The general nominated to be the Army’s Chief of Staff suggested this morning that the plan to cut 2,600 soldiers from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson isn’t final yet. But it’s hard to say whether the Army really plans to reconsider, or whether the general merely agreed to follow a procedure to ultimately reach a pre-determined end.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan appeared to make some headway at the confirmation hearing of Gen. Mark Milley, the four-star likely to become the top uniformed officer of the Army. Since the JBER cuts were announced this month, both Alaska senators have argued it makes no sense to cut an Arctic-trained brigade when Russia is adding troops in the region. Sullivan says the Army should hold off until the Pentagon develops a real operation plan for the Arctic, not just the 13-page “Arctic Strategy” it produced in 2013.
“It mentions climate change five times and Russia in a footnote,” Sullivan said. “This is a joke of a strategy.”
Milley says the full Arctic “operation plan” is almost done, and he agreed with Sullivan the cuts shouldn’t come before the plan. Milley says, actually, that’s the sequence the Army is following, though he also deployed the past tense as he spoke of a “decision.”
“The forces in Alaska don’t get reduced, according to the decision I think I heard … until the end of ‘16 and ’17. So an ‘O plan’ first, reduction of forces of second. If still required,” Milley said.
Milley confirmed that even if the cuts go through as stated the Army would shrink the4/25th brigade combat team, leaving one-third of it in Alaska so that some day the full unit might be reconstituted.
“So it’s designed to go to a battalion task force, with the intent of reversing it, if funding is made available,” he said.
Milley calls Russia the No. 1 threat to the United States, due to its nuclear strength and recent aggression. The need to focus more on the Arctic resonates with Sen. John McCain, who chaired Milley’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We’ve got a very full agenda, but the Arctic is another that we have to be concerned (about),” McCain said. “Particularly given Russian behavior. Even Sweden, which is traditionally, as we know, a very neutral nation has become extremely concerned about Russian activity in their territorial waters.”
The Army is cutting its Brigade Combat Teams from 45 to 30. Milley says that’s an adequate number, but he cautioned brigades can’t ramp up overnight and it takes years to build a new team.
Haines residents Jenn Walsh and Jessica Kayser Forster are likely the first women to summit the 6,400-foot Mount Emmerich in the Chilkat Valley, also known as Cathedral Peaks.
They made the trek in early July with Chris Downer and Kevin Forster. Local climbers say fewer than ten ascents of Emmerich have happened since the first one in 1976, and Forster and Walsh are thought to be the only women to complete the climb.
“I think it was about 2 o’clock in the morning or 1 o’clock in the morning and Kevin looked at Jess and me. And Kevin said, ‘You guys this is it. If we are going to turn around and get back to our tents or off the snowfield before the sun hits the snow, then we need to turn around now,’” Jenn Walsh remembers.
That moment in the climb where Kevin Forster asked his companions if they wanted to turn around happened because of unexpected conditions. The group had made their base camp in the Cathedral Cirque – a glacier bench at about 3,700 ft. Right away, they noticed something different.
“It was really surprising how little snow and ice there was,” said Jessica Forster.
Forster had been to the cirque two times before.
“There [was] about 20 to 30 feet less snow,” she said. “So you have this mountain up there that’s being exposed for the first time because it’s been covered in snow and ice for so long. Which brought about a lot of objective hazards now.”
Less snowpack meant more technical snow and rock climbing than they expected. They also were a group of four, which slows climbing down. Kevin Forster had summited Emmerich before, and his trip up from the base camp and back down took nine hours total. They could tell that that was not going to happen this time. The group was less than halfway up when they had to make a decision.
“We were like you know, we’re way behind schedule,” Jessica Forester said. “There’s no way that we can get up there and come back down in time and not be in the heat of the day. And so we were like, well the other option is we know it’s gonna be calm and 80, so it might be safe to climb through the night and spend the day on the summit. So the other option is we just keep climbing through the night and spend the day on the summit. And we decided to do that.”
