Retiring university president doubts gas pipeline birth

WORK FORCE: The need to keep students here also of concern.

March 29, 2010 

FAIRBANKS -- University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton has little hope for a major North Slope natural gas pipeline -- something many Alaskans view as an economic savior.

With three large gas pipelines emerging on the world market in the past two years, Hamilton thinks the state has lost its opportunity to be a competitor in that arena.

"That dream is not going to happen," Hamilton said in Fairbanks last week.

Hamilton made his comments during a speech in which he also discussed the future of higher education. Hamilton, who is retiring in June after 12 years, said he expects "relatively lean years ahead" for Alaska but believes the university can help the state get through them.

He invited audience members to ask away about any topic: "I have an opinion on virtually everything."

The pipeline is naturally a big issue. Alaska has long relied on oil revenue to help run state government, but forecasts call for a continued decline in North Slope oil production. That's led many to see a major natural gas pipeline as vital to the state's economic future.

But some lawmakers have openly questioned whether that big line will ever be built. Cost estimates for one project have ranged from $20 billion to $41 billion, depending on the route, with gas not expected to flow for at least a decade.

Hamilton emphasized the need for the university to evolve in a changing world, and Alaska must do a better job of keeping its students in-state.

Alaska retains about two-thirds of the students who head to college, up sharply from when Hamilton started but still well below the national average of 82 percent.

"It means we're last in the United States by less," he said.

He said Alaska must provide its own work force. He relayed a story he heard from a man in Kuwait, who bemoaned his country's need to import most of its professionals from other countries, despite its huge amount of oil money.

"You can't rent your way to independence," Hamilton said. "What we do in the state of Alaska is rent people all the time."

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