JUNEAU -- Alaska legislators are slowly returning to work at the Capitol, following the yearly mid-session break to attend meetings of the Energy Council in Washington, D.C. In the past, lawmakers have cited the meetings as the source of critical information in guiding the state's economic plans. So what world-beating economic strategy did they stumble upon this year?
Three years ago at the legislative organization's annual conference, some Alaska lawmakers said they discovered a massive amount of natural gas produced from shale rocks was about to transform the North American market, and would pose problems for Alaska's gasline hopes, which were then pinned on a large-diameter line to Canada. (Not that this was news to anybody following the energy industry.)
House Speaker Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, had this to say at the time: "The effect that (shale gas) could have on a big line through Canada, I think, could potentially be huge." And Sen. Lesil McGuire wondered, "Frankly, if consumers in the Lower 48 can have access to shale gas at below $2 an MCF (1,000 cubic feet), why are they going to take Alaska gas with a tariff alone that's double that cost?"
This year, about a third of Alaska legislators attended the council meetings in the nation's capital, with several also taking the opportunity to attend meetings of associated groups while they were there.
The sessions have faced criticism in the past for the time they take and their cost, but Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, called them worthwhile. He's got long involvement with the council, and this year chairs the group made up of oil producing states, provinces and countries.
"We hit on oil, coal, gas and some renewable energy stuff," Stedman said before leaving. "It helps to keep the legislators up on the leading edge on what is going on nationally and in Canada," he said.
Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said that given Stedman's position in the national group, Alaska can draw national attention to issues important to Alaska that might not otherwise get discussed.
"We're proud of Bert Stedman being chairman of Energy Council," he said. "That creates a great opportunity for us and is helpful on shining a bright light on some of the Arctic issues."
The conference, though, is spendy. Last year 12 legislators attended, at a cost of $31,435, or a little more than $2,600 per legislator for conference fees, airfare, hotels and ground transportation, according the Legislative Affairs Agency. Legislators do not receive travel per diem they are already receiving session per diem while they are in Juneau.
This year 18 legislators were authorized to attend, though bills have not yet been submitted, according to the agency. If per legislator costs were the same as last year, the total cost would be around $47,000.
In addition, Alaska pays fees to be part of the Energy Council, which amount to $32,000 per year. The council also has additional meetings during the year, but they get far less participation from Alaska.
Stedman said past conferences have provided critical information, including what other jurisdictions are doing on tax reform and new technologies.
"A couple of years ago some of us came back from Energy Council and started questioning (the Department of Natural Resources) views and presentations on natural gas," Stedman said. That was when the process of hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking" was just beginning its dramatic changes to how gas and oil were produced in the Lower 48.
"It was clear to us there was a dynamic shift in the marketplace, with shale gas replacing conventional gas, which was going to revolutionize the gas market," Stedman said. That shift led to abandonment of hopes for exporting Alaska's gas to the U.S. Midwest, and the state is now looking at overseas markets instead. Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage agreed. He hasn't gone recently, but supports those who do.
"I thought it was very helpful going over there and finding out what other states are doing, learn from their mistakes, take from what they've learned and make a better energy policy for the state of Alaska," he said.
Other legislators, with work at the Capitol at a standstill late last week, took the opportunity to for mid-session visits to their districts. Work started slowly this week, with several scheduled meetings Monday cancelled, but has since hit its stride with work on budgets and oil taxes.
Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com