Walker's wrong-way gas line plan hits wall of opposition

Gov. Bill Walker now finds himself at loggerheads with lawmakers correctly cranky about his grandiose expansion plans for the $10 billion Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline.

His idea is to have ASAP compete with the $65 billion Alaska LNG Project, even though that could ball up the state's business relationship with producers, who have spent hundreds of millions getting this far, and scare the bejeebers out of the market, which craves stability.

For its part, the House leadership -- to its credit -- stepped up with House Bill 132 in a bid to block him from recklessly, irresponsibly competing with the much larger project now being undertaken by North Slope producers BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil, along with the state of Alaska and TransCanada. (Walker promises a veto.)

The producers' project is on schedule, although Walker might not know it because his Cabinet members on the board overseeing the state's 25 percent interest in the effort may be in the dark after he ordered them to refuse to sign confidentiality agreements.

Lawmakers in 2010 envisioned ASAP not as competition for the producers' project but as a backup, in-state gas line with a 0.5 billion cubic feet daily capacity -- its size restricted by Sarah Palin's ill-fated Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. Lawmakers figured if producers bailed, plans already would be in place for Alaska to build ASAP and capacity could be boosted. Walker complained it was too small, too uneconomical. Now he wants to jack up its capacity to compete with AKLNG, despite legislative intent. In the end, only one will be built.

The House measure would block the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. -- overseeing ASAP and Alaska's interest in the producer-backed project -- from working on Walker's upsized project until the state or another party withdraws from AKLNG, or it enters its next phase, or July 1, 2017. By then, two critical development decisions will have been made.

In a news conference after the bill's introduction, Walker was livid He called it "un-Alaskan," stripping "our ability to do what our constitution mandates that we do: that we develop our resources for the maximum benefit of Alaskans."

"How can you read the constitution and then write this?" he railed.

For a guy who embraces the Alaska Constitution like a tent revival evangelist embraces sinners, you would think Walker could take a moment to read what it says.

He nearly got it right. Utilizing, developing and conserving resources? Yep, in there. Pipelines? Not so much. What Article 8, Section 2 says is clear: "The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people."

There is nothing about the executive branch jumping into the pipeline business to compete with private industry. It says "natural resources." That means making them -- natural gas, for instance, or oil or coal or fish -- available for development, not building pipelines or heavy equipment or fishing boats.

Listening to Walker fume was eye-opening, disconcerting, a window into blind hubris. For nearly four decades, he has fought to prove all comers wrong about a natural gas pipeline. Over the years, it has distilled to this: He believes he is the only guy with the answers -- and a fluke election has put him in the driver's seat.

Walker says Alaska must have "ultimate" say about any pipeline, that Palin's AGIA that blocked producers from gas line control was a nifty idea. Many acolytes from her administration and the Alaska Gasline Port Authority -- represented by his law firm -- found berths in his administration. The authority backed a different project.

Walker points to "expressions of interest" during the AGIA debacle's open seasons as proof there is ready demand for Alaska's gas, but those were from tire-kickers, and there were no signed contracts. He thinks Alaska somehow should be lining up buyers for gas it does not have, and then muscling producers -- suing them if necessary -- to cough up the gas. That promises decades in court.

Listening to him, it is clear he sees state government as Alaska Inc., a business with powers, choices, options and opportunities available to business -- and that his administration somehow is in charge.

What drives all that is anybody's guess. In his world, everybody is wrong but him. Just ask the former Bethel district attorney.

The problem? The state already is going broke and he is gambling with its future.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.