by Jomo Stewart
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Community Perspective

FAIRBANKS — You would think by now, at least regarding energy, the answer would be obvious. And yet on Tuesday, the Vice Chairman of the House Resources committee, as he had repeatedly in his own Legislative Budget and Audit committee, asked the question: What does Fairbanks want? What is the goal for the Interior Energy Project (IEP) in Fairbanks’ eyes and by what standard will it judge state efforts in pursuit of that goal?

You’d think by now, having been established as the project goal at the outset of work on the 2011 borough Gas Distribution System Analysis; left so long on the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation white board it can no long be wiped away; codified in countless documents, letters and resolutions; and repeated with such force and broken-record-like consistency during the last three-plus years it became the campaign catchphrase for every municipal, legislative, state-wide and gubernatorial candidate in Alaska, the answer would be obvious.

But, as it apparently is not, let me repeat it: The direct and immediate goal of the Interior Energy Project is to have $15 per mcf natural gas delivered to the meters of at least 22,000 of our community’s 28,000 residences and businesses within calendar year 2016. Fairbanks wants, in short order, what the communities of Southcentral Alaska have reserved unto themselves for decades: clean-burning, reliable, predictable and sustainably affordable energy for the greatest majority of its residences and businesses.

Fairbanks, by riding the oil market and dutifully supporting investments to make others’ communities affordable, accessible or even just comfortable, has earned these things. Therefore it judges the relative success or failure of the IEP (its sub-proposals and in aggregate) by how much or little, how closely or distantly, it comes to satisfying the affordability, breadth and timeliness aspects of our community’s energy goal.

Moreover, Fairbanks purposely designed the IEP in the hopes it might serve as -a replicable model for how some of the other 200-plus communities in Alaska that don’t currently have affordable energy economies might, with a modest dollop of the assistance most every major project in this state has historically required, achieve one for themselves.

At a time of titanic budgetary surpluses, when other delegations were shoveling hundreds of millions of dollars of nary-to-return grants, tax credits, development rebates, royalty abatements and other subsidies into their own regions and districts (the butcher’s bill for the Cook Inlet region is more than $300 million dollars for 2014 alone), Fairbanks and the Interior delegation, in spite of having disproportionately large representation on both Legislative Finance committees and a governor favorably disposed, requested a funding package for the IEP that would be almost entirely repaid more than 80 percent loans and bonds).

Where other delegations took the state’s money and ran, Fairbanks requested a financing package where the vast majority of the money — generated from the fees our residents and businesses will pay for our natural gas transportation, storage and distribution infrastructure -would be returned with interest to the state — returned to replenish an account places like Sutton, Seward, Denali, Delta Junction, Sitka, Juneau, Bethel and Nome might turn to in the future to fund their own energy economy transformations.

Yes, Fairbanks designed, asked for and sacrificed for an IEP that might blaze a trail others could follow. More than that, though, Fairbanks worked hard to create a system and process others might want to follow.

No wonder, then, Fairbanks will judge the IEP not only on whether or not it eventually brings affordable energy to the Interior, but on how easy or arduous is the process that gets it here on whether folks like the Vice Chairman live up to their oft-stated desire to use Fairbanks’ IEP to build a thoroughfare, clear and true, others will want to drive down to their own more affordable and sustainable energy futures, or break Fairbanks hewing a hard and rocky path, littered partially with obstacles they themselves create, no Alaskan community would willingly traverse again.

The goal is clear: Fairbanks wants affordable energy for itself and for all. It wants $15 per mcf natural gas (or the applicable energy equivalent) at the meter of homes and businesses — whether you live in North Pole, Healy or Yakutat.

Fairbanks wants the Interior Energy Project to be fully successful in meeting all of its goals — at home and across the State — and doesn’t mind repeating itself even a thousand more times if saying “affordable energy for all Alaska” can help make it so.

Jomo Stewart is an energy projects manager for the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation. He lives in Fairbanks.