Is Alaska’s natural gas pipeline just a pipe dream?

Sarah Palin hit the vice-presidential campaign trail last year and touted what Alaska could provide for the rest of America — a natural gas pipeline to help lead the country to energy independence.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Sarah Palin hit the vice-presidential campaign trail last year and touted what Alaska could provide for the rest of America — a natural gas pipeline to help lead the country to energy independence.

When a pipeline might be built remains a giant question for Alaskans who need the project to support a vulnerable economy and for the Lower 48 states that need the gas, and a petroleum economist who spent more than 25 years in the Alaska Department of Revenue says it may never happen under Palin’s plan.

The former governor’s proposal used faulty accounting to reach the flawed conclusion that a pipeline owned by a third-party would be more profitable than one owned by major gas producers, who must be on board for any project to be successful, wrote Roger Marks, in his paper, Why America May Not See Alaska Natural Gas Soon, published last month in the Journal of Economic Issues.

Palin’s alternative, Marks said, discourages their participation and may even stand in the way of a more financially viable project.

“The prospects for success in getting a pipeline constructed appear doubtful,” he wrote.

Palin’s replacement, Gov. Sean Parnell, remains committed to her plan however. Marks’ former boss, Revenue Commissioner Pat Galvin, says Marks’ perspective was thoroughly analyzed and “found to be without merit.”

The issue is confusing to the public and even to state legislators who immersed themselves in pipeline details when they passed Palin’s plan in 2007. State Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, who has become a critic, said lawmakers “wandered into tall grass without a very good GPS system.”

“To have 60 of us (legislators) trying to negotiate a project of this magnitude — we bring integrity to the transaction but we don’t bring the sophistication of a Fortune 500 business board of directors,” said Ramras, a hotel and restaurant owner. “We lack that. I’m a pretty smart business guy and I lack that.”

There’s more at stake than Palin’s legacy. About 90 per cent of Alaska’s general fund revenue budget is fueled by the petroleum industry. High prices have kept coffers filled, but Alaska’s golden goose, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, now operates at less than half its capacity as North Slope production winds down.

Natural gas was found at the same time as oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1967. Proved reserves are 35 trillion cubic feet. Tapping that gas as a replacement for oil revenue has been a dream of Alaska leaders. The possibility that Alaskans have bet on the wrong pipeline project has Ramras and other critics concerned about the state’s economic future.

Palin in 2006 took on incumbent Frank Murkowski, a Republican governor whose version of a natural gas pipeline project was hatched behind closed doors and perceived as a giveaway to major petroleum companies.

Palin crushed Murkowski in the Republican primary. She promised openness in pipeline deliberations and control by Alaskans.

The result was the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, known by its acronym AGIA.

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