JUNEAU, Alaska — After state lawmakers failed to pass legislation that might have brought a natural gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope, new hope for such a project has been revived Tuesday -- by officials with the government of Japan.
On Monday night, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. During that dinner, held by the State Department in Washington, D.C., Murkowski talked with Noda about a key concern of his: electrical power for Japan.
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake of March 2011 was the most powerful in Japanese history, producing a tsunami more than 60 feet tall. The combination of earthquake and rushing water killed an estimated 19,000 people. It also triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, forcing a meltdown at a series of reactors in the coastal town of Fukushima.
In the year since the incident, the Japanese have turned against nuclear power, although the country's 53 nuclear plants used to supply a third of Japan's electricity. Fifty-one of the 53 plants have now been shut down, and Japan wants to replace them with relatively clean-burning natural gas.
Right now the Lower 48 is awash in natural gas, thanks to a relatively new drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," but the procedure can contaminate groundwater.
Alaska's problem is entirely different: stranded gas. The North Slope contains an estimated 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- one of the largest deposits in the country, which can be extracted by conventional methods without the use of fracking.
The only problem with that gas is that it's so far away from any sizable market, there's no easy way to deliver it to a port.
Enter Japan, a nation of 127 million people that sits just 3,500 miles from Anchorage -- a nation that now has a crucial energy shortage.
Murkowski has not only met with Noda, but also met last week with members of Japan's ruling body, the Diet.
All of the Japanese officials have expressed interest in Alaska natural gas. That's important, because for any pipeline to be economically efficient, it must be large -- and a 4-billion-cubic-foot-per-day pipeline from the North Slope could go a long way in making up for the energy shortfall caused by the loss of the country's nuclear reactors.
Murkowski has contacted the White House to ask for their help in seeing if anything can be done to reach a deal with the Japanese. She was still waiting to hear back from the White House Tuesday night.
If President Obama can help reach an agreement with Japan to buy 4 billion cubic feet of natural gas from the United States annually for the next 30 years, a big component of a long-awaited gas line may fall into place -- and if it does, Alaska will have its biggest construction project since the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline 35 years ago.
Murkowski intends to meet with another Japanese official Wednesday.