As Legislature Passes Gasline Bill, Feud With Governor Continues

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski (left), and Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, participate in a press conference related to passage of House Bill 132. March 31, 2015. The bill, introduced on March 2nd by Chennault and other House Majority leaders, limits the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation's powers on the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline. It was strongly criticized at the time by Gov. Bill walker, who was adamant it would weaken the state's position in pipeline negotiations. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski (left), and Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, participate in a press conference related to passage of House Bill 132. March 31, 2015. The bill, introduced on March 2nd by Chennault and other House Majority leaders, limits the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation’s powers on the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline. It was strongly criticized at the time by Gov. Bill walker, who was adamant it would weaken the state’s position in pipeline negotiations. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska Legislature has passed a bill meant to keep Gov. Bill Walker from spending money on an alternate gasline proposal. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports the action is part of an ongoing power struggle between Republican leadership and the governor over the state’s most high-profile megaproject.

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It’s the legislative equivalent of two semi trucks playing chicken. The governor has said he would veto the bill; the Legislature nearly has the number to override him; and no one’s really sure who will win.

For days, Gov. Bill Walker and Republican leadership have been in talks over what terms would be needed to stop House Bill 132 from coming to a vote. But on Tuesday, after an hour of closed-door caucus meetings and plenty of scurrying by legislative staff, the bill hit the Senate floor. No compromise had been reached. Sen. Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, carried the legislation, saying it’s a matter of the Legislature asserting itself.

“This basically just underscores the past two what we did on gas pipeline projects, and substantiates that we are the policy body — the equal branch of government that establishes policy and appropriation authority,” said Giessel.

The bill itself is basically an affirmation of a bill passed by the Legislature last year, which sets the state up to partner with Exxon, BP, and ConocoPhillips on a project to get North Slope gas to market at a cost of at least $45 billion. The bill that passed on Tuesday prevents the governor from exploring a competing plan, by taking a smaller gasline project, known as the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline, and morphing it into a big one.

While supporters of the bill argued that the bill was needed to protect the bigger project — known as AKLNG — opponents worried it would weaken the state’s bargaining position.

“I’m really hesitant to tie our chief executives hands at the negotiating table,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican.

Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski argued the bill had not been thoroughly vetted, and that it was being rushed through the Legislature. Because law requires the bill to be transmitted to the governor by April 1 to allow time during the regular session for a veto override vote, the bill received only one committee hearing before being scheduled for Senate floor. The producers had not been invited to testify on it.

Wielechowski also worried that the conflict between the Legislature and governor could jeopardize the construction of any project.

“Us voting on this I think sends a bad message — that we’re fighting amongst ourselves,” said Wielechowski. “And I think that’s very dangerous.”

The bill passed 13 to 7, with Stedman joining the Legislature’s six Democrats in opposition.

That number leaves the bill’s fate uncertain. The Legislature needs a two-thirds vote to override the governor’s promised veto. If all of the lawmakers who voted against the bill in the House and Senate maintain their objection, leadership falls short of the 40 votes it needs.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, who sponsored the bill, addressed the matter in a post-vote press conference.

“The numbers are what they are. I would have loved to have had 18 or 19 votes on the Senate side, and I’d have loved to have 30 on the House side. But as we get into the process more and more — if he does veto it — then we’ll be working with the members that not only that voted yes, but certainly talking to the members that voted no,” said Chenault. “It’s a high hurdle. It should be a high hurdle.”

Chenault and Senate President Kevin Meyer plan to continue negotiations with Walker. They stressed that the sticking point is the money the Legislature has already appropriated for the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline project.

“He has the ability to spend $180 million on a backup plan that none of us know anything about,” said Meyer.

The governor declined an interview request, but his press secretary wrote in an e-mail that his position on HB132 had not changed.

In a written statement, Exxon expressed support for the intent of the bill.

“ExxonMobil has consistently said the Alaska LNG project, with alignment among all resource owners, is the most viable option for commercializing Alaska’s vast natural gas reserves,” wrote spokesperson Aaron Stryk. “An expansion of the Alaska stand-alone pipeline project will create confusion and uncertainty with federal regulators, potential buyers and the public about the state’s intention to fully support and participate in the Alaska LNG project.

The other producers were more muted in their response to the bill. A BP spokesperson wrote that the company is “committed to an Alaska LNG project that includes the State of Alaska as an equal participant and co-investor in the project,” while a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips wrote that they remain focused on work with the current project but did not specifically address the bill.