Alaska House passes gas

Late into the evening with a virtually empty gallery, the Alaska House passed HB 4, which would facilitate and partially fund a small gasline that would run through the center of the state bringing North Slope gas to Fairbanks and Southcentral Alaska. It’s one of the most significant bills that the legislature will deal with this session. Nonetheless, the public was absent, the lobbyists were absent, and only a few sleepy eyed reporters sat looking bored, while the bill was being debated awaiting a final vote.

It was a long day for the sponsors of HB 4. House Speaker MIke Chenault and Rep. Mike Hawker, along with their key staffers, were in the Capitol early in preparation for what they were hoping would be the final House Finance committee meeting on their bill scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. But, as these things go, it got delayed until 1:30 p.m.

Chenault, anxious to get the bill to the Senate, didn’t close out his legislative day as is the normal procedure and instead announced that the body would reconvene at 6:00 p.m.- – a luxury the presiding officer has to accommodate a bill he wants to expedite

At 7 p.m., the bells finally rung, legislators gathered, seven eight Democratic amendments were offered and killed, Hawker urged the body “to pass gas” and at about 11:15, the bill sailed through 30 to 9. As expected, votes went mostly along party lines. Rep. Feige, who represents Valdez and who has been a behind the scenes supporter of the bill, voted against it. So did Rep. Neil Foster. A handful of Dems voted for the bill.

Through the years, hundreds of thousands of hours, and millions of dollars have been spent both trying to pass and kill the bill. And it’s not over yet. Four other big bills– oil tax, trucking natural gas from the North Slope to Fairbanks and two budget bills—are still getting hammered out in committees.

No doubt during these last two weeks of session, egos will erupt, and at least one of the big bills will be held hostage for another. But with a Republican dominated legislature, it looks as if the gasline bill will pass this session.

The Democrats dub the bill a “Pipeline to Poverty,” due to what many in that party consider poor regulatory oversight and consumer protection. (Chair of House Finance Rep. Bill Stoltze added substantial oversight and accountability to the bill, but it wasn’t enough for the Dems.)

Republicans by and large say that more regulatory and consumer protection will only mire the project in politics and will delay the market from working its magic. (An irony that isn’t pointed out nearly enough is that while the Republicans continually invoke the magic of the markets, it’s asking the legislature to fund a state agency to a tune of $400 million to facilitate building the line. And few doubt that the agency won’t come back for more state money.)

Democrats say politics are part of the public process. Republicans say politics kills projects.

The arguments go on, but one thing is for sure: Alaskans, who are sitting on the largest energy fields in North America, are natural-gas starved. Some residents in Fairbanks have resorted to chopping down trees to heat their homes. Some in Rural Alaska are going hungry in order to pay their heating bills. Anchorage is facing blackouts.

For decades the state has been chasing the dream of a big gasline, one that was almost always on the cusp of being built. Then, right before it looked like it was going to happen, really happen this time, the markets changed, plans changed, and more than 40 years after it was first dreamt, the big line is no closer than it has ever been to becoming a reality.

The small line seems the only one the state has left—at least in our lifetimes.

The bill will now be read across the Senate floor tomorrow, where it is likely to receive only one committee of referral. That committee, Senate Finance, has already noticed the bill and has a hearing scheduled for Friday of this week.

Update: Oops. I did it again. The bill is getting two referrals. One to Finance and one to Resources.

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