The Alaska House Energy Committee heard testimony this week from the Alaska Energy Authority. While the meeting was not initially intended to focus on the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, a multitude of questions from legislators, as well as the presence of members of the Susitna River Coalition, prompted a shift that saw about half the meeting center around the proposed dam.
The first half of Wednesday’s Alaska House Energy Committee meeting was largely a combination of updates on AEA’s various projects as well as an information session for representatives trying to learn more about how the organization operates.
About half way through, however, questions and discussion shifted heavily toward one project in particular, the proposed multi-billion dollar hydroelectric project which would be built on the Susitna River.
In response to a question from Rep. Shelley Hughes (R-Wasilla), AEA Executive Director Sara Fisher-Goad said that the land-access issues that led Gov. Sean Parnell to cut more than 90 percent of the project’s budget may be resolved soon.
“We are targeted to receive permit approval or land access approval this month, sometime,” Fisher-Goad said. “The issue is open to be able to revisit the budget issue with respect to where we’re at to be able to complete the studies.”
Wayne Dyok, Project Manager for Susitna-Watana, was asked by Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) about the safety of the ongoing field work, specifically concerning the death of bulldozer operator Donald Kiehl last May. Dyok said he believes that the layers of separation between AEA and Donald Kiehl’s company mean that the accident is not a reflection on what he described as a safe and successful field season.
“To me, it was like a supplier to a Hilton providing information,” Dyok said. “These days, what we’ve tried to do–I mean, anything where someone gets hurt is unacceptable–so we actually, after that, implemented safety procedures for even our consultants, our subcontractors, making sure they had safety plans all the way down.”
Both Fisher-Goad and Dyok expressed belief that the Susitna-Watana Project and gas-line projects are not in competition for energy, but are actually compatible, with the proposed dam providing energy, freeing natural gas to be used as a heating resource.
In a time when the governor is very clear about the state needing to “tighten its belt,” however, there are only so many dollars to spread around. At a press conference later in the day, the governor was noncommittal regarding whether he would recommend funding be restored to the Susitna-Watana Project if AEA is able to secure land access agreements this month.
“Once we’re to that point, I can make a determination of what is necessary to ask the legislature for'” he said. “Until that time, I don’t have a basis to go ask legislators for more money.”
Whether or not the governor recommends funding the $110 million that AEA says is needed to complete the dam’s pre-licensing process, there is indication that tight purse strings could stop legislators from signing off on the increase.
Senators Pete Kelley (R-Fairbanks) and Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla) have both said that there may simply not be room to start adding zeroes to the project’s budget for this year.
Currently, the budget constraints have led AEA to delay the overall timeline for the dam by one year. If the current schedule holds, they plan to apply for a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission near the end of 2016.