AREASONABLE ARGUMENT can be made, in theory, for subsidizing the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48 states. Natural gas is a clean form of energy; most of the newer power plants rely on it; much of the natural gas in Alaska cannot be used because of the difficulty of transport; more use of natural gas would diminish U.S. dependence on imported oil. The rationale is so clear it's no wonder many in Congress and outside are pushing to include pipeline subsidies in the energy legislation now wending its way through the House and the Senate.

Alas, there is just one small problem with this picture. It isn't clear that a subsidy is needed. There are at least two possible pipeline routes, several ways to connect the pipeline to existing ones and, potentially, bitter arguments between the United States and Canada about which way to go. As it did during the last session, Congress is leaning toward one particular, mostly American route, which would employ mostly American workers and would be built by companies that say they need a subsidy. As it did during the last session, Congress appears set to grant them their wish, in the form of subsidies that among other things set a floor for the price of natural gas and in legislation mandating the route.

There is no excuse for this. Of course the project is a huge one, involving thousands of miles of pipeline. Of course energy infrastructure projects are often subsidized, one way or another. But it is also true that if the same pipeline can be built at a far lower cost, then those who want to build it should at least be allowed to make their case -- even if they are Canadians, and even if their route runs through Canada, not Alaska. In theory, this country supports free trade and international commerce. Congress should do so in practice as well, and make sure that there is genuine competition for this project. The pipeline should be built not by those who have the closest friends in Congress but by those who demand the least of American taxpayers.