JUNEAU -

In this year’s legislative push to approve an all-Alaska natural gas pipeline, the driving force has been state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash.

"It's kind of like a big boulder," Balash said. "Once you get it moving, you want to keep it moving."

The goal is to export Alaska's natural gas to Asia where it is in high demand, as well as distribute it to residents statewide through one or more “off-take” points along the pipeline’s route.

Senate Bill 138 would begin the long road down that path. The state Senate passed the bill 15-5 March 18, and it is now being heard in the House Finance Committee. A full vote on the House floor could take place later this week; should the bill pass the Legislature, permitting work would begin this summer.

“Then there will be a robust summer field season in parts of Alaska, from Livengood south,” Balash said. “Last year the parties examined the corridor from Livengood north.”

The pre-fabrication, design and engineering phases would take about four years, prior to construction in 2019. Gas line proponents predict the project will create 15,000 jobs. Opponents of the bill as written, however, wonder how many of those hires will be Alaskans.

"We wanted what was known as a project labor agreement, because there is no better way to get Alaska hire than through a project labor agreement -- which unfortunately was turned down," said Senate Minority Leader Sen. Hollis French (D-Anchorage).

If SB 138 becomes law, it would establish an ownership pact among major North Slope energy producers BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil, as well as TransCanada -- the state’s main partner in an earlier version of the project, under former Gov. Sarah Palin’s Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.

French said he voted against the project because he doesn't like the provision requiring Alaska to settle up with TransCanada if the company pulls out of the project.

According to Balash, the House Finance Committee made changes to the bill that clearly define the roles DNR, the Department of Revenue, and Alaska Gasline Development Corp. would have in the project.