It's hardly well-known -- in fact, "obscure" comes to mind for most Alaskans -- but a tightly-run Seattle-based nonprofit plays a big role in helping political leaders in U.S. Pacific Northwest states, Alaska, and Canada's western provinces get to know each other and mesh their priorities.
The group is the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, or PNWER, and its members are the five Northwest U.S. state governments, the three western Canadian provinces and two territories of Canada.
For Alaskans, and many in the Northwest, it's a long way to Washington, D.C. Ditto Ottawa, for Canadians in the western provinces and northern territories. Best to work together. Residents of northwestern North America have a lot in common, and that's what PNWER is about.
Alaska plays a prominent role in the group. This year state Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, is its chair. Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, also chairs a PNWER working group on labor and workforce issues. In a previous year Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, was a chair.
PNWER is a nonprofit association formed to promote discussion of issues common among the regional governments, said Executive Director Matt Morrison.
In total, the region has formidable economic and political clout, with the value of the combined economies of the 10 member states, provinces and territories estimated at $1 trillion, with a combined population at 20 million people, according to PNWER.
McGuire said Alaska's membership gives the state, with its small population, a way of influencing larger, more politically influential neighbors that share interests.
Energy, workforce mobility and the planned Alaska natural gas pipeline will be a major focus for discussion at the group's upcoming annual meeting in Calgary. Included among the workforce issues is the need for multi-state and bilateral U.S.-Canadian and multi-state recognition of engineering licenses, a topic of particular interest to engineers and other professionals.
Although its primary purpose is to give support to elected officials in the Northwest region, business plays a major part in PNWER. Member governments pay annual fees of $37,000 each, which funds about 20 percent of PNWER's $1.7 million annual budget, Morrison said. Grants and contributions by business members pays the rest.
Each of the group's 14 working committees has both a business and public sector chair.
Hal Kvisle, CEO of TransCanada Corp., is a big supporter of PNWER.
"None of the Alberta companies can afford to have any barriers or blockages to cross-border trade," Kvisle said in materials published by PNWER. "It is important to us and our shareholders that governments don't set up additional trade barriers."
Informal dialogues through groups like PNWER help ease differences between the national governments on trade issues, Kvisle said.
Tesoro Corp., which operates refineries in both Alaska and Washington state, is also a PNWER fan. Lynn Westfall, Tesoro senior vice president, said the group presents opportunities for "long-overdue dialogue between business groups and legislators."
PNWER has two major meetings a year: an annual meeting that rotates among member states and provinces, and a leadership meeting in the fall, with additional working group meetings held throughout the year.
Alaska hosted the annual meeting two years ago, McGuire said, and the event brought 1,000 people to the state. It was a unique opportunity to inform political leaders about Alaska issues, she said.
McGuire takes pride in having used her PNWER contacts to persuade several legislators from Pacific Northwest states to change their positions on oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain.
The group was founded in 1991 at the instigation of an Idaho state senator who was a proponent of the "Cascadia" concept, that the Northwest U.S. and Western Canada share a lot in common.
Morrison said PNWER follows the "economic watersheds" of north-south commerce within the region. While there's a lot of east-west trade between Asia and the U.S. Midwest and East that comes through the ports of Tacoma and Vancouver, the regional trade is 3 to 1 north-to-south than west-to-east or vice versa.
There's no other regional association of states and Canadian provinces quite like PNWER.
"We've found other regional consortiums of states but nothing cross-border like us," Morrison said.
One of the PNWER's projects has been to establish a Center for Regional Disaster Resilience to work with U.S. Homeland Security on preservation of critical infrastructure in the event of terrorist attacks or natural disasters.
This initiative occurred just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D. C. PNWER pulled together public agencies and major businesses in the Northwest to map points of congestion in the power grid that might be vulnerable to disruption.
There are other regional associations that deal with infrastructure security, as well as the federal Homeland Security agency, but a distinction is that PNWER's focus is more on preservation in an economic sense rather than just protection.
For example, ensuring that Alaska continues as a major source of crude oil for the Pacific Northwest is a major concern for the group, Morrison said.
The proposed Alaska gas pipeline is another major infrastructure project that is just the kind of thing PNWER concerns itself with, he said. In this case the group not only works to encourage the project but also sort out issues like workforce mobility, or the ability of firms to move skilled labor back and forth across borders.
A new PNWER initiative, done jointly with the National Conference of State Legislatures, is the Legislative Energy Horizon Institute, a set of courses on energy issues that legislators take over 18 months.
"Legislators who develop state energy policy often lack a comprehensive understanding of how the energy infrastructure operates," Morrison said.
The first set of courses concluded recently. Thirty-seven legislators were enrolled, with several from Alaska.
The idea for the Energy Institute grew out of a three-week course the University of Idaho had developed for utility professionals. The focus of that was on electric power but for the legislative program oil and gas was added as well as renewable energy and issues related to climate change state have to wrestle with like low-carbon fuel standards.
The program involved nine full days of instruction spread over the year, with monthly webinars. There was a three-day institute session in Idaho last summer followed by three days in December in San Diego and a wrap-up three-day session in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Department of Energy helped fund the courses.
Tim Bradner can be reached at tim.bradner.@alaskajournal.com.
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