A bi-partisan pair of Alaska lawmakers recently traveled all the way to South Africa to learn about technologies that could lead to commercialization of the state’s vast natural gas resources.

Sen. Lesil McGuire (R-Anchorage), chair of the Energy Committee and co-chair of the Resources Committee, and Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), co-chair of the Resources Committee, attended a course on the fundamentals of the XTL industry, which encompasses gas-to-liquids (GTL), coal-to-liquids (CTL) and biomass-to-liquids (BTL), “all three of which have significant potential for development in Alaska,” McGuire said.

“A North Slope GTL plant able to transform our massive stores of natural gas into value-added synthetic fuels that could be shipped through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System could be key in extending the life of that all-important lifeline of our state’s economy,” McGuire said, adding that synthetic fuels produced from Cook Inlet coal could also play a role in addressing the issue of dwindling Cook Inlet gas supplies.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was constructed in the 1970s, and some projections indicate that if no new oil fields are developed the pipeline could reach its minimum throughput level by 2020.

The four-day course was conducted by the CWC Group, a development organization whose mission is to “help energy-rich countries diversify their economies and develop new industries.” McGuire and Wielechowski registered for the course following the October announcement by Cook Inlet Region Inc. (CIRI) of its plan to develop an underground coal gasification project on the west side of Cook Inlet.

“CIRI’s underground coal gasification project is an exciting development for Southcentral Alaska and indeed for the entire state,” said McGuire. “And more exciting yet is the promise for other types of synthetic fuels development in Alaska.”

The most recent assessments conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey estimate 37.5 Tcf of natural gas on Alaska’s North Slope and 5.5 trillion tons of coal resources on the North Slope, Interior and Cook Inlet regions of Alaska.

GTL and CTL have long been a cornerstone of South Africa’s economy, but recent projects in North America — including a coal gasification facility in North Dakota, which boasts more carbon sequestration from coal conversion than any other facility in the world, and the recently announced development of a coal-to-gasoline plant in Wyoming, which is endorsed by Gov. Dave Freudenthal — are demonstrating the viability of these technologies closer to home.

McGuire and Wielechowski are currently working on a package of state incentives to spur the development of XTL in Alaska and said they intend to introduce the package prior to the Jan. 19 start of the legislative session.

“Sen. McGuire and I saw this as an opportunity to explore some of the alternate ways Alaska might be able to develop its own vast stores of stranded resources, particularly natural gas and coal,” Wielechowski said of the training.

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