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Story Last modified at 9:13 p.m. on Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Energy issues top concern at Town Hall meeting
Constituents share with legislators their views of oil, gas, electricity needs

BY MELISSA DeVAUGHN
Alaska Star

photo:News

(from left) Alaska senators Charlie Huggins and Cathy Giessel, and representatives Anna Fairclough and Bill Stoltze consider a constituent's question during a Legislative Town Hall meeting Feb. 12 at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center. Representative Dan Saddler and Senator Fred Dyson also were at the meeting, which drew a crowd predominantly interested in oil and gas development for Alaska.
Star photo by Melissa DeVaughn

The majority of residents at Saturday's Legislative Town Hall meeting expressed the same concern to their legislators: Energy – or a lack thereof.

Not only did constituents want to know what the state plans to do about bringing more oil and gas to market, but they also wanted legislators to consider the feasibility of wind and hydroelectric power.

The state is in a bad way, they said, and something needs to change.

"We need to talk about the energy issue," said Eagle River resident Mike Sweeley, who added that a $30 billion natural gas pipeline to out-of-state markets is not realistic, given the cost and environmental issues that are likely to delay it. "Our best bet to see the energy is a natural gas bullet line."

Sweeley said he would gladly hand over part of his Permanent Fund Dividend to help the state come up with a way to make energy costs lower.

"What do I do with my PFD these days?" he asked. "I give it to Enstar. I'd take no PFD if I could have a guarantee on a bullet line."

More than 50 residents showed up for the afternoon meeting, which took place at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center. Chugiak-Eagle River's six primary legislators – Sens. Fred Dyson, Cathy Giessel and Charlie Huggins, and Reps. Bill Stoltze, Dan Saddler and Anna Fairclough – attended the meeting, and each offered their own perspective on what they're seeing in Juneau and what they will do to help that gas and oil flow.

When asked what they would do this year about the gasline, legislators had no clear answer but all expressed their frustration with the molasses-like speed with which a gasline project is moving forward.

"AGIA and a gas line to Canada is, best case, 25 years away," said Sen. Huggins. "I am a major advocate of continuing to work on pipeline alternatives."

Huggins suggested a bullet line to Flint Hills Resources' North Pole Refinery near Fairbanks because at least the gas could move forward from where it is now trapped on the North Slope.

"I firmly believe we as Alaskans have to break the stranded gas issues," he said. And, he added, "We can help the people of Fairbanks heat their homes."

"An in-state line to Fairbanks is a good start," agreed Sen. Giessel.

Participants at Saturday's meeting ranged from longtime Alaskans to high school students there to earn credit for their classes.

Eagle River High student Andrew Sharp suggested that the legislators consider alternative energy sources, such as wind energy and electric cars using hydrogen cell technology.

Sen. Dyson lauded the students' attendance at the meeting and encouraged them to continue being part of the public process. He pointed out current alternative energy projects under way, including the methane production that is happening at the Hiland Landfill, which could be a source of energy in the future.

"Keeping thinking that way," he told Sharp and the other students, "because we've got to get smart about our energy use."

Eagle River resident Vince Leonard touted the Susitna Dam, a proposed large hydroelectric project that the Alaska Energy Authority is considering as a potential source of long-term renewable power for Alaska's railbelt. The AEA estimates that if successful, that project could help the state meet nearly half of its electrical needs by 2025.

"I firmly believe, that maybe not for us now, but down the road in the future, it could be a good source of energy," Leonard said. "Maybe it would help, long term, with the gas problem."

Rep. Stoltze said he backs the idea.

"I don't know of a community in Alaska who has invested in hydroelectric power and regretted it," Stoltze said.

"It's one part of the energy picture," Rep. Saddler said, agreeing it would help – but not solve – the state's energy needs.

Concerns over AGIA – the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, which is aimed at commercializing Alaska's natural gas resources through an agreement with the TransCanada Corp. – divided residents. There were some who opposed the agreement – feeling like it was made without enough information – and others who thought it was a good idea.

"We need to be a state that keeps its word," Sen. Dyson said. "At the time (AGIA was introduced in 2007) I supported it."

Now though, most of the legislators agreed, they still have residual questions about the project, and want to know more from the state administration before making their final decisions.

While the majority of questions at the meeting centered on energy production, there were some in the audience who had other issues to introduce. Speakers addressed rising medical costs, the need for prison chaplains, support for vocational technical education and whether or not the legislative session should be lengthened.

One speaker, on the proposal to lengthen the session from 90 days to 120, pointied out that, "We voted for a 90-day session, so why change it?"

Rep. Fairclough said she thought 120 days would give legislators more time to get their work done effectively, but would honor voters' wishes and not support the measure.

Sen. Huggins, on the other hand, not only wants the sessions to stay at 90 days, but in alternating years they should be even shorter, he said.

Pete Panarese, former Chugach State Park superintendent, wanted to encourage legislators to support the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation's proposed budget for the coming year. It is not an extravagant one, he said, simply a request for general operating costs, emergency repairs, and other routine maintenance.

Lora Reinbold, a longtime advocate of the Eagle River Trails system adjacent to Eagle River High School, urged support for that project, including up to $450,000 in matching funds for a grant project that would help connect the trails with an overpass. Fairclough and Anchorage Rep. Mike Hawker have been instrumental in helping that project along, she said.

Hiland Road resident Ron Aksamit stressed his belief that the state should stick to its agreement with TransCanada because "the state signed an agreement and should stick it out. You gave your word, let's keep it."

Then, adding some levity to the meeting just as it was about to wrap up, he offered this advice to the general operation of Alaska's state government: "For every new law you pass, you repeal exactly two existing laws."

The next Legislative Town Hall meeting is 2-4 p.m. March 19 at Eagle River Town Center, Room 170. Sens. Huggins, Dyson and Giessel, and Reps. Stoltze, Fairclough and Saddler are scheduled to be there.

Reach Melissa DeVaughn at melissa.devaughn@alaskastar.com.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 16, 2011.