Timing of session on energy aid unknown

Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin has promised state lawmakers they will be called upon this summer to address the immediate energy needs of Alaskans.

Chris Miller / The Associated Press
Chris Miller / The Associated Press

But it's still unclear when that will be and how broad a discussion it will entail.

Lawmakers have differing views on whether to address the issue in a separate special session or to expand the current debate on TransCanada Corp.'s application to build a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to an Alberta, Canada, hub.

The Alaska Legislature is currently meeting in Juneau to hear presentations on the Calgary-based company's proposed $26 billion pipeline that could supply Lower 48 markets with North Slope gas. They are expected to vote on whether to grant the company an exclusive state license and $500 million in seed money next month after presentations are held in communities around the state.

Meanwhile, Palin also wants lawmakers to consider her one-year $1.2 billion plan to help offset the high energy costs paid by the state's residents. The plan, as introduced in mid-May, would include energy debit cards for residents and grants for utility companies.

No date has been set yet and a formal call has not been issued though Palin has said she will present legislation by June 20.

"We are talking to legislators about what they would prefer and that will play into the ultimate timing," said Revenue Commissioner Pat Galvin.

The sooner, the better, said Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Bethel. Rural communities need to put their orders in early for fuel barge shipments and winter is not so very far away, she warned.

Besides, Nelson said, it's appropriate to address the topics concurrently and to include both short and long term solutions for providing affordable energy to Alaska homes and businesses.

"It helps us remember that we can't develop this gas line without significant in-state use," said Nelson. "For as great as the oil pipeline was, there was a huge oversight in that we didn't secure enough in-state oil use. We can't afford to make that mistake again."

Rep. John Coghill, R-North pole, said in-state energy needs will most certainly be brought up in public testimony during the upcoming community hearings on the main gas line. And it's good to "ratchet up the discussion," he said.

Cash infusions and conservation incentives are simple ways of meeting Alaskans' immediate needs, he said, but more long term proposals like hydropower projects or in-state pipelines are complex and have broad ramifications that need to be thoroughly vetted.

Though many in his region are eager to see a small diameter "bullet" line from the North Slope, Coghill said it won't provide near-term relief, and he is worried it will only detract from the immediate issue of whether to grant TransCanada a license.

"I would hate for us to get so focused on the near term that we kick out a good long term answer. So I think we have to be aware and cautious," Coghill said.

Concerns have been raised from Kenai lawmakers that a bullet line from the North Slope could affect the economics of expanding development of the Cook Inlet basin.

And Galvin said lawmakers also need to weigh the trade-offs. Using the state's one-eighth share of royalty gas for in-state use would affect state tax and royalty revenues and Permanent Fund dividends.

But he said the administration plans to address the in-state bullet line in more detail during the current discussion, given the depth of interest among lawmakers.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said discussion of energy needs should build on last session's accomplishments when lawmakers added $300 million to state weatherization programs and $50 million to begin study of renewable energy projects.

And while he welcomes debate on a range of possible solutions, an effort to nail down any policy decisions at this time "is so filled with what-ifs that it may not be productive."

He, too, is worried about drawing focus from the main pipeline.

"I don't know how combustible the special session gets if you add component A, the gas line, to component B, an energy plan," Elton said.

Palin has already carved out 60 days for lawmakers to consider the TransCanada license and some balk at spending another 30 days in Juneau, especially with elections looming.

Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, who faces a challenger in the August primary, said Palin also needs to consider lawmakers' campaign and family needs when deciding the schedule. Legislators are barred from raising money while in session.

"It makes it hard for all the people here," Gatto said.

Palin's energy plan has two parts: grants totaling $475 million for utility companies operating in the state, to be used to lower customer bills and $100 monthly energy debit cards for residents.

The cards would be authorized for purchases from Alaska energy vendors and total about $729 million.

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