Anchorage mayoral candidates differ on how to handle looming Cook Inlet energy shortage

The four major candidates in Anchorage’s mayoral election have starkly different views of how best to deal with the looming energy shortage facing Southcentral Alaska, and how the next administration ought to be involved with addressing it.

Mayor Dave Bronson and challengers Suzanne LaFrance, Bill Popp, and Chris Tuck spoke early Thursday morning at a panel hosted by the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, an industry group. Forks clinked on plates full of scrambled eggs and sausage as several dozen Alliance members listened to the mayoral hopefuls answer questions on a wide range of issues, from energy policy to homelessness.

The topic of natural gas in Cook Inlet, however, elicited some of the biggest divides between the candidates.

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Earlier this week, John Sims, president of Enstar, which delivers natural gas to Railbelt utilities, told lawmakers in Juneau the utility was perilously close to running out of gas during last week’s extended deep cold. Longer-term, the main company extracting natural gas from the Cook Inlet Basin, Hilcorp, says the region’s easily accessible gas is running out, which could start to impact the region’s energy supply as early as next year. In the absence of a clear strategy for bringing alternative energy sources online in that time frame, officials have started looking at importing LNG from abroad as a stopgap measure to meet demand, although such a measure might not be realistically available until 2030. That plan presents additional problems; chiefly, the higher costs residents and businesses will pay on their energy bills.

Bronson said that in the analyses he’s seen, a 150% increase over current rates is the minimum consumers can expect to pay for the fuel that heats their homes.

“We’ve seen estimates up to three or four times (more),” Bronson said.


That, he forecasted, could lead to “social unrest.”

“We need to drill more holes, we need to create a fund of money that will let the drillers go out and punch more holes in the Inlet,” Bronson said. “The gas is there. Drill the holes, get the gas into the pipe, it’s that simple.”

He blamed what he called the “political left” for contributing to the current situation by penalizing energy producers through tax policies and rule changes.

“No one wants to invest in Cook Inlet gas,” Bronson said.

In the intermediate term, he said, royalties may be a strategy for bringing more gas into the utility system.

“Long term, maybe it’s coal, maybe it’s hydro,” Bronson added.

Bill Popp, whose career before leading the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. included a long stint dealing with energy issues while working on the Kenai Peninsula, said that shipping in gas will be necessary in the years ahead in order to keep the lights on in the municipality.

“It galls me to no end to think we have to import LNG from a foreign country,” Popp said.

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As a potential shift from the status quo, he said local officials may need to rethink how natural resources fit into Alaska’s economy. Rather than an aim of generating revenues for the state treasury, Popp said, policy could be geared more toward supporting and sustaining regional economies. In the case of Cook Inlet gas, he cautioned, that would involve pitting municipal governments like Anchorage against the state, as well as smaller jurisdictions that would see fewer benefits from less shared revenues off of production.

“We’re going to be in probably a bit of a fight,” Popp said.

Chris Tuck addressed the issue by leaning on his experience as a state representative, pointing out that the last time there were dire warnings about the Cook Inlet gas supply a decade and a half ago, it was addressed through robust incentives in the Cook Inlet Recovery Act. That effort spurred production through generous tax credits to oil and gas companies though it proved costly to the state, and the Legislature ended the program after oil prices slumped.

“It looks like we’re going to just have to do more of that, more incentives,” Tuck said.

He added that with so much gas left in the Cook Inlet Basin he could not see a reason to import supplies from other countries.

“You just need to go out and get it, bring it home, bring it to Anchorage,” Tuck said.

Former Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance was blunt on the subject.

“The cost of natural gas is going to go up,” she said.


Though she mentioned the need to find an alternative source for natural gas, LaFrance spoke about the ability of the mayor’s office to exercise “convening power” that brings together local governments, subject matter experts, utility companies and the private sector to find solutions. At a practical level, she said the mayor could do an energy audit of municipal facilities to identify potential reductions in order to prioritize residential gas consumption.

“As we’re nearing a gas shortage, and it’s been (minus) 20 ... that’s not the time for government to step away,” LaFrance said.

The four candidates will appear together on Tuesday for a debate hosted by the Anchorage Board of Realtors and Alaska Mortgage Bankers Association.

Six other residents have filed with the city to appear on the ballot: Darin Colbry, Breck Craig, Dustin Darden, Nick Danger, Jenny Di Grappa and Phil Isley.

Ballots will be mailed to voters on March 12.

Yes or no questions

Thursday’s event also saw the four candidates asked a series of “yes or no” questions on several topics:

Do they support a bill passed last month in the state Senate to reestablish a defined benefit retirement plan for public sector employees?

• Bronson: No


• LaFrance: Yes

• Popp: Yes

• Tuck: Yes

Do they support the full restoration of the Eklutna River?

• Bronson: No

• LaFrance: Yes

• Popp: Yes

• Tuck: No

Do they support a bill introduced in the House that would put control of the Don Young Port of Alaska in the hands of a newly created state-run port authority?

• Bronson: No

• LaFrance: No

• Popp: No


• Tuck: Yes

Do they support a recent proposal put forward by the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. calling for a 3% municipal sales tax that would go toward providing a mix of property-tax relief and public investment?

• Bronson: No

• LaFrance: Yes

• Popp: Yes

• Tuck: Yes

• • •

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.