Too soon to judge

Posted: Friday, January 29, 2010

H ouse speaker Mike Chenault is jumping the gun on two different fronts with his proposal to ask voters about using Permanent Fund earnings to build a pipeline that brings natural gas to the Railbelt. His idea presumes that a bullet line from the North Slope is the best way to ease the Railbelt's energy supply crunch. It also presumes the bullet line is the first and best of the many ways Alaskans might be asked to spend surplus earnings from the Permanent Fund. Both are controversial questions that deserve much wider discussion before Alaskans could make an intelligent decision at the ballot box.

The bullet line may be the best energy option for the Railbelt - but it is competing against several promising alternatives. One is a spur line that could come here if a North Slope gas pipeline is built to Alberta. Renewable energy options in Southcentral, such as hydropower from Lake Chakachamna and geothermal from Mount Spurr, have also drawn attention.

Deciding which is best will require a lot more economic analysis, technical data, recruitment of potential customers, and information about what the private sector is willing to do without government help.

In the absence of much more detailed information, an advisory vote on funding a bullet line would be little more than a superficial popularity contest. And it may not be all that popular with Alaskans in the Bush and Southeast - unless the ballot question is expanded to offer them some prospect of energy relief.

The other issue here - whether to spend surplus Permanent Fund earnings on any part of government and if so, on what - is an even thornier question. For more than three decades, Alaskans have refused to let fund earnings be used on anything other than reinvestments in the fund, dividends to Alaskans, and expenses related to the fund and the dividends.

Since the state has $8 billion in reserve funds, voters won't be eager to break the political dam that has protected fund earnings from politicians.

If the Legislature is going to get meaningful funding advice from voters on Railbelt energy options, our political leaders need to do a lot more homework.

Alaska voters won't have enough information to render a sound judgment on a bullet line.

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