Alaska editorial: Anchorage doesn't understand energy problems across state

Posted: Monday, July 14, 2008

It's an unorthodox approach and one that will not immediately win plaudits from Southcentral Alaska, but Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker has a good point about the political response to Alaska's energy crisis.

In short, it's this: Residents of the most populous region of the state are not in the same bind as people elsewhere in Alaska who depend on heating fuel for energy and electricity, and they are apathetic about the problem in other regions of Alaska.

In Anchorage and its environs, low-priced natural gas is helping hold down the cost of energy and limiting the economic damage of record oil prices.

The Fairbanks area does not have that luxury. The combination of sudden increases in gasoline, heating fuel and electricity is putting families in a pinch - or worse - and is costing our economy hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's true that Whitaker sometimes comes across as a musk ox in a gift shop, as demonstrated by his move to challenge the constitutionality of state support for low-priced natural gas in Southcentral. But he's not doing this to deny anything to that region, but to raise the point that the rest of the state could use help from the state as well.

We hope that our fellow Alaskans in Anchorage will recognize the economic damage being done by skyrocketing fuel costs, particularly in areas without inexpensive hydroelectric power or natural gas.

In Gov. Sarah Palin's agenda for the special session that begins this week, we see elements that may come together to form a compromise on energy issues.

Our governor has issued a call that features both short-term aid and a proposal for a longer-term renewable energy grant fund.

The former includes proposals for direct aid to Alaskans and an expansion of the power cost equalization program. For the longer term, there is a proposal for a $20 billion alternative energy grant fund that could be a key to creating the right conditions for expansion of new energy sources.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, and Whitaker envision a grant program that could be funded by the temporary surpluses our state is enjoying from record world oil prices.

These surpluses will not last and it's vital to take steps today that can allow us to transform the one-time-only oil dollars into alternative projects, ranging from hydroelectric power to synthetic fuels.

We agree with the mayor that the long-term economic viability of Fairbanks is at stake. It's not hard to imagine how energy prices could lead to a renewed effort to close Eielson Air Force Base.

It's urgent for our governor and Legislature to help deal with this situation now.

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