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Air quality and natural gas: One is a problem, the other a solution

Air quality in the Fairbanks North Star Borough has been in the news again recently, and it’s not news of the good sort.

Most unsettling, though not unexpected, is the list of actions announced Tuesday by the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to get our community’s winter air quality into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. 

The air quality has improved but is still short of the goal. And reaching that goal by the December 2019 deadline set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency is not possible, so the state has had to come up with a list of actions as part of a Statewide Improvement Plan to show that it is trying to get there.

Among the strict requirements coming down from the state:

• A Dec. 31, 2024, deadline to remove and destroy older wood stoves, coal-fired heaters and outdoor hydronic heaters.

• A 2021 deadline for coal-fired power plants to switch to low-sulfur coal.

• Wood sellers must stop selling unseasoned wood starting Oct. 1, 2021.

• A reduction of the pollution level at which a burn ban is imposed. This will increase the number of days on which residents will not be allowed to heat with wood or coal.

There’s much more, and residents will have plenty of opportunities to comment on the proposed regulations, both through the DEC and, later, the EPA. The DEC has scheduled a public event for 6-8 p.m. June 25-26 at the Westmark Hotel to explain its actions.

DEC’s proposals certainly can be seen in a negative way. But what about a positive action? What is the best nonpunitive way to improve our air quality? The answer is natural gas.

Getting residents to switch to natural gas is vital, but that yearslong effort has had some bumps.

The Interior Gas Utility, a public and independent subunit of the borough government, recently has seen a cost overrun on construction of its mammoth South Fairbanks storage tank, an essential piece of the project. That has caused IGU officials to seek additional funds earlier than expected.

Those funds could be coming from the borough, which has not been financially invested in the project. The IGU board voted earlier this month to ask the Borough Assembly for a $7.5 million credit line, which the assembly will consider next month.

The borough has the money available to loan, but those funds could be used for other purposes, among them to offset a loss of revenue from the state if some of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget-reduction plans become law. Is providing that money to the IGU the best course of action?

And in North Pole, where pipes have already been laid for natural gas, bids for a storage tank there came in higher than the IGU had hoped. 

A continuing concern for the project, however, is its overall economic viability. It has long been a worry that the price difference between the heating equivalent of natural gas and heating oil might not be significant enough to encourage consumers to make the pricey decision to convert their heating systems to gas. That’s important because the success of the project hinges on having enough customers. Anything that adds to the cost of the IGU project, and thereby increases the cost of natural gas to the potential customer, reduces the likelihood that a customer will switch from oil to gas.

Air quality and natural gas: two subjects tightly intertwined.

Assembly members will need to ask tough questions about both in the weeks ahead.

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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