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Vol. 13, No. 47 Week of November 23, 2008
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Palin book offers facts, not insights

Roger Herrera

For Petroleum News

Anyone who thinks that the proposed natural gas pipeline, planned to carry Alaska North Slope gas to the Midwestern United States, is an important factor in our energy picture, must read the book “Sarah takes on Big Oil.”

But for political junkies, who love or hate Governor Sarah Palin, don’t bother, because other journalists, not constrained by facts, have already supplied far juicier morsels than you will find between these covers.

Kay Cashman and Kristen Nelson, as publisher and editor of Petroleum News, have already made their mark in Alaska by supplying the most objective and factual reporting on the oil industry that exists. Week in and week out they have printed the only unbiased news on oil and gas matters that is available to Alaskans and other readers in northern and western Canada. Their newspaper contains no editorial opinion, letters to the editor or extraneous, feel-good stuff aimed at selling papers rather than educating and informing the readers. Pretty boring one might say, but oh so reliable.

You’ll learn something

Actually they are both excellent writers and this book is definitely not boring. I am sure even grizzled oil men, or our put-upon legislators who spent months being briefed on the smallest details of the hugely complex AGIA (Alaska Gasline Inducement Act), will learn something new and important from reading these pages.

The authors, and other contributors, have endeavored to describe the history of the gas pipeline up until now. It is, of course, a political story initiated by the Murkowski administration’s attempt to negotiate a gasline agreement with the North Slope gas owners. This was followed by the advent of Sarah Palin, her ascendancy to the governor’s office and her success in persuading the Alaska State Legislature to pass the AGIA bill that now serves as her blueprint for the future construction of the gas pipeline. Or does it?

Readers of this book will not be coerced into supporting Governor Palin’s concept, nor will they be seduced into siding with the “Big 3” oil companies. But what they will obtain from the book is enough factual information to make their own reasoned decision as to the merits of both sides.

They will learn, despite political rhetoric to the contrary, that the gas pipeline is by no means a slam-dunk anytime soon.

They will learn the massive importance of the Point Thomson gas and condensate field, which is frozen by litigation at this moment.

They will understand that the remaining Prudhoe Bay oil is far more valuable than the gas in the same reservoir.

They will begin to realize just how complicated the pipeline tariff calculations will be and how they will impact the willingness of the North Slope gas owners to commit gas to the pipeline and thus enable it to be financed.

Light on insider information

Unfortunately, what the reader will not learn is what makes Sarah Palin tick. They will not learn what the “Big 3” oil companies really think about her. Her charm and determination are obvious, and the fact that her staff love her is OK, but immaterial.

These players have the future of Alaska’s economy in their hands yet they rarely talk to each other. Playing hardball is fine so long as it succeeds. But if a too-tough attitude prevents compromise, a gas pipeline will never be built.

One yearns for the insider information, which must freely flow to the editors of Petroleum News. Does Palin hate the gas owners and vice versa, or is she as pleasant with them as with everyone else? It’s hard to know and consequently it’s very difficult to understand whether the two sides will ever amicably negotiate.

If one only reads the comments of Palin’s commissioners we have a cold future ahead of us because they do not disguise their somewhat emotional feelings about the oil companies. They can be sacked at the whim of the governor so she remains the critical factor. The inner workings of that factor are not revealed in this book.

The authors deliberately stuck with what they do best — factual reporting. There is only the faintest of polite criticism of Gov. Palin when it is gently suggested that she could have helped Shell Oil with the litigation of its exploration plans for offshore northern Alaska. (They still are in litigation).

There is only one anonymous personal opinion recorded from the ranks of the oil industry. That industry employs thousands of highly intelligent people who are familiar with the issue. Surely a few personal comments would have added value to our understanding.

In truth, it is unfair for this reviewer to make such critical suggestions. Having once been employed by one of the “Big 3” I know how unique unfettered opinions can be from within their organizations. They tend to believe that facts are easier to analyze and leave less margin for exploitation.

However the book can be criticized for its lax editing. There is too much unnecessary repetition between chapters. Sometimes that can be helpful, but it can also become annoying. Some factual errors, such as calling Samuel Bodman Secretary of the Interior instead of Secretary of Energy, have not been corrected, and there is no index or bibliography. Knowing that the two authors are both expert editors, one must be puzzled by such oversights.

Nevertheless this book is extraordinarily valuable and should be read by all Alaskans who enjoy their Permanent Fund Dividends and all Americans who wonder about their energy future.

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