Alaskans already aware of energy issues

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2007

We Alaskans know we have gas issues. We're still paying historically high prices for fuel for our cars, boats and aircraft, especially in the landlocked enclaves of Southeast Alaska. The revenue picture is fairly bright, with oil prices that will probably balance the budget and help the state avoid having to spend away the delightful surpluses of recent years. And, we're still actively looking at ways to bring to market Alaska's strategically and economically significant natural gas reserves.

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Rural Alaska's energy crisis has been underway for years, and domestic natural gas from here in the Great Land would be a godsend for Alaskans far removed from the energy-supply infrastructure. The recent, gradual acknowledgment of Southcentral's impending gas-supply crisis urges progress on this issue.

Statewide, Alaskans are convinced of the tremendous economy-reinvigorating potential of exporting our gas to national and international markets. We're not oil barons; we're Alaskans, and part of being Alaskan is meeting the energy needs of our fellow Americans and our global neighbors. We do it very well, and we do well by doing it.

The gas pipeline has been a gleam in both sourdough and cheechako eyes since before I was born in 1967. Former Govs. Walter Hickel, William Egan, Jay Hammond, Bill Sheffield, Steve Cowper, Tony Knowles and Frank Murkowski - say what you want about each of them (several of whom were cast in multiple roles in this debate) - all would dearly have loved to have made the gas pipeline happen.

Gov. Sarah Palin has embraced the project with as much passion as any of her predecessors, but in a manner that contrasts in some significant, discrete ways with prior efforts. Palin campaigned on a platform of innovation and transparency, as regards to all aspects of state government, and with particular attention to the oil and gas industry. Her recently launched Alaska Gasline Inducement Act sets out clear goals, with conditions that would benefit Alaskans. They may not be to the liking of the powerful international corporations that have leasehold power over the reserves, but they do reflect new trends in market conditions.

The inducement act is complex, and I encourage really interested Alaskans to delve into its detailed provisions if they wish to help make things happen. Clearly extending the invitation to any interested party may not do much to offset the power of the big boys already at the table, but it's the right thing to do.

A key difference with the open-ended time frame that diminished the appeal of Murkowski's well-intended but unsuccessful gas-pipeline package is Palin's insistence on getting the pipeline built promptly.

Cynics may say pipelines are always delayed and over budget, but if we don't demand something sooner, we're guaranteed something later.

Meaningful access to Alaska gas by Alaskans is more important now than ever, and the inducement act's espousal of five spur lines and "distance-sensitive" rates reflect this reality. The issue of fair tariffs has always been one of the most important parts of the equation, and we can only hope the regulatory authorities charged with making this happen rise to the challenge.

Perhaps most innovative is the concept of a one-off cash incentive, instead of partial state ownership, as a reasonable and politically feasible way to use Alaskans' collective equity to make this deal happen.

Anyone who listens, reads or watches the news with any regularity knows we live in a world in need of energy solutions. Is global warming happening? Doesn't our nation rely on energy supplies from other nations where the political situation is not exactly confidence-inspiring? And isn't it time that we put an end to the irony of Alaskans paying some of the highest energy prices in the nation?

Alaska can and should be part of the answer to these questions. Palin has assessed the efforts of her predecessors and come up with a bold legislative plan to speed this plow along. I hope I'll be around when it's harvest time.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.

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