FAIRBANKS — The first ever election for the Interior Gas Utility’s board pits a candidate with extensive background with energy efficiency projects against a candidate with a mind for project economics.
The two men, Dave Pelunis-Messier and Aaron Lojewski, will face off in the first and only contested race for the fledgling municipal natural gas utility on the local ballot Oct. 7.
“You can simply take it (state project cost estimates) at face value, or you can look at the nuts and bolts and look for weaknesses or problems in it,” he said. “I don’t think the board has someone like that.”
This isn’t Lojewski’s first foray into politics; he came up a little more than 100 votes short of upsetting the better-funded Pete Higgins in the Republican primary race for House District 5 in 2012.
Pelunis-Messier similarly came close winning an election when he ran for the Golden Valley Electric Association Board this year. Pelunis-Messier works with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, where he coordinates energy efficiency projects in rural communities. He recently returned from a greenhouse project in Fort Yukon.
“I cover all facets of the project. I go out and find funding, write grants, go out and am on the ground, coordinating projects, and sometimes I’m tacking in plywood with nail guns,” he said.
He said he’s running because he has a good technical background in lowering energy costs from start to finish and wants to apply that know-how to bringing gas to the Interior.
The Interior Gas Utility was formed shortly after the 2012 municipal elections by a vote of the Fairbanks North Star Borough and with participation by the cities of Fairbanks and North Pole.
The IGU was formed with the purpose of distributing natural gas to the borough’s medium-density areas, including North Pole, parts of Chena Hot Springs Road, Farmers Loop and Chena Ridge. It fought a bitter battle with the private Fairbanks Natural Gas the following year to win the right to serve the area from state regulators and eventually emerged victorious.
The utility has since contracted project management services with a private company and is on track to begin installing its distribution in North Pole next summer.
Both candidates seemed to understand the slip in the estimated delivery date of the Interior Energy Project, a state project that includes the construction of a North Slope liquified natural gas plant, trucking and grants for local distribution, from 2015 to 2016, but both had concerns that the price was starting to slip from the $15 per thousand cubic feet of gas (about $2 gallon heating oil equivalent) target.
Pelunis-Messier said IGU needs to keep pressure on the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority — the agency with control over project funding — uses state funds with the benefit of Interior residents in mind, not a maximum financial return.
“AIDEA has a lot of latitude on how they use that money,” he said, explaining that the enabling legislation allows for loans to be granted well below the normal market rate. “What’s the best return for Alaska is supporting the local economy and keeping families here. I would argue that you can’t provide best possible gain to the state if you don’t have people living in the Interior.”
Lojewski said the state should be examining alternative proposals to bring gas to the Interior, such as the recent pitch by Texas-based WesPac to bring Cook Inlet natural gas to the Interior by rail. He said such a proposal, even though it has a higher cost to get it to Fairbanks than the North Slope project, would allow more dollars to be focused on distribution.
“From my perspective, GVEA and FNG are going to be more concerned at the price to city gate while IGU will be more concerned about the price to get the stuff to the consumer,” he said. “You take all that subsidized money and stick it into distribution and then you take the WesPac gas and stick it into the system and I think that would result in the lowest cost to IGU customers.”
Lojewski added that he’s particularly concerned about IGU taking on any debt that would be paid off by borough taxpayers. He also said he’s concerned that the IGU could eventually begin forcing people onto gas, possibly by creating service areas.
“I think that is like Obamacare for natural gas,” he said, adding that it hasn’t been an idea put forward by anyone yet. “If you have to force people to hook up, it’s not right.”
Former Design Alaska head Jack Wilbur is unopposed for his seat. Lojewski originally filed against him, but withdrew at the last last minute to run against Pelunis-Messier.
It’s a point that Pelunis-Messier has taken issue with. He said he feels that Lojewski, who’s funded his campaign and many signs partially with leftover funds from his 2012 campaign, is in it to win a seat on an elected body.
“I’m interested in this project specifically because I believe that enough is enough, we need lower cost energy or we’re not going to have a community,” Pelunis-Messier said. “I think he’s out there to get his name out there and is potentially looking to be a career politician. I personally believe this country was founded on people who worked really hard and were asked to step in and legislate.”
Lojewksi said that he’s been involved in politics and helping other candidates run out of a sense of public service. He said he’s running for IGU because he has a degree in resource economics and an interest in energy. He added that the IGU board is also a volunteer position and rarely in the spotlight.
“If you’re doing something to be in the spotlight you ought to be doing something else,” he said.
It’s the first time positions on the municipal utility will be up for election. All seven board members were appointed when the agency was created in 2012, but four will eventually be up for election. The two seats that will be vacated this year are held by Jim Laiti and Oran Paul.
Chairman Bob Shefchik and Vice-Chairman Mike Meeks will have their seats up for election in 2015. The remaining three seats will continue to be appointees, one by each of the mayors of the Fairbanks North Star Borough and cities of North Pole and Fairbanks.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.