Thursday, September 18th, 2014
"I fought to bring about the largest private-sector infrastructure project in North American history."

Sarah Palin on Saturday, September 6th, 2008 in a radio address

Not quite the largest, and not quite "brought about"

Since Sen. John McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin his vice-presidential running mate, she has repeatedly touted her push for a new pipeline in Alaska as evidence of her executive experience and energy expertise.

But she has often fudged the truth in the process, as we explain in this article .

Here we'll look at a claim Palin made both in her speech at the Republican National Convention on Sept. 3, 2008, and in a radio address three days later. Here's the full context, from the radio address:

"Despite fierce opposition from oil company lobbyists, we broke their monopoly on power and resources," Palin said. "As governor, I insisted on competition and basic fairness to end their control of our state and return it to the people. I fought to bring about the largest private-sector infrastructure project in North American history. And when that deal was struck, we began a nearly $40-billion natural gas pipeline to help lead America to energy independence."

The pipeline, which has been a pipe dream (pardon us) of officials and oilmen in Alaska for three decades, would carry to market natural gas currently stranded under the state's remote and rugged North Slope. Palin's plan is for the Canadian company TransCanada Corp. to build a 1,715-mile line southeast along the Alaska Highway, through the Canadian province of British Columbia to a hub in Alberta.

Before her election as governor, Palin opposed the idea of routing the pipeline through Canada, a version of which her predecessor, Frank Murkowski, had advocated. But after she was elected governor she decided to consider all options.

She pushed the Legislature to pass a law providing $500-million in state funds to whatever company presented the best proposal for the project. The Legislature accepted TransCanada's proposal in August 2008, and the company now faces the multiyear process of seeking federal approval.

So yes, Palin "fought to bring about" a new plan for the pipeline. (Though she also fought to put the kibosh on Murkowski's plan.)

Her phrasing — "fought to bring about" — could suggest that she did bring about the pipeline — that is, that it has been built, or is at least under construction. That's not true — TransCanada does not plan to begin construction until 2015, if at all.

Now, would the pipeline be "the largest private-sector infrastructure project in North American history"?

Palin didn't specify what she meant by "largest," but according to engineering experts, cost is the most common measure of the size of large-scale projects. "Generally when people talk about the size of an infrastructure project they're talking about the cost," said Jay McCauley, vice president of the Society for Industrial Archeology.

We talked to several experts in pipelines and large-scale engineering projects, who said the only private infrastructure project on the scale of Palin's proposed pipeline that they could come up with was the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, an oil pipeline also from the North Slope that is often referred to as the Alaska Pipeline. (Most large infrastructure projects are publicly funded, whether directly, like the Interstate Highway System, or indirectly, like the Transcontinental Railroad.)

The Alaska Pipeline was completed in 1977 at a cost of $8-billion. At 800 miles, it is physically shorter than TransCanada's proposed pipeline, but its $8-billion price tag would be at least $27-billion in 2007 dollars, according to the three online inflation calculators we consulted.

Palin has claimed repeatedly that TransCanada's pipeline would cost "nearly $40-billion." But we could not determine where that estimate came from, and neither Palin's office in Alaska nor the McCain campaign returned our calls to tell us. Alaska's Web site says TransCanada's project would cost about $26-billion, and TransCanada spokeswoman Cecily Dobson confirmed the cost estimate remains "approximately US$26-billion in 2007 dollars."

That's less than the $27-billion inflation-adjusted cost of the Alaska Pipeline. Not by much — but it's less.

Palin was right to say she "fought to bring about" the pipeline. But she implies that it's further along than it really is. And she was wrong — though not egregiously so — to say it would be the largest private-sector infrastructure project in North American history. We judge her claim to be Half True.