Alaska Journal of Commerce: Infrastructure bill celebrated for priorities ranging from climate change to mining

A significant reason the landmark $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill has garnered as much attention as it has is likely the broad range of interests it appeals to.

It has support not only from the usual backers of a traditional infrastructure bill, such as construction trade groups and labor unions, but also from state and national-level conservation and resource development organizations that are often pitted against each other.

In an hour-long press briefing before President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Nov. 15, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the bill received strong bipartisan support in the Senate because it addresses many of the sincere and fundamental needs of the nation and Alaska.

“It will be an extraordinary vehicle to make this country more competitive, and really a healthy and stronger country,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski was among the bipartisan group of 10 senators who crafted the framework of the bill over the summer, partly in direct negotiations with the president.

Layered between the many sections of the 1,000-plus-page bill, which provides hundreds of billions of dollars for road, bridge and port repair, are provisions that fund clean energy production and storage research, as well as others that seek to shorten the time to permit certain mines and other large-scale projects.

Economic development advocates have lauded the bill for the large sums of money that will translate to construction jobs and greater broadband access, among other items.

Alaska Chamber CEO Katie Capozzi estimated the bill could bring more than $5 billion to Alaska.

Steve Cohn, Alaska director for The Nature Conservancy, said he believes many aspects of the bill “frame the importance of land and water as part of our nation’s infrastructure, in some ways as important as our roads and bridges.”

Funding for improved — or in some communities, first-ever — drinking and wastewater systems across much of rural Alaska and similar programs will not only help improve public health, but also modernize infrastructure against the effects of climate change, according to Cohn.

“We’re seeing the direct effects of climate change on our infrastructure broadly in Alaska, and that’s certainly very prominent in rural communities,” he said.

More than $180 million will be directed to water infrastructure projects in Alaska over five years through the state’s clean water and drinking water fund programs, according to Murkowski’s office. An additional $230 million is authorized to similar Environmental Protection Agency programs for Alaska Native villages.

More broadly, the bill contains $3.5 billion for Indian Health Services to clear all of the sanitation facility projects off of its current nationwide list, a line item Murkowski said she pressed for.

“When you think about basic infrastructure, I think we would all say it’s pretty basic to have clean water and sanitation,” Murkowski said.

Also, along with directing nearly $5 billion to orphaned oil and gas well cleanup nationwide — wells drilled decades ago by the Navy have been a longstanding issue in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the North Slope — more than $3.3 billion will fund wildfire mitigation efforts on federal lands.

Another $1 billion is set aside to replace culverts that inhibit fish passage, a simple but significant issue in parts of Alaska, Cohn noted.

He emphasized that he sees the legislation as a first step toward continued investments in the environment and countering climate change.

”It’s very heartening to see there is bipartisan support to start to address the impacts of climate change,” Cohn said.

Murkowski has been among the lawmakers that have insisted successful, widespread implementation of clean energy technologies will also require additional domestic mineral production, particularly for minerals such as graphite, which is a primary component of modern lithium-ion batteries, among others.

To that end, the bill makes critical mineral projects eligible for Department of Energy loan guarantees and makes permanent the “FAST-41″ permitting dashboard for some large projects. Established with the passage of the 2015 surface transportation reauthorization, the FAST-41 process aims to cut the permitting time for major infrastructure developments by directing federal agencies to coordinate more closely on the timing of permit evaluation. The process has cut the time to complete the environmental impact statement process for eligible projects from an average of about 4.5 years to 2.5 years, according to Murkowski.

She noted that some of her provisions to improve the efficiency of permitting for critical minerals projects — of which there are several across Alaska — made it in the bill as well.

“Recognizing that you can’t build anything until you get the permits, it was critical to make sure we had a process for expedited permitting,” Murkowski said.

During a Nov. 11 videoconference presentation to the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Skabinski said codifying in law permitting reforms typically implemented as regulations should help development sponsors keep permitting agencies on track.

“When it is in law it is certainly easier to take people to court and hold agencies’ feet to the fire,” Skabinski said. “We’re hopeful it’s an indication (lawmakers) are aware how hard it is to permit things that are funded in the infrastructure bill.”

Hydro in reconciliation package

While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also contains line items for hydropower and marine energy research, Murkowski forecasted that a potentially important piece of legislation she has been working on with Washington Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell to increase the availability of tax credits for hydro projects could make it into the much more partisan budget reconciliation package.

Murkowski, like nearly all congressional Republicans, has been highly critical of the reconciliation bill House Democrats have been crafting much of the year for its price tag, which has floated between roughly $2 trillion and $4 trillion, and said in a prior interview with the Journal she wouldn’t vote for it even with her hydro legislation inside.

She most recently said the expanded tax credits for certain investments in hydro facilities, including those owned by nonprofits and local governments, has the support of Oregon Democrat and Finance Chair Sen. Ron Wyden.

Cantwell and Murkowski’s original hydro legislation is backed by several national conservation groups as well as the National Hydropower Association.

Murkowski said given Wyden’s backing, she believes the hydropower tax credits could also make it through on other traditional year-end legislation if the reconciliation bill falters as she expects.

“I believe (the reconciliation bill) is fraught with enough challenges, certainly the scope, certainly the cost, certainly the ‘pay-fors,’ but if that bill does not move forward we will have a tax provision at the end fo the year, which we almost always do, and this could be something that is included,” she said of the hydropower rider.

By:  Elwood Brehmer
Source: Alaska Journal of Commerce