Politics & Government

Obama asks Republican Pearce to step down from pipeline post

WASHINGTON — The Republican who heads up the federal agency overseeing the proposed construction of Alaska's natural gas pipeline is stepping down at the request of President Barack Obama.

Drue Pearce, a former president of the Alaska Senate, was asked to leave her job as the head of the small agency known as the Office of the Federal Coordinator. Her resignation takes effect Jan. 3.

In a statement, Pearce said that it had been "a profound privilege to lead this innovative team."

"I am a passionate supporter of the agency's mission to bring Alaska natural gas to North American markets," Pearce said. "I leave an effective and efficient agency with a highly skilled team of professionals actively pursuing our mission."

Pearce served from 2001 to 2006 as the senior adviser to the Secretary of the Interior for Alaska Affairs until she was appointed to another political job by President George W. Bush, as the federal coordinator for the gas pipeline. She was confirmed as federal coordinator by the Senate in 2006.

Since Obama's inauguration, there has been a quiet but ongoing dispute over whether Pearce, a political appointee, could continue in the job as federal coordinator under the Obama administration. When the legislation creating the office was signed into law in 2004, it included language that allowed the presidential appointee in the job to "serve a term to last until one year following the completion of the project."

Ultimately, though, politics prevailed and Pearce was urged to step down.

"President Obama values the Office of the Federal Coordinator and the important role that it plays in promoting our nation's energy security," said White House spokesman Adam Abrams. "He thanks Drue Pearce for her service and looks forward to naming a new federal coordinator in the weeks to come."

Pearce was the first person to hold the job, which is designed to keep federal agencies working together to get the pipeline built without undue delay. Some 22 federal agencies in the United States -- plus others in Canada -- must sign off on an environmental impact statement before the project can move forward. Right now, two proposals are competing for a multibillion-dollar natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48. Under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, a state law, the state is tied to the effort led by the pipeline firm TransCanada Corp. and backed by Exxon Mobil. Conoco Phillips and BP are pursuing a rival project called Denali.

"Her being forced out is a tremendous loss to Alaska," said Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, who served in the state Senate with Pearce. "Drue brought such a wide range of Alaska experience as well as federal experience that I am concerned we're going to be at a loss there for the federal help that Alaska needs in moving a gas line forward. This position should have transcended politics, and I don't see that playing out right now."

As the only Democrat in the Alaska congressional delegation, it'll be up to Sen. Mark Begich to recommend a replacement to the White House. Begich on Monday thanked Pearce for her service but said that Obama should be commended for "bringing new energy to this office and for his commitment to building an Alaska natural gas pipeline."

"As a candidate and now as president, President Obama has always believed the Alaska natural gas pipeline is vital to meeting America's energy needs while ensuring our national energy security," Begich said. "The federal pipeline coordinator is designed to be an essential tool to kick-starting the project and moving its approval quickly through the federal regulatory process."

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said it would be "difficult to match" Pearce's advocacy for the pipeline.

"I regret the loss of Drue's experience and knowledge on this project, but I understand that it's the president's prerogative to appoint the person of his choosing," Murkowski said. "The Alaska natural gas pipeline project is important to the economic and energy security of the nation. I've discussed this issue with the White House and I'm encouraged by the president's level of interest in seeing this project succeed."

Murkowksi said she was pleased Pearce's deputy, retired U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thomas Barrett, will serve as the interim coordinator until the White House appoints someone new.