Palin’s Pipeline to Nowhere

The principal achievement of Sarah Palin's term as Alaska's governor, a natural-gas pipeline project backed by $500 million in state tax money, might never be built unless Canadian authorities can strike a deal with some of the country's angry Indian tribes. Approximately half of the proposed pipeline would run through Canada; native tribes who live along its route complain they haven't been consulted about it and are threatening to sue unless they are compensated. Representatives of the canadian tribes, known as First Nations, say Palin and other pipeline proponents are treating them with disrespect. The tribes' lawyers warn that the courts are on their side and say the Indians have the power to delay the pipeline for years—or even kill it entirely by filing endless lawsuits.

Palin's advisers say they considered these risks before they committed state funds to the project earlier this year. The state hired Canadian lawyers, who produced a lengthy report warning about possible lawsuits and cautioning that First Nations in Canada's Yukon Territory could be among the "most litigious." The report estimated that the Indians could delay the pipeline for up to seven years. But Jeffrey Rath, a lawyer for First Nations, says this timetable is "wildly optimistic." He notes that one of his clients, the 250-member Prophet River First Nation, litigated an unrelated land claim for 11 years before recently settling. Liz Logan, chief of a First Nations umbrella group in British Columbia, told NEWSWEEK that TransCanada, the company Palin's administration selected to pursue the project, has "very much downplayed the extent of the legal difficulties they face in Canada." One of Canada's top pipeline experts, Professor Andre Plourde of the University of Alberta, agrees that the seven-year timetable proposed by Palin's lawyers for sorting out First Nations claims is "optimistic indeed."

Kurt Gibson, one of Alaska's top officials overseeing the pipe-line project, says it is "premature" in the process to start consulting with Canadian Indians. "This is what I would call a commercial dance of the fireflies," he says, meaning that the two sides are each jostling for economic advantage. But Robert C. Freedman, a lawyer for the Dene Tha' First Nation, says that if authorities keep putting off dealing with the natives, "it's going to be a pipeline to nowhere when it crosses into Canada." In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Patrick Galvin, Palin's revenue commissioner, conceded that "there are risks associated with this project … Nobody has said that this project is absolutely going to happen, guaranteed."