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A proposed natural gas pipeline from Wyoming to California could be in operation as early as late 1991 if it receives federal approval, according to a Kern River Transmission Co. official.

Cuba Wadlington, Kern River executive vice president, said his company disagrees with statements by a Shell Oil representative that, with administrative and legal challenges that could lead to the U.S. Supreme Court, the line probably will not be in operation until 1994."We don't understand how anyone could get to that date," Wadlington said. "The pipeline can be put in service in late 1991. The key to getting that date is to have the producers sign contracts with the pipeline this year. We don't see very much reason that this won't occur."

Kern River is one of two companies seeking Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval for the construction of a line to carry Wyoming natural gas to California for use in secondary oil recovery operations.

Wadlington said his company already has letters of intent from three companies planning to ship 250 million cubic feet of gas through the pipeline each day, and if two other major secondary oil producers sign contracts, the documents could be submitted to FERC.

FERC "will move to certify the pipeline," he said.

The Shell representative had pointed to opposition to the project by the California Public Utilities Commission and two California natural gas utilities in making his prediction for a starting date.

Wadlington said his company is prepared to deal with regulatory and legal obstacles that may surface.

"The opposition is always going to try to create regulatory delays," he said. "And not going ahead with the pipeline plays right into the hands of the opponent. Practically everything that is done at FERC goes into litigation. We deal with this every day. But FERC is not going to sit on those contracts. FERC is going to make an expedited decision and we can get expedited decisions in court."

The company is concerned about possible delays in the project, Wadlington said.

"Delay in and of itself can kill the pipeline," he said. "Delay could force the project proponents to place this project on the shelf."

Delays could lead to the loss of California markets for Wyoming gas to Canadian gas, he said.

He said the threat from Canadian gas will come if the Kern River pipeline system continues to be delayed, because California needs additional gas supplies. "It has a substantial appetite for gas and a substantial expectation of growth. If the gas doesn't come out of the Rockies, it will come out of Canada."