects for a gas line developed by the private sector, the people who actually know how to do it.

Appointing the gas line development authority board is important; the quality and prudence of board members will be the best guarantee of due care. The more difficult matter is deciding what kind of studies to commission. Ideally, any studies would focus on generic questions that will help the state identify and pursue its own interests.

Contrary to what some politicians think, the state's options aren't limited to expensive tax breaks for a gas line to the Lower 48. The state needs to take a hard-headed look at how it can use incentives or pressure to best encourage a project that brings North Slope gas to market, at Alaska's tidewater or in the Lower 48.

Lawmakers should go slowly -- very slowly -- as they figure out how best to use the gas line development authority voters created. It is a risky instrument; shaping it into a valuable one is the challenge now.


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