The House is scheduled to take up Tuesday a bill that could help sponsors of the $40 billion Alaska gas pipeline finally obtain financing but could also transfer much of the cost to consumers even if they never receive any gas from the project.
The legislation, requested by President Reagan, would give the pipeline's sponsors and three major oil companies financial concessions that would greatly decrease their financial risk by allowing them to bill consumers for the cost of each segment of the line before the whole project is completed and by ensuring that gas users would continue to pay even if the gas is never marketed.
Supporters of the pipeline say House approval is crucial if the 4,800-mile project is to proceed, because without it the sponsors probably cannot obtain financing. They say the pipeline will ensure U.S. consumers a stable, long-term supply of reasonably priced gas, but critics such as Rep. Tom Corcoran (R-Ill.) are asking why, if the pipeline is such a good idea, the banks and the oil companies will not finance it like any other commercial venture.
The bill sailed through the Senate and has been approved by two House committees, but a small group led by Ralph Nader and a few House members is trying to marshal last-minute opposition. Nader, using figures developed by the staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says the legislation would raise the gas bills of about 60 percent of all residential and industrial consumers in the nation while allowing the pipeline's sponsors an "astounding" 50 per cent return on their investment.
The pipeline, first approved by Congress in 1976, is to transport about 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 13 per cent of the nation's proven reserves, from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil fields to terminals in California and Illinois.
With congressional approval, the Carter administration issued a charter to a consortium of energy and pipeline companies authorizing them to construct the pipeline but imposing conditions that required the participants to assume the venture's financial risk. At the request of the sponsors, who said they probably could not raise the money as long as those conditions remained in effect, President Reagan asked Congress to waive some of the restrictions. The waiver proposal will fail if the House does not act by Dec. 15.
The restrictions were imposed to insulate gas consumers from the cost of the project and to keep the Alaska North Slope oil producers from tightening their control over energy supplies by owning part of the gas pipeline. But the pipeline consortium, known as Northwest Alaskan Pipeline Co., called the restrictions "legal and regulatory roadblocks to private financing and construction" and asked that they be lifted.
Reagan agreed and asked Congress for waivers that would:
Allow the oil producers--Exxon, Arco and Standard of Ohio--to acquire part ownership of the pipeline, encouraging them to participate in financing it.
Include a $4.3 billion gas conditioning plant in the overall cost of the project, enabling the sponsors to pass that cost on to consumers.
Allow the pipeline company to bill gas users throughout the United States for each segment of the line as it is completed. This would in effect ensure financial backers that they would be repaid because consumers would have the cost added to their monthly gas bills--no matter how high the eventual cost, or even if the pipeline was never completed or the gas turned out to be unmarketable because of high cost.
According to Nader, this would "impose an unprecedented tax on consumers, requiring them to assume the costs and risks of the project as if they were shareholders but denying them the voting rights and dividends to which investors are entitled."
Figures compiled by congressional staff analysts say some residential consumers could pay more than $150 a year in increased gas bills beginning in 1982 if the waivers are approved.
According to the pipeline company, however, consumers would benefit in the long run because they would be shielded from world oil price increases and because the relative cost of the Alaskan gas would decline over time as the construction costs are paid off.