A federal coordinating office handling Alaska’s gas pipeline projects has been defunded by Congress and will no longer serve as a liaison between the public and organizers of the behemoth AlaskaLNG project.
Federal coordinator Larry Persily plans to close the office, which operates the arcticgas.gov site and contains information about the project and each phase that it has moved through thus far. Persily is hoping to find a repository for all of the information that the office has gathered during its 10 years of operation.
Here’s a question and answer session with Persily on what Alaska residents should look for as the project progresses and how they can weigh-in to protect their own interests.
Where does the responsibility for coordination between agencies lay? Who is going to be tasked with being the liaison for the public and private entities involved?
This is the largest and most expensive, most complex energy project ever in North American.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is going to do a single Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that all federal agencies will rely on. They have already started contacting other federal agencies, signing them up as cooperating agencies so that those federal agencies get together and sit around the table and say what issues need to be covered in this EIS so that Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries, the Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Land Management, can all rely on that environmental review.
So, they’re talking among themselves, whether we exist or not, to make sure that that single EIS addresses all the issues.
You can permit a project through the federal government without a coordinating office … to share information. It has been done before. Our office was very unique, there was nothing else like our office in the federal government which was part of the problem to continue funding it. It was seen, by detractors, as another Alaska earmark. Alaska earmarks are never popular. So you take away our office, the federal government is still capable of doing an EIS working within their agencies. I think where the public will notice the lack of our office is a less coordinated direct flow of information to the public.
What was the primary responsibility of the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects?
FERC will do notices about their meetings and the environmental impact statement, but I think we did a good job of trying to translate and putting it all together for the public.
I am working with other agencies to try and say “hey guys, even though we’re going away, this is a huge undertaking in Alaska.” We need to find some other place in the federal government to find a desk, find a person, give them our data, our website, all the research we’ve done and continue the information service to the public.
I’m trying to make the argument within the federal government that just because this specific office is going away doesn’t mean that the public need is going away and doesn’t mean that the responsibility of the federal government goes away.
It seems that, in Alaska, it can be difficult to get information to people because they’re geographically spread out and have access to disparate types of technology. How are people in rural areas of the state getting access to information?
That’s absolutely true. Last year, Glennallen wanted to know what was going on. So, I went out there and spent the night with the Glennallen chamber and answered questions about the project. It’s not a big city where you can go on the evening news and reach 90 percent of the market and this is a huge project, it’s complex and it’s going to affect the whole state — even if you’re not on the pipeline route.
I think there’s a need there and I just have to find a way to convince other federal officials that we can find a way to do this, at a reduced level because we don’t have anymore funding. But, somewhere in the government we can find a few hundred thousand dollars to keep people informed.
You mentioned that one of the most important things that people could do would be to familiarize themselves with the project? How best can they do that now?
Well, like I said we’re looking for a way to keep the website going. We put project updates there.
Let’s say when the draft environmental reports come out, if you’re concerned with traffic you’re going to want to read that section of the report. What would this project do to traffic in Nikiski? As Steve Butt, the project manager, said, maybe we’re going to need to relocate the highway to get it out of harm’s way. If you’re someone who is in school transportation, trucking and commute or fisheries you’re going to want to read it. Look for those issues that affect you.
I know that Mayor Mike Navarre from the borough is engaged and involved. He wants to hire someone dedicated to watch out for the borough’s interest.
Did you say that FERC will be required to address issues but not necessarily individual comments?
Yeah, FERC, in the environmental impact statement … in its decision to grant authority to build and operate a plant can say, “We’ve identified these things as impacts and this is what you need to do to mitigate those impacts.”
Whether it’s traffic, whether it’s fisheries, whether it’s seasonal construction, whether it’s limited hours when the school buses are running — FERC gives them the authority to build and operate. It can list dozens, hundreds of conditions.
So that’s where the communities in the state are going to want to get in there because, hey, we want the project. It’s good for us but we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with some of the impacts, particularly the temporary ones as best we can. FERC can impose those mitigating factors into Alaska LNG’s operating license.
Is it common for FERC to put those types of factors on a project of this scale?
Yeah, it is. Of the LNG projects that FERC has approved so far in the Lower 48, they all have conditions. You can’t build something this big without affecting the environment. The question is, affect it as little as possible and do what you can then to repair, restore or replace what you’ve lost somewhere else.
In your study of this project, as it has developed, which areas were of the most concern to you?
Getting across Cook Inlet is a challenge. There are pipelines in Cook Inlet, it’s not impossible, but between beluga whales and salmon habitat and ice and tides and existing pipelines and platforms, this is a challenge to them. It’s taking a lot of work.
Where you put in and where you take it out?
Getting past Denali. What side between Denali Park and Glitter Gulch with all the construction and the river and the railroad and the highway, where do you lay your pipeline? That’s another challenge. Going through Atigun Pass. You’ve got the oil pipeline, you don’t want to be on top of the oil pipeline so where do you go through? There are some challenging engineering and environmental portions of this project, they all have answers as Steve Butt from Alaska LNG explains. It’s a matter of finding the best answer, not just the most cost effective, but the most cost effective and the least environmentally damaging.
As you’ve talked to people about the project, what have they identified as their primary concerns?
Well, certainly Alaskans want to get jobs. That’s not really the federal government’s problem. Under federal law any American can go work in this country. But certainly I’m sure that will come up. I want jobs, everybody wants jobs. I’m sure that will come up and that’s something the project developers are going to have to deal with politically.
Getting gas out of the pipe and to Alaskans is not really an issue to the federal government — that’s going to be an issue for the state of Alaska who is going to be in charge of those off-take points. Where do they want them and how are they going to get the gas out of the pipeline?
Are there portions of the project that are commonly misinterpreted?
I think … this not just a pipeline. The liquefaction marine terminal at Nikiski will be probably close to half of the project costs. So I think (project organizers) are right, it’s a pipeline but between the gas liquefaction plant on the North Slope, the marine terminal, and the pipeline — the pipeline is maybe a quarter of the cost though it’s the longest portion of it. So I think that’s one misconception.
I think the factor that “I want it done tomorrow, why can’t we just go out there and build it?”
Well, we don’t have any customers, we don’t’ know how much it’s going to cost, you don’t have your permits. It’s going to take this long; just be patient. It’s going to take another couple of years to design the permitting process — they will not be at a point to make a decision, permits in hand, customers in hand, until 2019 and it’s going to take five years to build it. You can only do so many sea lifts to the North Slope when the ice is up, you can only do so much construction in the winter when the ground is frozen. That’s just how long it’s going to take to build the modules, get the pipe delivered and put it in the ground.
So the office is closing in February 2015?
Well they didn’t fund us, but I had some money leftover.
I’m targeting Feb. 28 give or take a few days or a week. End of February, early March, but I hope to, before then, find some way to continue the website and the information service somewhere in the federal government.
Reach Rashah McChesney at Rashah.firstname.lastname@example.org.