Hoping to better understand Alaska's complex mix of natural resources extraction and natural beauty, members of one of the country's largest legislative groups visited the Kenai Peninsula on Thursday.
Approximately 15 state legislators from at least nine states made the trip as part of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators' annual energy conference, held this year in Anchorage. In between conference meetings, members of the caucus took time out to tour Agrium's North Kenai nitrogen products facility, as well as the ConocoPhillips LNG plant next door.
According to Rodney Charley, director of energy policy for the caucus, or NBCSL, Thursday's tour was meant to give members a firsthand look at Alaska's energy extraction infrastructure at work.
"This day was designed to focus on Alaska," Charley said. "It gives a real-life view of what's going on with energy in Alaska."
Charley said the four-day conference was geared toward both Alaska and national energy issues. He said the group held meetings on energy deregulation, economic development, nuclear energy and small business. Caucus members have been gathering information in order to formulate a position paper on energy to be released at the NBCSL conference in December.
"The concentration of this conference is to work on our position paper," he said.
Last week's conference was held in Anchorage because the group's energy committee is chaired by Alaska's lone black state senator, Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage. Davis was unable to attend Thursday's tour due to a family emergency. However, her legislative aide, Richard Benavides, said Davis wanted to hold the conference in Anchorage in order to give legislators from other states a better look at what's really going on in Alaska.
Often, Benavides said, people from Outside don't get a true picture of how resource development and good environmental practices can go hand in hand.
"She wanted to break those perceptions that people have about Alaska and the environment," he said. "I think they've been getting quite a picture."
The NCBSL is a national group of more than 600 black state legislators from 44 states. The legislators represent a constituency of more than 20 million voters.
At Agrium, delegates were shown a video about the company's Kenai plant, then taken on a short tour of the facility. They drove around the facility, visited a large warehouse where fertilizer is stored, then moved next door to the ConocoPhillips LNG plant.
There, they were given a short demonstration on the properties of liquid natural gas by plant engineer Jed Watkins, who used some eye-catching techniques to show just how safe LNG is for consumers and producers alike.
Watkins used a small amount of the liquefied natural gas to freeze a piece of steel, then smashed the steel like ice with a hammer. Later, he extinguished a lit cigarette in the gas, in order to show that it's a relatively safe material, not prone to major disasters.
"LNG is the safest thing afloat," Watkins said.
Later in the tour, Watkins had a caucus member light a large gas flare to show the clean-burning properties of the gas.
After the tour, caucus members said they learned quite a bit about the various uses and applications of natural gas.
"It's been a great trip," said Greg Porter, a state representative from Indianapolis. "Very informative."
Porter said he was particularly interested in the LNG side of the tour because of a shortage of gas in his home district.
"Our gas prices have gone up tremendously," Porter said. "I'm trying to figure out what is the state of energy and what are some solutions."
Benavides said getting the legislators to see how Alaska is dealing with energy issues is the main reason for bringing the delegates to the peninsula. He used the proposed North Slope gas pipeline as an example. Legislators from Outside might not have known about the proposed project, and to see the support for a gas line in Alaska might just grow support for the project nationwide.
"I was talking to a guy from Indiana or Illinois who has idle steel plants," Benavides said. "To him the project could possibly mean an order for pipe."
Charley said Thursday that in addition to large projects like the gas pipeline, the North Kenai tour gave legislators some good ideas on how the industry works. Now that more and more of the energy markets are being deregulated, he said one of the NBCSL's biggest priorities will be trying to help minority-owned small businesses break into the industry.
"There's going to be billions and billions of dollars spent on energy in the next few years," said Charley. "African American businesses have an opportunity to grow and develop in the industry's infrastructure, but half of that is getting people knowledgeable and knowing what's there."
He said he believes the conference and tour had a positive impact on the caucus members, and he believes delegates will take with them a better understanding of what's happening in the energy industry in Alaska.
He said some delegates thought coming in that Alaska is a frozen, barren place. Now, Charley said that's changed for caucus members who attended the conference.
"Most people from the Lower 48 have the old views of Alaska," he said. "We've broken some of those stereotypes."
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.