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Look eastward: Bring natural gas to North Pole first

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Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 10:53 pm | Updated: 4:15 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

Many questions remain unanswered about how the new public natural gas utility will operate and how the state might help it, but the initial direction in which the utility board has pointed is the right one: southeastward, toward North Pole.

In a letter to the governor late last month, the Interior Alaska Natural Gas Utility board members said they built their suggestion on the “excellent template” developed by the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. Under that approach, the utility would focus efforts to build distribution network on the North Pole area first.

This makes sense for several reasons.

First, North Pole has some of the worst air quality in the borough, and inexpensive natural gas could help solve that by giving people a clean-burning alternative. The area’s famous cold, which has forced people to turn to wood and coal, is persistent because of a familiar physical phenomenon — the temperature inversion. Colder temperatures usually occur at higher elevations, not lower. That’s often inverted here in the winter; cold air sinks and warmer air caps it. Smoke can’t disperse, creating the poor air quality.

Second, bringing gas to North Pole first is the most practical, economical course. The area is level, roaded, well populated and near the most likely storage facility. A large tank to hold gas trucked from the North Slope probably would be built in North Pole near Golden Valley Electric Association’s power plants and the two oil refineries, which are owned by Flint Hills Resources Alaska and PetroStar. Those entities could be major industrial anchor users.

The third reason is jurisdictional. Fairbanks Natural Gas, a private company, already holds a certificate from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to provide gas in the core Fairbanks area. The public utility might as well focus elsewhere.

“This approach, which could change somewhat based on the results of the master plan, allows development in both the Fairbanks and North Pole areas to occur — with FNG expanding within its certificated area and IANGU beginning in the North Pole area and working to provide gas, via facilitation, partnering or provision, toward Fairbanks along Badger Road,” the board wrote to the governor Nov. 29.

The IANGU board is now complete with the addition of Oran Paul and Jim Laiti — two more excellent picks from Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins. Gov. Sean Parnell has outlined what he will propose in terms of state assistance. Many more details remain, but focusing on North Pole is a good place to start.

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