In the summer of 1970, Bill Walker was hanging around the Johnson Trailer Court in Valdez when he was offered a job building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Walker had completed a year of community college but was out of money and couldn’t afford to keep taking classes. The pipeline felt like his ticket to a better-future.
Engineered to carry crude from the roadless North Slope to ports on the southern coast, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline brought jobs and revenue to the 49th state, transforming it from roughshod frontier to global energy powerhouse and lifting Walker and others from poverty along the way. Walker used his earnings to put himself through college, then law school. At 27, he became the youngest mayor of Valdez. He founded a law firm specializing in oil and gas issues. And in 2014, the lifelong Republican ran as an Independent to become Alaska’s 11th -governor.
Yet Walker’s tenure coincided with a financial crisis. Oil prices have plummeted, thousands of Alaskans have lost their jobs and the state faces a $3 billion budget deficit. Meanwhile, many North Slope oil wells are slowly drying up. The pipeline now carries just a quarter of the crude it once did, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that if production continues to drop, it could be decommissioned as early as 2026.
That’s a devastating prospect for Alaskans, who depend on oil pumping through the pipeline for nearly 90 percent of state revenue. Even if oil prices bounce back, the state’s financial future remains hitched to a declining, volatile commodity. But Bill Walker believes there’s an obvious path to prosperity: Build another pipeline, this time to transport the 34 trillion cubic feet of natural gas stranded -beneath the -frozen North Slope.
The proposed gasline and accompanying liquified natural gas (LNG) plant could bring 15,000 jobs and a flood of revenue, which Walker hopes could be used to develop other industries, such as mining, reducing the state’s dependence on oil. But given the current fiscal emergency, a growing number of skeptics wonder if the new pipeline will be a boost — or a -blunder.
The idea of moving natural gas from the North Slope to a plant where it can be liquified and shipped overseas was first proposed in the 1970s. But because re-injecting gas into oil wells to bring up greater quantities of crude proved more profitable than shipping it to market, the gasline never materialized. Instead, the project hovered like a mirage — tantalizing, but just beyond reach.
For years, Walker worked behind the scenes to convince oil producers of the plan’s merits. “I watched all these other LNG projects be developed around the world,” he says. “But ours was like milk with no expiration date — it never got to the front of the shelf.” Finally, he became convinced that the best way to get the pipeline built was for the state to take over, and the best way for that to happen was to spearhead it himself. So in 2014, he ran for the governor’s office on a pro-pipeline platform — and won.
By this point, Alaska already had a state-owned gasline corporation partnering with several oil companies. Walker’s administration kicked it into high gear. Shortly after his election, the state paid $65 million for TransCanada’s 25 percent stake in the project. The corporation hired a new CEO with a $550,000 salary, and a state agency estimated that extracting North Slope natural gas could soon be more profitable than injecting it to stimulate oil wells. Things looked promising.
That changed in August. Cheap natural gas had flooded the global market, and the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie concluded that the Alaska LNG Project’s $45 billion price tag made it one of the least competitive proposals of its kind worldwide. ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and BP abruptly backed out.
Industry analysts predicted that without the oil companies’ backing, the project was dead. But Walker saw this as an opportunity for the state to assume full control of it. Walker believes that by the mid-2020s, as the global oversupply diminishes, Asian countries will be again hungry for gas. He’s hoping to find outside investors, such as Asian utility companies, to fund the gasline.
Yet many Alaskans and analysts remain skeptical. “I think investors will be very reluctant,” says Larry Persily, who has worked on Alaska oil and gas policy for 20 years. He points out that the state has barely begun the regulatory process, creating uncertainties that may dissuade investors. “You don’t know how much the project is going to cost or when they’d make first deliveries,” he says.
Plus, lawmakers are concerned about the cost of state involvement: Every dollar spent on the pipeline is a dollar that doesn’t go toward schools, law enforcement or other services. “The budget is strapped,” says state Sen. Cathy Geissel. “Alaskans are very concerned about going this alone.” If three major oil companies consider the project a financial gamble, she adds, why would it be any different for the state?
Still, Persily and Geissel believe that though the timing isn’t yet right, the gasline will one day be built, and they’re prepared to be patient. But as a mid-term governor forced to make unpopular cuts to education, transportation and social services, Walker doesn’t have time to wait for a market shift. “Politically,” Persily notes, “I’m not surprised that the governor has said this is the right time.”
Correspondent Krista Langlois lives in Durango, Colorado, and frequently covers Alaska. Follow @cestmoiLanglois