By Jomo Stewart
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Community Perspective
FAIRBANKS — It’s been long recognized by the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation that, when it comes to moving natural gas off the North Slope, though all roads lead to and through the Interior, no trans-Alaska gasline will do the people of the Fairbanks North Star Borough a hill o’ beans bit o’ good unless we have the distribution pipes to move the gas around town and that gas is affordable. Fortunately, a lot of other folks understood these facts too, and recent private, municipal and state actions have made much of the funding support and resources necessary to get pipe in the ground and available. One of those highly dedicated neighbors, the Interior Gas Utility (IGU), will be holding a North Pole neighborhood meeting from 5-7 p.m. June 2, at the Hotel North Pole. They’ve been working hard on the project and would like to introduce themselves, their team and their Six Year Build-Out Plan to you, so I encourage you to attend. The “gas affordability” question, however, remains an uncomfortably open one so also bears attending.
Margaret Mead once admonished us to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Rarely has this been truer than of our own community’s efforts to build consensus around a goal to transform our community’s energy economy, create a plan to achieve it and secure the support necessary to get it done.
There have been many contributors to this goal:
• Fairbanks Natural Gas’ (FNG) idea, endorsed by the Energy for All Alaska Task Force, to replicate on the North Slope, on much grander scale, the LNG production and trucking system it pioneered from Southcentral.
• The FEDC Gas Distribution System Analysis which estimated, at high level, what a fully-built-out community-wide natural gas system would entail and cost.
• The pitch, by community members to the state administration, of a plan to affordably finance such a build-out.
• The governor’s adoption of that goal and plan, and the legislature’s approval of state financing, under a structure able to achieve the community’s goal.
• The creation, by our cities and borough, of a municipal utility to serve the unserved areas of our community, and AIDEA’s efforts, including partnering with world class infrastructure development firm MWH to construct a North Slope LNG facility.
Much credit is due to many for helping our community get this far, but more must be done if these efforts are to make material our community’s goal.
Our community, governor and Legislature understood that natural gas would only have a transformative effect in the FNSB if it was cheap enough to substantially displace oil and wood as space-heating fuel. “Cheap enough” meant $15 per mcf of gas to the home — roughly equivalent to $2 per gallon fuel oil. To meet that target, in addition to substantial amounts of cash, loan authorization and bonding authority, the legislature granted AIDEA very wide latitude in use of funds and the positive right to forswear “profit” — going so far as to tell AIDEA it could waive any and all regulations necessary to meet the required $15 per mcf delivered price point. All the tools and operating instructions the community, governor and legislature could provide a coordinating state agency to get the job done were placed in AIDEA’s tool box. What remains, and is critical to success, is for AIDEA to shake off its old habits (acting as pinchpenny bankers bent on maximizing dollar returns to the state treasury) and fully embrace its authorized role as economic opportunity builder, more selflessly facilitating the confluence of major projects and private enterprise to maximize direct benefits to Alaskan residents, businesses and economies.
The community, its leaders and gas utilities have been working for some time to ensure that natural gas, when it arrives, can get directly to your home and business. Next Monday, the IGU is opening its door to show you its plans. But just “getting gas” has never been the whole goal. The goal is gas sold to locals at a price that turns our personal finances and community economy around, then serves to propel us forward.
The plans are in place and the tools are in the tool box — all we need now is everyone to keep their eye on the goal and their will focused on achieving it.
Jomo Stewart is the Energy Projects Manager for the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation.