Washington — It's the biggest joint private construction job ever begun by two nations. It's the largest privately financed project ever undertaken in history. When it's completed, it will pipe natural gas from Alaska into Canada and the United States.
It has meant overcoming Canadian suspicions of the consistency of American foreign policy entangled between the White House and Congress.
And the ground-breaking ceremonies for the Eastern leg of the undertaking occur next week at Aberdeen, S.D.
The project is the Alaska Highway Gas Pipeline System that will bring Arctic gas to US furnaces. It has required anxious negotiations between Canada, which has a parliamentary system under the prime minister, and the United States, with its separation of powers, where the president and Congress often deadlock over foreign matters.
At present, the US Senate is holding up three important international treaties: a fisheries pact with Canada, the so-called law of the sea treaty requiring years of negotiations with 150 nations, and the SALT II treaty (strtegic arms limitation) with the Soviet Union, signed by President Carter but not ratified. The US Constitution gives treaty veto power to 34 senators in a Congress of 535 members, and foreign nations acknowledge the hurdle.
The agreement on the immense Gas Pipeline System required preliminary treaties but is also based on pledges in the United States by Congress. Even so , there was a deadlock in Congress on energy policy in 1977-78. This and other delays have set back scheduled completion of the project three years -- to late 1985. Go-ahead signal for the project was the unanimous approval of a joint resolution by Senate and House last summer.
When Congress failed to ratify the fisheries treaty with Canada, although signed by the American president, questions rose in Ottawa over US reliability.
"The separation of powers in the Constitution of the United States has always been a source of difficulty in dealings between the Canadian and the US government and particularly when treaties are concerned," Mitchell Sharp, Canadian commissioner of the Northern Pipeline Agency explained to an American audience. Failure of the fisheries treaty, he said, "weighed heavily on the minds of Canadian ministers." On the pipeline agreement he added:
"The Canadian government found it necessary not only to negotiate with the US administration [i.e. President Carter]; they found it useful -- with the consent and encouragement of the administration -- to make Canadian views known to members if Congress."
Canada, in other words, carried on two-tiered diplomatic negotiations -- with the American executive and Congress.
As it stands, construction already has begun on the southern segments of the big project, which comprise about a third of the entire pipeline. Ultimately a billion cubic feet a day of surplus Canadian gas will flow into markets of Midwest and Western US states.
In Canada the building of the Western leg is virtually completed. Construction of the connecting links in the US is under way. Now comes the start of construction on the 1,200 mile pipeline comprising the first stage of the Eastern leg in both countries. Completion of this is scheduled for fall 1982.
The great network, financed by private capital, will interconnect the two countries in a unique international grid.
President Reagan suffered embarrassment in a goodwill visit to Canada after he withdrew the fisheries agreement, arguing that the Senate would never pass it. President Carter and Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau signed the agreement in March 1979 subject to ratification by respective legislatures. Canada promptly ratified, Congress held back ending in stalemate, unlike the pipeline negotiation.
Luther H. Hodges Jr., deputy secretary of commerce under Carter said, "The separation of powers is making it increasingly difficult in the US to govern effectively . . . ."