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Alaska lawmakers back governor on plan to export North Slope gas

JUNEAU, April 21 (Reuters) - Alaska's legislature on Monday approved Governor Sean Parnell's plan to join four energy companies in moving ahead on plans to build infrastructure to transport and market 35 trillion cubic feet of North Slope gas to be shipped by an 800-mile pipeline to a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export plant.

The project is valued at between $45 billion and $65 billion for the line and gas treatment facilities. Should it come to fruition, gas could hit local and foreign markets in the mid-2020s, according to the state's projections.

Companies are increasingly seeking to ship LNG from growing U.S. gas reserves to Asia and Europe, where demand is surging. Companies have complained about red tape in seeking federal approval for U.S. facilities to export LNG.

Alaska has a history of exporting LNG dating back to the 1960s, but from basins in Cook Inlet south of Anchorage.

Lawmakers passed legislation proposed by the governor, authorizing him to work with North Slope leaseholders Exxon Mobil Corp, BP Plc, ConocoPhillips and pipeline company TransCanada Corp in drafting a project development contract.

By the end of 2015, the governor is expected to come back to the legislature to ratify a contract. Meanwhile, project teams will begin front-end engineering and design work.

"Alaskans have waited a long time for a gas line, and for the first time in our history, we have alignment, authorization from the legislature, and a clear path forward," Parnell said in a statement. "The Alaska LNG Project has begun."

Previous efforts by Parnell's two predecessors failed. Like many of his colleagues who served under those administrations, House Finance Co-Chair Bill Stoltze, a Republican from Chugiak, Alaska, was cautious.

"I have the same mix of skepticism," Stoltze said. "This is what iteration of efforts? There is probably more promise than hope. I will not say stars aligned, but there are less things to stop this than things in the past."

Officials said more work was in store.

"This is giving us permission to do a lot more work. As we do that work, we'll get a better sense of whether or not this project is a contender," Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash said.

(Reporting By Steve Quinn; Editing by Terry Wade and David Gregorio)