Walker Administration Preparing Energy Disaster Declaration

When Bill Walker was running for governor, addressing the cost of consumer energy was a major part of his platform. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez looks at his plan for the short term.

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At an October debate in Fairbanks, Bill Walker made this commitment:

“The first thing I’ll do as governor, I will issue a declaration of disaster on the cost of energy in Interior Alaska.”

Walker was sworn in as governor on Monday. While he addressed the cost of energy in his inauguration speech, an economic disaster declaration for the Interior and for rural Alaska is still outstanding.

Grace Jang, a spokesperson for the governor, says his staff is currently working on the declaration, but it won’t be released this week.

“The reason it hasn’t been done right away is that he wants to have attached to the emergency declaration a clear pathway to an energy solution, and we’re in the process of looking into that,” says Jang. “He is very much aware of the promises he made during the campaign, and he will stick to those promises. The declaration is taking longer than planned because he’s working on finding a solution as well.”

Meanwhile, winter is setting in, and temperatures are starting to drop across the state. In the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the perennially high cost of heating oil is being blamed for a rise in home foreclosures, and the state is considering stricter rules on the use of wood stoves to reduce air pollution.

Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins participated in Walker’s consumer energy transition committee. He says that given the economic and health impacts of the high energy costs, a disaster declaration would be symbolically important to his community.

“We aren’t going to get the help from this FEMA group or that federal group because we’re saying our energy prices are high,” says Hopkins. “But what it does is it puts a marker, well planted, that everybody should be paying attention to.”

An economic disaster declaration would also enable — but not necessarily guarantee — state assistance for energy relief. Hopkins says one thing the state could do would be to create financial incentives for people to use heating oil — which is more expensive — over wood, if they have dual heating systems.

“The governor’s not going to come in necessarily with a wheelbarrow of, ‘here’s all your money,’ but there’s processes I think could be put in place,” says Hopkins.

Hopkins says he would like to see a sustained effort to bring natural gas to Fairbanks. If that happens, it would be the financial equivalent of paying $2 a gallon on heating fuel.

Jack Hébert, who runs the Cold Climate Housing Research Center and led Walker’s consumer energy transition committee, also believes the state is at a crisis point with its energy costs.

“Anyone living outside an area in this state that is not served by natural gas or hydropower is suffering,” says Hébert.

A drop in oil prices on the global market is expected to offer some relief to Alaska consumers. In Fairbanks, the price of heating fuel is hovering above $3.50 a gallon. Heating fuel prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in the Lower 48.