Palin pushes energy help for Southcentral

Posted: Sunday, March 01, 2009

Gov. Sarah Palin has sent to the Legislature the first two bills in a series of legislation aimed at bringing new supplies of natural gas to Southcentral Alaska.

An additional bill, which would create a joint utility in the Railbelt area now served by multiple small utilities, was not submitted to the Legislature. Palin had said it might be introduced Friday as well.

Palin's bills would expand the mission of the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority and may indicate she intends to make that the lead agency in the state's efforts to provide new supplies of in-state gas.

She said her "action plan" on in-state gas would be introduced Tuesday, and would include options for pipeline routes, sources of natural gas, and who the potential industrial and residential customers would likely be.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said Friday that at the same time the state deals with the energy needs of the highly populated Southcentral region, it needs to deal with the energy needs of rural Alaska as well.

"When we as a Legislature solve the energy problems of gasifying the Railbelt or building the Susitna dam at $12 billion, more or less, we need to also solve western Alaska and coastal Alaska's energy needs," he said.

Stedman's Senate Bill 132, co-sponsored by Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, would create a Southeast Energy Fund aimed at developing new hydroelectric resources and connecting communities now dependent on diesel power to renewable resources.

"I can guarantee the energy needs of Hoonah are every bit as great, and frankly far greater, than the communities along the Railbelt," Elton said.

Legislators have expressed disappointment that Palin's energy plan, released in January, included a list of possible projects but no actual plan for solving the state's energy problems.

Southeast leaders said they think the long-term solution to the region's energy problems is to link the region's cities and hydroelectric power projects with a series of interties.

That would enable communities such as Hoonah to idle their diesel power plants and switch to renewable hydroelectric power. And it would enable communities such as Sitka, which is maxing out its current hydroelectric resources, to finance new hydroelectric projects by selling surplus power until it is needed, Stedman said.

"Any energy plan has got to include interties," Elton agreed.

Stedman said full build-out of energy resources in Southeast might cost $1.7 billion, but would be done in stages. A plan developed by the Southeast Conference is likely, he said.

The Southeast Conference is a semi-official, nonprofit corporation created in 1958 consisting of municipalities, Native corporations, village councils, businesses, and other organizations. It was intially organized to advocate for the creation of the Alaska Marine Highway.

Stedman's bill establishes the Southeast Energy Fund, but does include a set amount of money to be appropriated to the fund.

While the state is looking at developing natural gas for the Railbelt, it is a good time to look at other regions as well, Stedman said.

"There's a lot of expectations in the Railbelt area that the citizens of Alaska have low-cost energy. Clearly we (in Southeast) won't have the ability to benefit from the vast stores of North Slope natural gas," he said.

Stedman said his bill would help call attention to the needs of other parts of Alaska, including western Alaska communities that are also dependent on diesel but where shipping is much more difficult than in Southeast.

"I'm sure the citizens of the Railbelt will see the benefits of having all Alaskans benefit from the resources of Alaska," he said.

Palin said the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority, established by voters in 2003 through a 2002 ballot initiative, may only be able to bring Prudhoe Bay gas to a Liquefied Natural Gas export facility, along with a Southcentral spur line. Her bill would expand ANGDA's mission to providing gas for the Railbelt, and says that gas could come from the North Slope, the Brooks Range foothills, or elsewhere.

"With more flexibility regarding a pipeline's source of natural gas and the markets for the gas, ANGDA will be in a better position to fulfill its mission of developing an in-state gas line that best serves the people of Alaska," Palin wrote in a letter to legislators Friday.

A second bill Palin sent to the Legislature Friday addresses technical right of way issues for pipelines and clarifies oversight by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

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