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Senators grill nominee about Alaska pipeline


July 20, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Drue Pearce, a former Alaska legislator, is President Bush's nominee to be the new federal coordinator for construction of an Alaska gas pipeline. But she got a scolding at her confirmation hearing Thursday that seemed more aimed at the Alaska Legislature.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, was frustrated that the Alaska Legislature has not endorsed the governor's gas pipeline contract with the state's three major oil companies.




"What's the holdup?" he asked Pearce.

The governor's contract includes a new method of taxing the companies on the oil they extract. Pearce said that component has troubled legislators but "they do appear to have critical mass to move forward on an oil tax change."

Domenici was in no way placated.

"You can sit there and tell me with your nice placid face that this is all going along, and the legislature is going to vote and approve things, but things aren't going very well," Domenici said. "There are too many disputes going on for my cup of tea. . . . There's an awful lot of something that smells and looks like politics going on."

Domenici's needling follows similar prodding from other federal officials - Sen. Ted Stevens, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Vice President Dick Cheney - to get the pipeline project moving.

Pearce's job - a new one, created by legislation Congress passed in 2004 - would be to keep the federal agencies working together to get the pipeline built without undue delay.

Another Alaskan, Mark Myers, also went before Domenici's committee Thursday for a confirmation hearing. He has been nominated to lead the U.S. Geological Survey. He called the USGS "one of the premier scientific research organizations in the world" and stressed the importance of providing top-notch, unbiased data.

Myers directed Alaska's oil and gas division until November, when he and five other top administration officials resigned over Gov. Frank Murkowski's gas pipeline negotiations. Myers said at the time he couldn't sit idly and watch the state's interests being undermined in favor of the big oil companies.

At the confirmation hearing, though, there was no mention of why he resigned, and Domenici unleashed his impatience over the pipeline only when questioning Pearce. Domenici said he expected to call her up to Capitol Hill often once she is confirmed.

Stevens and Alaska's other Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, had unreserved praise for both Myers and Pearce. Murkowski said that when she was in the state Legislature she relied on Myers' expertise and found him to be objective and exceptionally clear.

After the hearing, she said that his resignation did not affect her high opinion of him.

"He needed to be true to himself," she said.

She also said she shares Domenici's frustration.

The legislature, which is set to resume its special session on Monday, needs to act soon, she said.

"If they don't like the specifics of this (proposal), then don't just say no, figure it out. Make it happen. That's their job," she said.

Alaska House Speaker John Harris said there are good reasons the Legislature hasn't approved the governor's oil tax.

"It's a bad bill. It has a lot of problems," he said.

Harris said he isn't going to commit the state to unfavorable terms for decades to come no matter what Domenici says.

With the state's primary election just a few weeks away, politics does play a role, Harris acknowledged.

"If the election goes like I think it's going to go, the governor is not going to win," he said. "People don't want to put together the biggest deal that the state's ever seen - after the Alaska (oil) pipeline - with a governor that's not going to win the primary."

Sen. Murkowski said Alaska has only a window of opportunity to get its gas to market.

"Alaska can't be seen as dragging its feet on this project," she said. "We do that, we lose."

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Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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