FAIRBANKS — Energy relief has been a common theme in this year’s campaigns in advance of the Aug. 28 primary, but nowhere has it been more important than in the North Pole House District 1, where problems with home heating, electricity, the Flint Hills refinery and Eielson Air Force Base are all rooted in the high cost of energy.
Affordable energy has been at the top of the list for the four Republican candidates — Lynette Bergh, Paul Brown, Dave Gardner and Doug Isaacson — in the strongly Republican district, which includes North Pole, Eielson and Moose Creek as well as parts of Badger Road and Salcha.
The winner will face Democrat Janice Golub, who has no Democratic challenger in the primary. There is no incumbent in the race after Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson was redrawn into District 2 by the decennial redistricting process.
GOP candidates on energy
Bergh, the former president of Fairbanks Republican Women and legislative aide for several Interior lawmakers in Juneau, said energy has been on the top of the list of the more than 2,500 homes she’s visited while campaigning.
“I think the best way to do it is to get the Interior delegation to caucus with the 17 other House districts,” she said. “And that will be very doable and we’ll be able to move forward with a plan so we can get affordable energy soonest.”
Bergh declined to say what specific projects she would support if elected, adding that she believes that’s a conversation that needs to happen when rural and Interior legislators come to the table. She said she favors bringing natural gas to the Interior as quickly as possible and said she would consider near-term solutions to help older and disabled people and veterans on fixed incomes.
Paul Brown, the manager of the Santa Claus House, has portrayed himself as the only candidate to come from the private sector and said he decided to run out of frustration that the Legislature hasn’t made greater progress.
“Everybody’s talking about energy at the top of the list, but I think the state needs to cut a check to get a natural gas facility built on the North Slope,” he said. “They talked about energy vouchers, but for that amount of money, we could have started building the facility and bought trucks. I think it’s time for the state to step up to the plate. ... It’s an infrastructure piece to me and the state builds the infrastructure.”
Brown said the state is best suited to handle a large infrastructure project and should either sell or contract out operation to a private company.
Gardner, who is vice president of marketing and member services for Golden Valley Electric Association, said the region needs to continue working on long-term and mid-term solutions such as GVEA’s trucking program. But he said the state, in the meantime, needs to continue to support weatherization and energy-efficiency programs.
“Nothing is going to happen with home heating relief as far as natural gas is concerned until at least 2015, and that doesn’t take into account any kind of distribution system,” he said. “For now the only thing we can do — regardless of what anybody may say — is conservation and efficiency. We need to continue to teach people to use energy more efficiently so they can use less of it.”
Isaacson, who has reached his term limit as mayor of North Pole, said he believes the only way forward is to radically rethink the approach to resources.
“We have this idea that maximum benefit is maximum to the state treasury so the people in power can dole it out a dollar at a time and it’s bankrupting us,” he said.
Isaacson said the state could immediately reduce the cost of energy for everyone across the state by reducing the price of royalty oil refined in the state. Currently, the state charges a premium for the oil that’s used at the Flint Hills refinery in North Pole.
“We need to invigorate the economy, and the solution of that is to reduce the price of energy to predictable and affordable levels,” he said. “The fastest way to do that is engage what we already own and what the infrastructure facilitates. We can do that immediately and we don’t have to wait three years for the expensive buildout of (natural gas).”
The economy, Eielson, taxes
But energy isn’t the only issue important to House District 1, after all there’s 90 days in the session and not every day will be spent in working on energy costs.
Eielson also was a top priority for the candidates, who all largely agreed that lower energy costs paired with increased missions brought through private and public partnerships would help take the base off a possible closure list.
Bergh, who has a background in education, said she wants to make sure students are getting the best education possible while increasing efficiencies in the system.
“We need to make sure our students are getting solid education without a lot of fluff,” she said, adding that she’s in favor of the state getting out of federal requirements outlined by the No Child Left Behind Act. “A lot of programs they’re chasing are to meet the NCLB, and I think that’s pouring money down a hole.”
Brown said he wants to reel in state spending and streamline the permitting process for businesses in a bid to improve the business climate in Alaska. He added that he’s in favor of the state spending more on capital projects.
“We’ve had 40 years of oil wealth that we should’ve used to build a big and diversified economy,” he said. We have the resources to do it and it’s a time to move Alaska forward.”
Gardner also said economic development is critical for Alaska and said the Legislature needs to consider ways to promote development, especially in-state manufacturing, by reducing taxes and reducing the permitting burden for new projects.
“Our economy is highly dependent on the oil companies,” he said. “We have to find other ways of providing value-added products to the marketplace. Exporting our products and exporting raw materials is the least favorable option that we have. We should look at ways to create more finished products.”
Isaacson said he has many priorities, among them reducing Alaskans’ dependence on social services and promoting businesses. But he said it all comes down to affordable energy.
“There’s a whole bunch of things,” he said. “Energy is a pathway right now. Using energy as a key to unlock different things that have to do with permitting, education. Energy will push us forward in a prosperous and productive way.”
Golub, an officer in the Alaska Army National Guard, also highlighted energy and Eielson as her top priorities in a statement submitted to the Division of Elections.
“Economically, our residents are challenged by the high cost of heating fuel, gasoline and electricity; our No. 1 priority is to find solutions to our energy needs. We should have built a natural gas pipeline decades ago. There is an old saying: The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago; the second best time is now. We need to use our Alaskan self-reliance and get it done.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.