Forster and Walsh say they climbed during the night because colder weather makes for safer conditions. Trying to climb at that elevation when it’s sunny and 80 degrees would be dangerous because the heat makes the surfaces less stable.
It took 14 hours to climb up from their base camp to the summit along the south ridge of the peak.
“To be with your friends right there and know you just did something that took everything is amazing,” Walsh said. “And I feel like we’ve done some big things together before but maybe I just haven’t felt that kind of emotion and it just opened up gates and I think we all felt it. That was my moment.”
Their view was a sea of mountains, which they had hours to take in, since they couldn’t descend during the hot daytime hours.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life because usually you get to the top of a mountain and you just turn around and go back down, you don’t spend much time on summits. But in this instance we peaked out at 7 o’clock in the morning and we spent 10 hours on the summit,” Forester said.
They made little tents out of trekking poles and extra layers to shield themselves from the sun. Ten hours later, the group started the climb down. It took 11 hours to get back to the camp.
Forster and Walsh say the most physically exhausting part of the trip wasn’t the summit. It was hiking out of the cirque. The group had arranged for a plane to drop food into their base camp. And leaving, they had to carry leftover supplies out on their backs. The lack of snow also made that part of the trek more difficult. It took 13 hours.
“This was so incredibly difficult,” Walsh said. “I kind of like activities that involve some suffering but this was incredible. It was a lot of work but it was really a lot of staying mentally focused. I think coming back down, I thought to myself I might not be strong enough for this.”
Walsh and Forster are probably the first women to summit the Cathedrals, but since some ascents are not officially recorded, it’s hard to know for sure. Jack Tackle was one of the climbers to make the first ascent of Emmerich in 1976. He and Haines climbing enthusiast John Svenson say they don’t know of any other women to who have summited Emmerich. The American Alpine Club also did not know of any other female climbers who have reported summiting the Cathedrals.
Forester and Walsh give credit to Kevin Forester and Chris Downer, but they say they wouldn’t have done it without each other.
“There’s so much more when there’s another woman with you,” Forester said. “And I can’t really explain it but it just makes you stronger. I don’t know why. Sometimes you rely on guys to do things for you but all of sudden when there another woman is there I feel like I can do anything. Which doesn’t make any sense, but it’s pretty cool.”
Forster says the scene from the adventure that stays with her the most is when they were hiking back along the glacier after the summit climb. It was one in the morning and the moon was bright in the sky. The whole horizon was lit up bright pink and red. They walked in silence between jagged mountain peaks, and the whole Chilkat Valley was beneath their feet.
Twenty-nine reindeer have arrived in Port Heiden, where the village of 100 people is re-establishing a long-dormant tradition of reindeer herding. In a few years they hope to begin harvesting the deer as a sustainable food source for the community. Now, an expert herder and his two teenage apprentices are taking on the challenges of starting a herd from scratch.
Learning to herd reindeer is a full-time job for teenagers Jake Carlson and Lillionna Kosbruk.
“Yeah, every day, eight hours, besides weekends.”
“Sometimes we have to herd them in a certain area of the pen, I dunno – it’s a lot of running.:
They’re learning their new trade from Fred Goodhope Jr., a traditional herder who was hired by the village of Port Heiden to help them get started.
“Yeah this is Fred, I’m the reindeer herder. I’m from Shishmaref, Alaska. I been reindeer herding since I was ten years old, and I’m a third-generation reindeer herder.”
The Port Heiden reindeer came as air cargo from Stebbins/St. Michaels. At the end of that 480-mile journey, they were delivered into Goodhope’s practiced hands.
His first challenge was to nurse them back to health.
“Some of ‘em came in kinda lame, kinda hurt… lot of them were dehydrated, you could tell they’d been without nourishing food because they were in a holding pen.”
