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Committee amends gas line bill to allow non-resident board members

Dermot Cole

The House Resources Committee amended Gov. Sean Parnell’s complex gas pipeline bill Friday to allow non-Alaskans to serve on the board of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp.

The change is aimed at clearing the way to approve Parnell’s choice of a retired Exxon Mobil Corp. executive from Texas for the board. The vote was 6-2 along party lines, with the Republican majority backing the amendment by Rep. Eric Feige.

An attempt earlier this week by House Speaker Rep. Mike Chenault in another committee to amend an unrelated bill with similar language was scrapped to avoid dragging the subject of that bill -- the continuation of the domestic violence council -- into a gas line debate about residency. As another alternative, Chenault introduced a bill through the House Rules Committee on Friday to make the change in state law.

If the amendment stays in the gas line bill and becomes law, it would allow any U.S. citizen to serve on the gas line board. Current state law says that in most cases, members of boards and commissions must be Alaska residents and must remain Alaska residents.

The timing of the bid to drop the residency requirement could create a snag, as the confirmation vote for Texan Richard Rabinow is expected to take place before the amendment becomes part of state law.

"We’ll be prohibited from appointing this individual next Friday should this bill" not become law by next week, Rep. Geran Tarr said. On Thursday, Chenault told the House Rules Committee he hoped a separate bill allowing a nonresident board member would be approved before the confirmation vote. "If the board lacks the global expertise to bring a project to fruition, we risk failing Alaskans," Chenault said. 

Rabinow started his own oil and gas consulting firm after more than 34 years with Exxon Mobil. He retired from that company as president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. in 2002 and has served on a variety of industry and government panels during the years he has run his own company.

Chenault compared this situation to an individual picking a lawyer, saying he had told committee member Rep. Max Gruenberg, an Anchorage attorney, about this earlier. "If you were on trial for murder, who would you rather have?" he said. "Would you rather have Max Gruenberg as your lawyer or would you rather have Johnnie Cochran?"

"I know who'd I'd rather have," Gruenberg said, referring to the lawyer who got an acquittal for O.J. Simpson. "And he's dead."

Rabinow, a leading expert on pipelines, is a former chairman of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and former chairman of the owners committee of the trans-Alaska pipeline system. Fairbanks attorney John Burns, chairman of the AGDC board and former attorney general, said Rabinow's experience in Alaska and elsewhere has been invaluable to the board, which includes six Alaskans. He praised his integrity, commitment and dedication to the state's objectives.

Dan Fauske, president of AGDC, said he hopes there is a way to keep someone of Rabinow's caliber. "Folks like this are hard to replace," he said. He said Rabinow interviewed all of the AGDC managers to learn about their responsibilities and duties. "We're fortunate to be able to tap into his knowledge," Fauske said.

Rabinow has told Parnell he would withdraw his name if the Legislature does not clear up this controversy in advance.

Last year, Parnell appointed the former Exxon Mobil executive, but the provision in state law that says members of boards and commissions must be Alaskans has clouded that prospect.

On Friday, GOP lawmakers said the state needs the best people it can find to help make gas line decisions, regardless of where they live. "It requires the absolute very best minds and people that we can put on it. And to have a restriction requiring that individuals or members of that board be Alaska residents exclusively limits the pool of expertise," Feige said.

Wrangell Rep. Peggy Wilson said the idea of getting Outside expertise is a good one.

"I would rather have a very unbiased person helping make those decisions than somebody in Alaska because we can’t help it that lots of times we are just a little bit biased depending on where we live," she said.

Kenai Rep. Kurt Olson said the state has consultants on the gas line who are not from Alaska. "The gentleman that we’re talking about is world class," he said.

Rep. Dan Saddler said the amendment did not prevent Alaskans from being named to the board and added, "It would be my hope that Alaskans would be the best for the job." But he said a gas pipeline is so important that the "broadest possible realm of potential candidates throughout the nation."

Fairbanks Rep. Scott Kawasaki, a Democrat, said it was "a little insulting" to say that no Alaskan can be found to serve on the board.

He said that technical expertise can be found by contracting, but that policy decisions should be made by Alaskans.

"If that same logic were used for members of the Legislature, I’d venture to guess that some of us wouldn’t be here," he said.