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Susitna-Watana clears one hurdle, but could face additional obstacles

by Phillip Manning ~ April 15th, 2014

Earlier this month, the Alaska Energy Authority reached a land access agreement with the Cook Inlet Regional Working Group regarding land access to conduct field studies. The working group, which is composed six village corporations and Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated, will allow the studies to proceed on their land through 2015 and AEA will pay a permit fee of $2.5 million. The previous lack of an agreement meant that studies could not be conducted on the Alaska Native-owned land during 2013, and was the major reason cited by Governor Sean Parnell for cutting back significantly on Susitna-Watana’s budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.

The budget cuts and land access issues contributed to AEA’s request for an extension on the multi-year licensing required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on projects like Susitna-Watana.  Part of that delay includes pushing back the release of an Initial Study Report, which details the work that took place in 2013 and will lay out the plan for work through the second study season.  Originally, that report was scheduled to come out at the beginning of February, but has been pushed back to the beginning of June.  When the review period is taken into account, it means that the meetings to discuss future study plans will take place in October.

In the meantime, however, AEA says it does plan to conduct studies this summer.  That presents a problem for some non-governmental organizations that are following the process.  On Monday, representatives of Chase Community Council, Trout Unlimited, Alaska Survival, The Wild Salmon Center, and the Center for Water Advocacy signed a letter to FERC outlining their concerns.  The letter claims that any studies conducted in 2014 would be outside of the licensing process, since second-year studies are intended to take place only after a review of the revised study plan by stakeholders.  The groups are asking that FERC require AEA to delay its second season until 2015.  Emily Ford, spokeswoman for AEA, says that field work will be going on this summer, and will focus on “critical multi-year studies,” which includes work on lands that were closed to them last year.  Tim Bristol, Alaska Project Manager for Trout Unlimited, says that he believes AEA’s current plan relies on maintaining a sense of progress for Susitna-Watana.

“You get the sense that this being slapped together at the last minute in order to keep moving forward.  I do believe that there’s a serious loss of momentum for the dam at this time, and I think that it’s probably not in AEA’s best interest to have another year of analysis–scrutiny–applied to this project, because I think the more questions that are asked, the more questions you end up having.”

There are questions being raised in Juneau regarding the feasibility of the project.  After the initial cuts, Governor Parnell did later request a budget supplement of $32.7 million for Susitna-Watana.  The Senate Finance Committee stripped that request out of its version of the budget, and part of the conversation dealt with whether or not the 735-foot tall dam was likely to be built at a price of more than $5 billion.  The Governor’s office still has faith in the project, however, and intends to try to get the supplement reinstated when the budget is heard by House Finance this week.

In the meantime, there is still $10 million for the dam in the Senate’s budget, and committee testimony revealed that AEA still has approximately $30 million left from the last appropriation to conduct field work this year.  Whether that work is considered as part of the official pre-licensing studies is a decision that will ultimately be up to FERC, which has yet to issue a statement on the matter.

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