FAIRBANKS - Willie Hensley said this morning that Alaska, particularly its energy-starved rural communities, should think about bracing for tough times.
Oil development and federal financial aid have left Alaska with great per capita wealth. They've declined in recent years, and Hensley, an icon in modern Alaska Native history, told an energy conference that Alaskans should "reconfigure our value system" to escape from dependence on aid and major development projects.
Such federal support, Hensley told roughly 400 people at the downtown Westmark Fairbanks Hotel, once meant major subsidies for power plants so villages could electrify their homes and public buildings. But Hensley said he expects Alaska may need to rely more on ingenuity and resourcefulness if it expects future improvements to the quality of life here.
"It has been nothing short of phenomenal to see the kinds of programs and services and facilities and infrastructure that we now enjoy," Hensley said. "The big question is, is it sustainable?"
Hensley's comments helped open a three-day conference on rural energy issues. The state Energy Authority and university-based Center for Energy and Power organized the conference. Gwen Holdmann, who directs the energy center, said memories of a two-year-old
spike in energy prices seems to remain fresh in public memory given the strong interest in the conference, which is held every 18 months somewhere in the state.
Holdmann said the conference aims to "bring different people together with different skill sets" to share lessons learned from energy research and development around the state.
Public concern over rural Alaska's energy costs, which tower over average costs across the United States, spiked with the prices of oil and natural gas two years ago.
While the spotlight has since dimmed, interest in this week's conference appeared strong: The energy center said roughly 450 people have registered for the conference, close to the last conference, which was held in Anchorage. It estimated roughly 95 communities have specialists - power plant operators, for example, or public decision-makers - or other residents in attendance.
Gene Therriault, a top energy aide to Gov. Sean Parnell, and key state policy makers will address the conference at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning following an 8:30 address by UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers.
Hensley, as are Therriault and Rogers, is himself a former lawmaker and has also served as state commerce commissioner. An Inupiaq from Kotzebue who played a central role as Native leaders pushed for huge settlements in land claim cases, Hensley said Tuesday that rural communities have changed with the times.
But Hensley said the cost of rural Alaska's energy, which has grown higher relative to more "powerful" urban areas, has become a political hot potato. He subtly challenged lawmakers to address the long-term needs of communities outside the road system.
"Political power and energy are obviously linked," Hensley said. "I worry because we don't look to far ahead. Our political system is geared to look, sort of, a year or two down the road."