Flashback to the swinging seventies: Alaska's building a gas pipeline!

As a student of history, I often wonder what it would be like to live in another era. I imagine myself, fedora-clad, smoking my way through the 1930's or perhaps wearing something in a nice olive green and smoking my way through Europe in the early '40s. Alternately, I could even see myself in a slick sharkskin suit and thin tie, smoking in an office in the 1950's.

Looking at the last paragraph, I'm sensing a trend.

Anyway, I don't often imagine myself in the 1970's, as I've already been through that decade once. Granted, my seventies experience didn't really involve any of the big themes of the era, like women's lib, stadium rock, and drug abuse. For me, it was a time of child-sized leisure suits, earth-tones, and the Six Million Dollar Man.

Still, when it comes to the seventies, I have a feeling of "been there, done that." Unfortunately, while I'm still waiting for fedoras, slick suits, and a land war in central Europe to return, the seventies seem to have caught up with me again. While I could easily point to the obvious similarities between now and then -- an Arab-Israeli conflict, a belligerent Russia, a southern governor in the White House -- the connections between our two decades go a little bit deeper and are a bit more surprising.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the return of stagflation, an economic phenomenon characterized by stagnated wages coupled with inflated currencies. Stagflation became a problem in the early 1970's, but didn't really rear its ugly head for the next thirty years or so. However, beginning in January, 2008, the prices of consumer goods soared as wages stagnated or dropped. For anyone wondering what the economy felt like in 1971, the current situation might give you a good idea. At least President Bush hasn't frozen wages and prices!

The next big flashback to the seventies has been the massively inflating price of oil. On the bright side, gas price increases haven't been accompanied by oil embargoes, as in the early 1970's, which means that we don't have to worry about waiting in line to fill up our tanks. On the downside, everybody seems to accept the fact that gas is going to go to $4 a gallon, and some analysts are predicting that it will hit $5 this summer. Others are giving it until the end of the year.

I recently discovered that we're about to see yet another blast from the past. A couple of weeks ago, two of the world's largest gas producers, BP and ConocoPhillips announced that they're joining forces to build a 2,000-mile natural gas pipeline that will run from the North Slope of Alaska to Alberta, Canada. The existing gas pipeline could then move the gas further south; alternately, BP and Conoco are considering building another pipeline that will stretch a further 1,500 miles and will carry the natural gas all the way to Chicago.

This pipeline will ultimately be a conduit through which about 4 billion cubic feet of natural gas will flow every day. It is designed to help meet the U.S.'s demand for natural gas, which has grown by about 1.5% a year over the last two decades, and is set to continue growing. The pipeline will ultimately cost roughly $30 billion to build and will be partially financed through tax breaks and gas royalties that Alaska and the gas companies are still negotiating.

The natural gas pipeline, which has already been named the "Denali," is a mixed blessing. On the bright side, it will bring a fresh fuel source to U.S. markets, which is a definite boon. Further, the natural gas produced in Alaska doesn't come from the House of Saud, Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, or any of the other despots that America currently funds with its fossil-fuel addiction. Perhaps best of all, it will employ thousands of people and provide a major stimulus to Alaska's economy. The last pipeline employed 21,000 people, not counting the saloon-keepers, drug dealers, and prostitutes that it helped support. While this one will supposedly only use 9,300 workers, that's still an impressive employment project.

On the other hand, naturalists are still bemoaning the environmental impact of the last pipeline, and it seems logical to expect that this one will have a similarly detrimental effect on Alaska's ecosystem. Also, for all its hype as an alternative energy source, this pipeline still reflects America's dependence on fossil fuels; at the end of the day, BP and Conoco will be pumping a finite resource out of the ground, transporting it thousands of miles, and burning it. As with oil, this resource will ultimately run out and we will be no closer to finding a sustainable energy source. In the meantime, I can't help but imagine the kind of renewable technologies that could be funded by the $30 billion that is going into this project.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. This return to the seventies is all well and good, but if disco comes back, he's going to puncture his own eardrums.
Read Full Story