House approves TransCanada buyout

With a unanimous vote in the House on Wednesday, the Alaska legislature has approved Gov. Bill Walker’s request to end the state’s partnership with TransCanada — and take a larger role in the effort to build a natural gas line from the North Slope.

The Alaska LNG project will now become a four-way partnership, between the state and the three major North Slope producers, ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips.

APRN’s Rachel Waldholz is in Juneau covering the legislative session.

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Alaska House of Representatives passes SB3001. Photo: Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO.
Alaska House of Representatives passes SB3001. Photo: Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO.

TOWNSEND: Rachel, what was the reaction when the House voted today?

WALDHOLZ: Well, when the board lit up and showed all 39 House members listed in green — meaning every single member had voted yes — there was definitely a bit of a stir. That’s yes votes from 22 Republicans, 16 Democrats, and the lone Independent. The only person who didn’t vote was Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak), who was excused today.

That’s an even stronger bipartisan vote than the Senate, which voted yesterday and passed the measure 16 to 3.

And it’s a big win for Gov. Walker.  He has said from the start said that the state needs a bigger say in the gas line project. Now it will have that.

TOWNSEND: So, what were the stakes here?

WALDHOLZ: By the time they took this vote, a lot of lawmakers saw this as a live or die moment for the gas line project itself. I think a lot of Republicans, especially, aren’t necessarily happy with the Walker administration or the way it’s handling the gas line. But they felt they had to approve this request to support the project, and keep it moving forward.

Rep. Mark Neuman (R-Big Lake) is co-chair of the House Finance Committee, which worked on the bill. He was very skeptical of administration officials during hearings. But this is what he said right before the vote:

NEUMAN: This is Alaska’s future. I see no other way that we can continue to pay the state’s bills into the future without this pipeline. We are a resource development state. It’s what we do.

Other lawmakers saw it as a much simpler issue. Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage) said it’s just a financial decision: this project will cost less without TransCanada as a partner.

GARA: Mr. Speaker, we could all engage in a lot of flowery speeches about the importance of the gas line — and it is important to the state’s future. And I suspect we’ll hear a lot of that, and some of that will be justified. But that’s not what this bill is about. This bill is about saving the state money. It’s about saving the public money. And it’s about making more money for the state if this project moves forward.

TOWNSEND: Rachel, remind us what this is all about — how does this mean the state plays a bigger role in the project?

WALDHOLZ: The Alaska LNG project includes three parts: a gas treatment plant on the North Slope, a pipeline down to Cook Inlet, and a liquefaction plant in Nikiski.

Right now, TransCanada controls the state’s share of the gas treatment plant and the pipeline. By ending the partnership, the state will have a full 25 percent stake in all three parts — and a full 25 percent vote in the project itself.

The vote authorizes the state to spend about $157 million to reimburse TransCanada for its efforts to date, and to continue work through the current planning phase, called pre-FEED (pre-Front End Engineering and Design).

TOWNSEND: Many lawmakers started the session much more skeptical of the governor’s proposal, even a little antagonistic. What changed?

WALDHOLZ: I think lawmakers thought the administration made a pretty strong financial case – that it would be more expensive to keep TransCanada in as a partner, than to end the partnership now. So that was key.

But also, it became clear that TransCanada itself wanted out of the partnership. Representatives from the company told lawmakers that once it was clear the Walker administration wanted them out of the project, they couldn’t be as effective, and it wasn’t worth it for them to stay in. It seemed likely that if the legislature rejected this bill, TransCanada would walk away anyway. So I think a lot of lawmakers felt like they didn’t have much of a choice.

And I think they agreed with the administration in the end, that the state needs more control of this potential gas line project, which could be huge. 

The House adjourned Wednesday afternoon. The Senate is expected to adjourn Thursday, ending this year’s third Special Session.

Click here for our “What is Alaska LNG?” series. 

 

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori