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Back Susitna: State needs support for its study plans

Posted: January 10, 2013 - 1:05am

The following editorial first ran Jan. 9 in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Local officials should add their voices in support of the state’s development plan for the proposed Susitna hydroelectric dam.

In the last century, such dams were built across western states to spread access to electricity and drive economic development. Today, the Susitna dam could be a key to sustaining the economy in Alaska for another century, and we’ve learned enough to avoid some of the negative consequences that came with the old dams.

Susitna is an enormous undertaking with many possible points of disruption. The state needs to lay a solid foundation of research to ensure that these inevitable disruptions don’t kill the project.

The Alaska Energy Authority, the state agency leading the effort, gave its study plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month. A public comment period on the plan is open through Jan. 18. FERC will decide by Feb. 1 whether the plan is adequate.

The state has proposed 58 studies. The studies would investigate potential flood and earthquake risks. Other topics include the dam’s potential effects upon downstream water quality, fish and other aquatic life, wildlife (ranging from moose to frogs to bats), cultural and paleontological resources, subsistence lifestyles, and regional economies and social conditions.

It’s a comprehensive list but a necessary one. The studies will be essential in designing the dam properly, and they will be necessary to defend the project from legal challenges.

When the Susitna dam last was being seriously considered about 30 years ago, it had two major liabilities — economic and environmental.

The economics didn’t work back then because coal, oil, gas and smaller hydro projects were relatively cheap sources of electricity for Alaska’s Railbelt region. While that might still be true of gas and coal, these sources are by their nature both limited and subject to price fluctuations based on continental or worldwide forces. Given the growing worldwide demand for limited fossil fuels, it’s hard to see how they’ll remain cheaper than hydropower in the long term.

Susitna’s environmental issues remain unchanged from three decades ago, as the state’s lengthy study list illustrates, and critics will attack the project enthusiastically on this front. The biggest environmental issue in the world today, though, is the production of greenhouse gases from the use of fossil fuels. Regulators may impose limits or heavy taxes on those emissions — burdens from which the Susitna dam would be entirely exempt.

The state has created a comprehensive plan to advance the Susitna project. Local elected officials should offer it support with resolutions while they can.

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