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Pipeline: Congress vs. the public

Are American consumers aware that they are about to assume financial risk for the most costly private construction project in history? Unless resistance is effective at the court or agency level, this seems the result of congressional concessions to the corporate sponsors of the planned natural gas pipeline from Alaska. The legislature's actions can only be termed a blatant disregard of the public interest - by both Democrats and Republicans.

The pipeline was supposed to be built with private financing. Under waivers now passed by Congress, consumers might be billed for the pipeline before they receive any gas from it and even if the pipeline is never completed. Further concessions permit gas producers to have an equity stake in the 4,800-mile line, which had been barred on antitrust grounds, and also remove certain regulatory procedures for protecting customers.

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Ironically, President Reagan has gone along with such a subsidy by consumers (reluctantly, it is said) despite his commitment to marketplace economics. The fact is, the pipeline builders already have a ''subsidy'' in the form of substantial tax breaks.

The major support for the waivers has come from the Democrats, who otherwise miss no opportunity to chastise the Republicans for favoritism to corporate business. Money and politics (surprise?) appear to be at the bottom of this ideological about-face. John McMillian, head of the pipeline company and the driving force behind the project, is a generous financial contributor to the Democratic Party. Hence he has managed to enlist such political luminaries as Walter Mondale and Robert Strauss in his heavy lobbying drive.

Nor are the waivers necessarily the end of the story. There is concern that, having gotten his foot in the door, Mr. McMillian will next seek federal loan guarantees for the project. The rationale for government help is that, with decontrol of natural gas prices in the wind, Alaskan gas may not be as marketable and banks therefore will not want to expose themselves to so much risk.

The United States obviously needs to exploit its energy resources. But there is something uncomfortable in the way the Alaska pipeline venture has evolved. Does the public know what it's getting into?

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