City takes heat on gas line info

What kind of information do city residents need before voting on formation of Homer’s Natural Gas Distribution System Special Assessment District? What kind do they want? Where can they find it?

Those questions were before the Homer City Council at its regular meeting Monday. On the council’s agenda was a public hearing for Ordinance 12-46, appropriating $50,165 to pay for a city code-required public information strategy. Its purpose is to provide information to an estimated 3,800 parcel owners that would be able access natural gas brought to Homer and Kachemak City through construction of an Enstar Natural Gas pipeline.

“The council has stated that it is important to undertake a large public information effort for this project, given its size, complexity, cost and potential impacts on the community,” City Manager Walt Wrede said in a memo to Mayor Beth Wythe and the council. “It is important for the council to disseminate as much factual information as possible about the proposed assessment district so that affected property owners and the public at large can make informed decisions.”

City resident Larry Slone told the council the information being provided is imbalanced.

“On one side we’re sitting pretty fat with the information provided on the benefits derived from natural gas,” said Slone, adding that what’s missing is general information about cost and time associated with converting to natural gas, such as the replacing or compatibility of existing appliances, availability of parts and utilizing current systems.

In his report to the council, Wrede said the city was attempting to give the public enough information to be able to vote on formation of the special assessment district without taking a stand for or against it.

“We’re being criticized from both sides, so it must mean we’re doing an OK job,” said Wrede. “Some people feel we’re not spending enough time talking about the benefits. Other people think we’re glossing over and making it look like everything is rosy and there’s no downside. We are trying really hard to be as transparent as we can, get as much information out there as we can so the public can make good decisions about it.”

Wrede said when people think about how to vote on formation of the assessment district, a big piece of the puzzle is the cost to convert to natural gas. When asked by Wrede for suggestions for providing that information, John Sims, Enstar’s manager of corporate communications and customer service, said conversion information was posted on the company’s website. A toll-free phone number also has been installed for the Homer area: (855) 889-7575.

The ordinance was passed without objection.

“Enstar has talked about setting up public meeting where we can address individual residents’ concerns about the hook-up process,” Sims told the Homer News. “We have been respecting the city’s (special assessment district) process, allowing them to define the boundaries before we talk about costs because ultimately that drives whether your lots are assessed or not. But we’re happy to come in. We have all the materials. At this point we’re waiting for the city to get back to us.”

The project includes construction of a 73-mile, $12.7 million natural gas distribution line throughout the city, from Baycrest to the tip of the Spit. If passed, construction in the downtown core city area would begin in spring 2013, with the second phase on the hillside and Spit built in 2014.

Recently, Petrotechnical Resources of Alaska released an update of its Cook Inlet gas supply study indicating that if no new large discoveries of gas can be brought into production within the next two years, it is likely the current drilling activity will result in a shortfall of natural gas to Southcentral Alaska as early as 2014 or 2015. (See related story, page 1 of the Real Estate and Business section.)

“What PRA found back in 2009 was that we would need about 13 successful new wells per year to continue to meet the demand, but we haven’t seen that,” Sims told the Homer News. “So from a utilities perspective, … we all need gas to generate power and heat homes. We want to develop a plan so if the local gas isn’t there, how do we meet the demand,” said Sims. “The question mark isn’t if there’ll be gas, but where it’ll come from.”

“Something to remember is that we aren’t losing 100 percent of the gas. We’re looking at a small void in the forecast,” said Sims. “The probability of importing gas from another location is to meet that void. … It’s not like we’re looking to import half of our needs. It’s a smaller percentage.”

There are significant costs associating with importing gas, “which is why we’re making a presentation to the (Regulatory Commission of Alaska),” said Sims. “That being said, it’s still significantly lower than heating oil, propane and that sort of thing.”

Presentations on current fuel supply agreements at the RCA’s Wednesday meeting also were to be given by Homer Electric Association, Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association and Municipal Light and Power. 

Sims said a five- to six-year gap is anticipated until new exploration in Cook Inlet or a large-diameter gas line from the North Slope brings more gas to the market.

“So, in the long term I think we’re in a very good place,” said Sims. “We just need to find a solution and have a good plan for the mid-term.”

• For more information about the Homer natural gas assessment district, visit www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/

• The third of three Homer natural gas assessment district neighborhood meetings will be held in the Homer High School commons, 5-7 p.m., Oct. 29.

• For information on converting to natural gas, visit www.enstarnaturalgas.com/ResidentialServices.aspx, and click on “Converting Your Home to Natural Gas.”

• For Petrotechnical Resources of Alaska Cook Inlet Gas Supply Update, visit www.petroak.com/.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homerews.com.

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