Gara’s attempt to add carbon limits to bond measure fails

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2007

Lawmakers missed a chance Tuesday to control future emissions of carbon dioxide in Alaska, an Anchorage state representative said.

While Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, eventually joined his colleagues Wednesday in passing House Bill 229 unanimously, he did attempt Tuesday to use the measure to write into law a limit on the amount of carbon dioxide any future plant built with Alaska Railroad Corporation bond proceeds could emit.

House Bill 229, now on its way to the Senate, authorizes the corporation to issue up to $2.6 billion in bonds, a portion of which could help finance Agrium’s coal gasification project.

Gara’s amendment would have prevented the corporation from issuing bonds unless the Department of Environmental Conservation certified that the coal gasification plant would be designed and operated so it would emit no more CO2 per megawatt than the average amount released in 2006 by Chugach Electric Association’s Beluga natural gas power plant near Tyonek.

The amendment failed 26-11, mostly along party lines (with three absences), though three Democrats joined the Republican majority in saying no. Also voting no were the three Republican members representing the Kenai Peninsula.

“This is a bond package,” said HB 299’s prime sponsor, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski. “It was wrong to put this amendment in. There are mechanisms in place to help control CO2.”

Chenault said the amendment would have sent industry a message that government was going to put more constraints on them. Chenault said he “had no clue” what the 2006 average emission level for CO2 from Beluga was, and that Agrium has said it was planning to recapture much of the CO2 a gasification plant would emit, which could change the whole control equation.

“We don’t want to discourage coal development,” he said.

As for global warming, Chenault expressed some skepticism, noting record snowfalls in Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula this winter.

While Alaska did experience a frigid winter, the U.S. government reports the winter of 2006-07 was the warmest on record globally.

Chenault said he thought it likely that some lawmakers would offer legislation dealing with emission control next year.

Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Kenai, agreed that HB 229 was the wrong legislative vehicle for emission control rules.

“Rep. Gara brought it up in the Finance Committee and it was rejected there. He brought it up again on the floor, and I suppose it wasn’t a surprise that it was defeated there as well,” Olson said.

Don’t expect greenhouse emissions-control legislation to appear this session, Olson commented. Lawmakers are tied up with the budget and the Alaska Gas Inducement Act (AGIA). Perhaps next year, he said.

“I know that’s not much of an answer,” he said, “but this is not an ordinary session.”

Looking farther out, Olson predicted any coal gasification plant built by Agrium with bond money would have to meet stiff standards.

“I don’t think the plant will be permitted unless there are adequate safeguards,” he said. “A new coal plant will be scrutinized heavily by various state and federal agencies.”

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, took a similar stance. He took issue with the way Gara’s amendment was worded, saying it could have been interpreted in a way to halt a gasification project. He called the amendment “a poison pill.”

The Legislature hasn’t ignored the global warming and emissions issue, Seaton insisted. Both houses, he said, have approved requirements within AGIA that an operator of a new gas line meet Environmental Protection Agency emission standards for natural gas systems.

A future gas line would need to burn a lot of gas just to operate.

“We are going to burn as much running the pipeline as is now used in the whole state,” Seaton said. “They (pipeline applicants) will have to come forward with proposals of how they are going to eliminate or control carbon emissions. We want to get the carbon footprint of the pipeline as low as possible.”

Seaton also pointed to the Alaska Climate Impact Assessment Commission created last year, and to studies about how to convert North Slope gas turbines to operate on hydrogen as examples of recent efforts to measure and curb emissions.

“It’s not all just talk,” Seaton said.

In a press release April 23, Gara noted that global warming and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are becoming major issues for Alaska. In rejecting his amendment, the House, he said, had taken a potential step backward on the issue.

“We owe the quality of life we lead to the next generation. This isn’t the time in history when we should be taking steps backwards in the fight on global warming, he said.”

Coal burning to produce power emits twice the CO2 as burning natural gas, Gara said, quoting Environmental Protection Agency data. Sponsors of the coal gasification project have said they would like to consider minimizing carbon emissions, but have made no commitments, he added.

“Currently, greenhouse effect-causing carbon emissions are not regulated by state or federal law,” he said.

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