Panel delves into issue of high gas prices

JUNEAU, Alaska — A group of state lawmakers delving into the issue of high gas prices is finding no easy answers for trying to provide Alaskans with some relief at the pump.

The panel, created by the Senate Finance Committee but not an official committee itself, is looking for ways to address the high cost of gas and heating fuel. A meeting Wednesday in Anchorage focused primarily on gas prices. Additional meetings are planned, and lawmakers also are seeking to hire a consultant to weigh in. Senate Finance earlier this year approved $150,000 for a consultant’s study.

For years, state leaders have looked for ways to ease energy costs, from promoting renewable energy and programs aimed at making homes more energy efficient to temporarily suspending the state motor fuels tax, something that most recently was done under then-Gov. Sarah Palin. Legislation also has been introduced to ban price-gouging but, as was the case last session, that proposal went nowhere.

Many Alaskans express frustration with the situation, particularly given the state’s wealth of oil and gas resources.

But Alaska is a relatively small market — it is the least gas-consuming state in the nation. And limited competition and the fact there are just two refineries, both of which are relatively small and less efficient than refineries in the Lower 48, are factors that the attorney general’s office has said impact gas prices.

Ed Sniffen, a senior assistant attorney general who handles consumer protection and anti-trust cases and has been involved in studies of Alaska gas prices, told lawmakers that finding ways to increase competition in the gasoline market could hold the most promise for trying to bring down the high costs Alaskans pay.

One of the ways he said that could happen is with additional fuel storage capacity. Another is through regulation, though he said no state currently regulates fuel prices and there’s no guarantee it would lower prices. He said the state could look at indirect regulation, like tying the fuel price to another market, but he said that could raise legal questions.

The panel also invited the public to offer any concrete suggestions it might have.

According to AAA, the average price of regular unleaded gas in Alaska early Wednesday was $4.07 a gallon, second only to Hawaii. The U.S. average was $3.38 a gallon.

The panel includes Sens. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel. Reps. Berta Gardner and Pete Petersen, both Democrats from Anchorage, and Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, also sat at the table. A number of other legislators either were present in the audience or listening from another legislative information office.