11/28/2012 07:42 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Should Feds Continue to Fund $1.4 Million Alaska Pipeline Coordinator's Office?

An agency created to oversee a massive pipeline project delivering Alaska natural gas to the Lower 48 has no such proposal to work on now that oil companies are chasing a different plan. But legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) could breathe new life into the federal pipeline coordinator's office, expanding its role to help with any project selling Alaska's North Slope gas.

For now though, the four-person, $1.4 million office has picked up odd jobs to stay busy, including running a costly news site and creating an online database of historical documents covering four decades of shattered pipeline dreams.

No one envisioned the office doing such work when Congress created it eight years ago, said director Larry Persily, an Obama appointee. Instead, it was supposed to expedite permitting for the conduit that would carry natural gas between Alaska's North Slope and Alberta, Canada, where it would link with pipelines headed to the Lower 48 states.

But oil companies holding leases to develop the gas fields -- Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and BP -- have stopped looking toward the states. They've now dusted off an old idea to ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Asia by tanker vessels -- an effort they say could cost more than $65 billion.

Their new direction raises questions about the need for Persily's office. But Persily argues that the news-aggregation site and the historical archive bring value to taxpayers by creating a legacy of information.

"My feeling is if the federal government wants to have this office, that's great. And if we don't have any permits to work on, we'll find something that has some value for the public until someone tells me to stop. I told the White House, 'Hey, no permits, I'm going to do this.' They're like, 'Sure that's fine.'"

Get past the tax fight

Tapping the North Slope's vast natural gas reserves, the largest conventional reserves in North America, is considered critical to Alaska's economic future. But longtime Alaskans are skeptical the gas will ever reach market, despite pronouncements from Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell that the Asian-LNG effort is on track.

Having watched decades of pipeline attempts go nowhere, Persily, 61, admits he's also jaded. But he holds out hope that a new project will advance toward the permitting phase, allowing his office to survive and ultimately help bring a gas pipeline project to Alaska. The state needs that gas, at the very least to heat Alaskans' homes, he said. For that to happen, Alaska leaders need to do a better job . . .

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