To most Americans, Senator John McCain's (R-Ariz.) choice of running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is a new face. To Alaskans, however, she's the woman who got a giant natural gas pipeline project off the ground, in part by telling big oil companies they'd get no sweetheart deals. Despite the national debate about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Alaskans largely favor development of their natural resources, a huge source of revenue for the state. For years, Alaskan officials have been dickering with the state's largest producers, ExxonMobil (XOM), BP (BP), and ConocoPhillips (COP), over construction of a pipeline that would bring the nation's largest untapped natural gas reserves to consumers in the Lower 48 states. The producers wanted long-term commitments from the state on what their tax obligations would be for producing the gas.
In 2006, then-Governor Frank Murkowski championed legislation that would have gotten a new pipeline going. Independent consultants hired by the state, however, concluded that the royalty and lease incentives in his proposal were worth some $10 billion to the oil companies. The deal would have also hampered the state's ability to raise taxes on the producers for decades. "Governor Murkowski had proposed a truly abysmal deal," says state Representative Beth Kerrtula, the Democratic Party's minority leader. Palin criticized the Murkowski bill as one negotiated in backroom dealings and as a giveaway to the big three producers. In August 2006, she beat Murkowski in a Republican Party primary.
After winning the general election in November 2006, Palin pushed for a gas deal of her own. Rather than negotiate with the big three producers, Alaska legislators passed a bill offering inducements to pipeline operators. Initial expenses of up to $500 million would be reimbursed by the state. Late last year, five companies submitted proposals. Palin championed one from TransCanada (TRP), a Calgary-based company that is North America's largest pipeline operator. State legislators officially awarded TransCanada the license on Aug. 1, and Palin formally signed the bill on Aug. 20.Big Oil Falls into Line
But a funny thing happened on the way to the independent pipeline award. In April, BP and ConocoPhillips announced plans to construct their own giant pipeline, called Denali. The $30 billion project would be North America's largest construction project. It would supply 4 billion cubic feet of gas per day—about 7% of U.S. demand—through a 2,000-mile line snaking from Alaska's North Slope to the border of Canadian province Alberta. It was exactly what Alaskan officials wanted from the producers. "One time they were talking about locking up taxes for 25 years," says Kurt Gibson, deputy commissioner of Alaska's Oil & Gas Div. "Now the story they're telling is 'We'll figure out the taxes later.' That's a pretty stark departure."
In Alaska, where energy companies wield power as in few other places, Palin's independence was seen by many as radical—and caused abundant consternation among many in her own party. "She is not in bed with them, she's not adversarial with them," Gibson says of the governor's relationship to Big Oil. "She's acting as any responsible chief executive would in managing an asset in your portfolio. Under Murkowski we were beholden to the major energy company interests."
ConocoPhillips spokesman Charlie Rowton said in an Aug. 29 e-mail that the Houston company had, with BP and ExxonMobil, spent more than $125 million to date studying the project and that "Denali represented the next stage in advancing a gas pipeline."