By Matt Buxton,

JUNEAU—With less than a month left in the regularly scheduled 90-day session, a bill reworking the Interior Energy Project may finally be on the move.

The bill by Gov. Bill Walker to allow the state to rework the gas trucking project with a focus on getting natural gas from Cook Inlet advanced from the Senate Energy Committee on Thursday, breaking weeks of inaction by the Legislature.

Senate Bill 50 and House Bill 105 were introduced by Walker more than a month ago and would allow the state to refocus its efforts on Cook Inlet after a North Slope-focused plan came in far more expensive than anticipated.

The bills came shortly after the state announced plans to buy Fairbanks Natural Gas and its parent company, a surprise move that wasn’t particularly well-received by some legislators.

During public testimony on the bill, many callers from Fairbanks said the bill was critically important for bringing lower-cost energy to Fairbanks.
“If we don’t get some immediate, dramatic, long-term relief that is on somewhat parity to Anchorage, Fairbanks as we all know is in deep trouble,” said real estate agent Pamela Throop, who said high-cost energy is driving out business.

Many members of the committee recognized its need, as well as the project’s potential benefit to other parts of the state.

Committee co-chair Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, offered an update of the bill that also would allow the state to consider building a small-diameter pipeline from Cook Inlet to Fairbanks. He said a pipeline might cost more up front but that it will ultimately deliver the cheapest gas and have the biggest benefit for the long term.

“We let politics get in the way and we wasted two years getting gas to Fairbanks,” he said. “I hope we’re out of that.”

Walker, in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, said the Interior Energy Project bill is one of his two must-haves for the session. The other is Medicaid expansion.

The House version of the bill had been initially given with four committee referrals, a tough hurdle to clear in 90 days. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said part of the reason for the four referrals was to pressure the administration to give more details of what had been a light-on-the-details rollout of the reworked project.

On Wednesday, Chenault removed one of the three remaining committee referrals for the House version of the bill, lightening its path.
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, was optimistic about the chances of the bill clearing the Legislature by the end of session.

“We dodged a bullet this winter with the heating oil prices and the high-degree days,” he said. “I’m optimistic it’ll pass. … It’s a must-have, people have have been waiting long enough.”

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