By Matt Buxton
Fairbanks News Miner

JUNEAU — Changes made Wednesday night to a bill needed to expand the scope of the Interior Energy Project weren’t sitting well with Interior legislators on Thursday.

Some Fairbanks-area lawmakers worry the changes, which among other things would require an additional legislative approval beyond this year’s bill, put the state-backed effort to bring natural gas to the Fairbanks area into doubt.

“I think the Republican leadership has taken the Interior Energy Project bill and is toying with it to the detriment of the Interior because of angst they have with the governor,” said Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks. “It’s hurting Fairbanks.”

The House and Gov. Bill Walker have feuded throughout the session over the gas line, Medicaid expansion and Walker’s refocusing of the Interior Energy Project. House leadership maintained that the changes to the Interior Energy Project don’t have any detail.

“I don’t want to write a blank check,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, who sat on the House Resources Committee and supported the amendments.
Johnson and others, including Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker, who authored the amendments, have argued that the reworked project has been distressingly short on details.

After the North Slope gas trucking plan came up much more expensive than originally pitched, the state came back to the Legislature to ask for permission to look elsewhere.

Initial work has focused on Cook Inlet gas suppliers with either truck, rail or pipeline to get the gas to Fairbanks.
Still, the details and specifics of just who will sell the gas and how much it will cost when it gets to Fairbanks are unclear.
“To say there’s a project is not an accurate statement,” Johnson said.

Guttenberg said all projects change from their initial pitch in some form and requiring additional oversight is unusual.

“It’s all on the table. No project ends the way it started,” he said. “You go out with a plan and come back with something different,” he said.
Both Walker and state officials said the changes, particularly the requirement for legislative approval for whatever they decide on, will slow the project.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, represents an area of the borough that’s in the first phase of expansion by the municipal Interior Gas Utility. She said any delay is unacceptable.

“If we have to make AIDEA (the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority) come back, then we might as well not have this bill,” she said. “From the beginning that’s what this bill is all about. It’s letting us open up the project to every option.”

There was talk the state wouldn’t have to wait a full year to get permission from the Legislature. The approval for the replacement project could potentially be approved by the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, chaired by Hawker, or in a short-term special session.
Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, was more diplomatic about the changes.

He said he had yet to review the House changes but he recognized there are many uncertainties with the project.

“We sank a lot of money into the North Slope project,” he said. “I want to see what we’re working with.”

The changes made Wednesday coincide with the Senate Finance Committee, co-chaired by Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly, introducing an updated capital budget that stripped the $45 million from the project.

The money was moved from the project to a capital fund that is more difficult for anyone but the Legislature to tap and could potentially be used for anything.

In emails, staff for Sen. Anna MacKinnon, the Eagle River Republican who oversees the capital budget, explained “this money is being set aside … for future appropriation to Interior energy projects.”

Guttenberg was less than convinced.

“Senate Republican leadership is jerking Fairbanks around. Never mind what they say, that’s the effect of what they’re doing,” he said.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.