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Global energy experts to discuss pivotal Alaska issues this week

Alex DeMarban

Issues that could change Alaska's course in the next few years will take center stage at an annual meeting of global energy experts gathering in the 49th state for the first time.

For four days starting Sunday, the 32nd gathering of the U.S. Association for Energy Economics will cover everything from the latest icebreaker technology and Arctic development to renewable energy and opportunities Alaska might have for opening the lid on its vast natural gas fields.

Among the topics getting attention by dozens of academics, executives and authors will be the proper tax structure for increasing oil production -- a hot issue in Alaska given the referendum to repeal the newly approved tax cut giving hundreds of millions annually to BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil.

Another session will weigh in on another tax topic that could soon bubble up: The tax structure that’s supposed to encourage development of the state's long-coveted natural gas pipeline and related facilities to ship liquefied natural gas. Newly passed Senate Bill 21 sets a 35 percent tax rate on net oil and gas profits but offers numerous incentives to producers, helping cut their tax rate by more than half. Still, oil companies have let it be known they want a better deal before they agree to spend more than $40 billion on the gas pipeline project.  

The conference was co-organized by Roger Marks, a petroleum consultant who testified before the Legislature in favor of Senate Bill 21 and its massive tax break.

But the event won't be a one-sided discussion of the benefits of cutting oil taxes, he said. The two keynote speakers are on opposite sides of that issue. Former Anchorage mayor and "Crude Dreams" author Jack Roderick, a critic of the cut, speaks to the lunchtime crowd on Monday. That keynote slot on Tuesday goes to Mark Finley, a general manager and geopolitical analyst for BP.

Also, any registrant who wants can submit questions to be fielded by the experts, said Marks.    

Other prominent speakers include:

Alex Iyerusalimskiy, an expert on state-of-the-art-icebreakers working for ConocoPhillips in the groundbreaking Varandey oil field in the Russian Arctic;

Benjamin Schlesinger, a top energy consultant;

Shirley Neff, senior advisor in the Energy Information Administration;

Kenneth B. Medlock, director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University's Baker Institute and;

Marianne Kah, chief economist at ConocoPhillips.   

"The whole thrust in getting this conference here was to get the local community to listen to very smart people who ordinarily aren't here, and to talk about issues that are germane to Alaska," said Marks, a member of the association's local chapter.

Also on the agenda will be many of the usual suspects involved with Alaska energy issues, including economist Scott Goldsmith discussing Norway's success in using its oil wealth to diversify its economy, something Alaska hasn't done, said Marks. Also, Ethan Schutt with CIRI will discuss regulatory roadblocks his company hurdled in creating the Fire Island wind farm.

The issues on the table are the ones every Alaskan should be talking about. Unfortunately, getting in to participate won't be easy. The conference will set each registrant back $950. Still, more than 250 have signed up.  

"We were just trying to break even," said Marks.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com