Bucking President and Party, Gov. John Spellman Turns An Oil Pipeline into a Pipe Dream

UPDATED 04/26/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/26/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

No outraged Chinese governor could stop the Emperor from building the Great Wall. Nor did a Roman senator thwart the Appian Way, nor a Russian prince prevent the Trans-Siberian Railroad. But today one of the nation's mightiest public works projects, the $2.7 billion, 1,490-mile Northern Tier Pipeline designed to carry Alaskan crude oil from Puget Sound to Midwestern refineries, is being blocked by a single man, Gov. John Spellman of Washington, who refuses to issue the required permit. "There's no reason for us to spoil the state, and the people don't want it spoiled," explains Spellman. "The project is no darn good."

Until now the pipeline seemed unstoppable. First proposed in 1976, it has received the necessary permits from four states (Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota), the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency. Both the Carter and Reagan Administrations endorsed it as essential to the nation's defense. (Alaskan oil bound for the Midwest otherwise has to be shipped through the Panama Canal.) Yet Spellman, a 55-year-old first-term Republican, has rebuffed appeals from his own party (he called his foes in the state legislature "troglodytes") and from labor leaders: Proponents estimate that the pipeline would create hundreds of construction jobs in a state where the unemployment rate is more than 13 percent.

Spellman has refused even to read letters addressed to him by Secretary of Energy James Edwards—who later said he was "deeply disappointed"—and Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige. Nor would he meet with Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger or Interior Secretary James Watt. "I think it was inappropriate and I think it was heavy-handed, but I didn't let that influence me," he says of their lobbying campaign. "The actions of the federal government are unprecedented. I know of no other instance where they have attempted to influence a state matter to this degree." Had President Reagan telephoned, Spellman says he would have discussed the issue out of respect for the Presidency. He adds, "I'm glad he hasn't called."

In reaching his decision, Spellman limited himself to studying the report of his state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), which after 18 months of public hearings recommended last February that the Governor deny approval. EFSEC raised two main objections to the pipeline. First, the board thought that tankers unloading massive amounts of crude oil in Port Angeles, where the pipeline would start, posed an unacceptable risk of fire and explosion to the area's 12,000 residents. (Such accidents have occurred at various points on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.) Second, the 22 miles of pipeline that would run 350 feet below the surface of Puget Sound might break, spilling huge amounts of oil into prime fishing waters. Having promised that he would accept the advisory board's recommendations unless he found serious flaws in its reasoning, Spellman officially endorsed its pipeline ban earlier this month, but says that he remains open to any pipeline proposal that would bypass Puget Sound and Port Angeles.

Spellman's decision to sandbag the project may also sandbag his career. A native of Seattle who attended Seattle University, a Jesuit college, and then earned a law degree at Georgetown University, Spellman was elected Governor in 1980 after 12 years as County Executive of King County (which includes his hometown). With Lois, his wife of 27 years, he lives in the governor's mansion in Olympia with the youngest three of their six children, aged 12 to 27. His opponents on the pipeline issue believe he won't be reelected in 1984. "I don't think he will have a very good political future," says the Republican House Speaker, William Polk. "It seems crazy to me that the Governor doesn't work out some kind of deal on the pipeline, rather than just killing it."

Spellman insists that he is unconcerned by the political effects of his decision. "I'm here to do what must be done. I would guess my popularity is as low as it ever has been, but this job isn't a popularity contest. The party that does the best job for the people will succeed."

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