The $2 million earmark was not included in the House version of the SAFETEA-LU bill and was added in the Senate, where Stevens chaired the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which had jurisdiction. But Murkowski also claims credit for the earmark. “If we can’t get more gas [in the Anchorage area], people are going to freeze in the dark,” said Chuck Kleeschulte, a legislative assistant on energy issues in Murkowski’s office. Kleeschulte referred to the project as a “delegation earmark” and said, “We gladly accept responsibility for this earmark.”
The Alaska Legislature also passed a resolution expressing support for constructing a natural gas pipeline from Fairbanks to South-Central Alaska, with then-state Sen. Ben Stevens voting in favor.
Aaron Saunders, spokesman for Ted Stevens, wrote in an e-mail to Roll Call that “The provision in the SAFETEA-LU bill to provide money to the state to continue to study possible spur lines was a priority for the entire Alaska Congressional Delegation. These funds would ensure that [the] ongoing study would be completed. It is the Delegation’s understanding that the state will award a contract to finish the study based on its procurement process,” meaning it is not guaranteed that ENSTAR will receive the money.
Saunders added that the delegation’s support of the pipeline “is based on the project’s merits and its importance to all of their constituents who live in South Central Alaska. ... At no time did Ben Stevens’ role as one of 10 members of SEMCO’s Board of Directors play any part in the Delegation’s decision to support this study.”
Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the Cato Institute, said there is nothing wrong with the Alaska delegation setting aside money for the state to review alternative routes for a gas pipeline. But, he said, “If you are coming from the premise that the state should be the ones determining the best use of a lump of money ... the state should be free to interpret that. The follow-up correspondence is the odd part, which says ‘No, no, you are to spend it this way.’”
Slivinski said Congressional letters to state agencies are a kind of a backdoor earmark. “If you wanted to be more honest about this, you could have done it in the law,” instead of going to the state to make the distinction.
Mike Thompson, the state pipeline coordinator in the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said the $2 million from the highway bill earmark has never been distributed. The state is waiting for the Energy Department to release a broader feasibility study that compares both routes before it releases a request for bids to conduct the study on the Parks Highway route. The DOE study has been completed — NORSTAR, another unit of SEMCO, was one of the contractors that the department hired to draft it — but it has not yet been released.