The reindeer have plenty of room to graze in their new pen. But Goodhope says it won’t be long until they outgrow
“It’s gonna be a problem later on, with overgrazing… by then we’re gonna have them going in and out of the gate.”
Then there’s the danger of bears and wolves getting into the pen.
But more than predators or overgrazing, what worries Goodhope the most is caribou.
“Actually, the worst enemy to a reindeer is a caribou.”
Goodhope says if the reindeer meet a herd of their wilder cousins while grazing outside the pen, they’ll mingle and even interbreed. And then when the caribou move on, the reindeer will up and follow them.
He lost one of his own herds that way years ago up on the Seward Peninsula.
“Last time I seen my reindeer was 1997. It was a sad thing, to learn that they walked away.”
Goodhope and his apprentices are hoping to avoid that fate in Port Heiden. They plan to keep their reindeer under control with the help of herder dogs.
“They have a little litter of dogs that they’re gonna train as pups… and then once you train the pups, they’ll be able to acclimate them with the reindeer.”
Goodhope only has a few months to pass on his herding knowledge before he heads back north for fall hunting.
Kosbruk and Carlson should be able to handle things by then. And they’ll start teaching the age-old practice of husbandry to others in the village.
“Yes, I was gonna be involved in teaching the kids about the reindeer and involving them as much as we can.”
“I’ve always wanted to work with animals… and I can say that I’ve worked with reindeer. I dunno, it just seems like a cool thing.”
In another month, school will start back up. The two teenagers will have to take reindeer duty on nights and weekends, perhaps like their great-great-grandparents did years ago. They both say they’re in it for the long haul.
The Alaska Village Electric Cooperative is moving ahead with its plans to build a wind farm for St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point, after receiving the necessary funding through Fiscal Year 2016 state capital budget.
A $4.3 million appropriation of state money remained in the trimmed-down capital budget throughout the legislative session, even as other projects were cut.
AVEC President and CEO Meera Kohler says the money was never in serious jeopardy because it is actually a re-appropriation of money previously set aside for another project.
While waiting for the money to be delivered, Kohler and AVEC managers are hammering out some important details about the design of the wind farm.
“We haven’t decided exactly what wind turbines we are going to use,” Kohler said. “The plan is to use the Northwind 100-B, but we are also contemplating a larger machine. But we will have to make that decision by December of this year.”
The St. Mary’s wind farm has a proposed capacity of 400 kilowatts of electricity from four separate turbines. But even if the plans change to use larger turbines to create more electricity, Kohler is confident that any excess electricity won’t go to waste.
“There’s plenty of demand for electricity as heat to absorb the excess production, as long as we can do it for equal or less than what we budgeted for the smaller turbines, in terms of cost,” Kohler said. “So producing additional wind power is never really a significant deterrent”
A separate plan aims to connect the electrical grids of St. Mary’s and nearby Mountain Village, which would broaden the customer base benefitting from wind power.
St. Mary’s will still have to operate diesel generators to supplement the power coming from the wind farm, but Kohler predicts that AVEC members in that area will see lower utility bills as a result of the project.
AVEC estimates that wind power saves 25 to 35 cents per kilowatt-hour compared to diesel power.
Kohler expects the wind farm to be operational by the end of next year.
Searchers found the body of 28-year-old Benjamin Beaver Junior of Bethel after his boat hit a sandbar and sank.
State troopers say the man was traveling by boat Friday from Napaskiak to Atmautluak on the Johnson River when it hit the sandbar. His body was found Monday night around 11 p.m. and pulled from the river.
On the night of the accident, troopers say a juvenile passenger made it to shore and was taken back to Napaskiak with no injuries. Searchers soon found the submerged boat.
Beaver’s body will be sent to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks has removed a Mississippi flag from a 5-state display, citing the ongoing national discussion about Confederate imagery.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that Chancellor Brian Rogers ordered the flag removed Monday morning.
UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes says there were no complaints about the flag in the Circle of Flags display in the school’s lower campus, but the chancellor decided to remove the Confederate imagery.
This is the second Mississippi flag to be removed from display in Alaska. Last week, Mississippi’s flag, which features a Confederate battle flag in its upper left corner, was taken down from a main street in Juneau.
The U.S. attorney’s office is seeking dismissal of a lawsuit by four National Guard members alleging that investigative and other records pertaining to them were improperly leaked to reporters and state officials.
In a filing Monday, government attorneys say the men haven’t established and cannot establish any disclosure of information by the U.S. Army and Alaska National Guard in violation of the federal privacy act.
Shannon Tallant, John Nieves, Jarrett Carson and Joseph Lawendowski were part of the Guard’s recruiting team. Their names appeared in news stories based on leaked investigative reports.
Their attorney has said they were singled out as part of a “smear campaign.”
A National Guard Bureau probe into allegations of wrongdoing within the Guard last year noted a “high level of misconduct” within the recruiting and retention command.
NTSB Investigates ‘Man, Machine, Environment’ in Friday’s Plane Crash Near Juneau
Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau
Wreckage of a plane that went down Friday afternoon 18 miles west of Juneau was being picked up Sunday for further investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Trapper Creek Man Dies When Plane Strikes Tree
Alaska State Troopers say a Trapper Creek man died Sunday after his plane struck a tree while flying over his daughter’s wedding reception.
Shell Ship ‘Fennica’ Heads to Oregon for Repairs
John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska
A key ship in Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling fleet left Alaska on Sunday. The icebreaker is headed south to Oregon for repairs after a 3-foot gash was discovered in its hull.
Rain Helps Slow A Vigorous Fire Season In the Interior
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Areas of the Interior have received rain in recent days, helping to slow wildfires that have charred more than 4.7 million acres.
Legislative Committee Won’t Take Up Medicaid Expansion Wednesday
Jeremy Hsieh, KTOO – Juneau
The Alaska Legislature’s committee with gatekeeping authority over expediting the governor’s Medicaid plans meets Wednesday, but does not intend to take up the welfare program’s expansion.
Fire Destroys Oyster Company Boat, Dock, Equipment in Little Jakolof Bay
Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer
A fire destroyed a sailboat, part of a dock, and equipment owned by the Jakolof Bay Oyster Company last night.
Alaska Supreme Court Upholds Ruling Against ‘Save Our Salmon’ Initiative
David Bedinger, KDLG – Dillingham
In a ruling issued Friday, Alaska’s Supreme Court upheld the overturning of the ‘Save Our Salmon’ Initiative.
Senate Ed Bill Bolsters the Role of Alaska Tribes
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.
An education bill that passed the U.S. Senate last week includes several provisions that boost the role of Alaska Native tribes. The bill, called “Every Child Achieves” re-writes the law known as “No Child Left Behind,” a key piece of the domestic legacy of President George W. Bush.
State Lifts Spending Freeze on Susitna-Watana Hydro Project
Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna
After a spending freeze by the governor and multiple attempts by the legislative minority to place it back into the state’s general fund, the Susitna-Watana Hydro Project team will now be allowed to spend the more than $6 million it has left from previous years.
Need for Food Assistance Rises as Alaskans Struggle To Make Ends Meet
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
Every week in 2014, nearly 6,300 households received free food from food pantries and other programs in Alaska. Most of them had at, some point, to chose between food or transportation, rent, medical care, or heat. And data from the United Way shows that the need is rising statewide.
Ketchikan Pastor Goes Barefoot to Raise Money For Those Who Need Shoes
Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan
A Ketchikan minister is going barefoot for a month, in hopes of raising awareness of the need for shoes among the world’s poor.
The Alaska Legislature’s committee with gatekeeping authority over expediting the governor’s Medicaid plans meets Wednesday, but does not intend to take up the welfare program’s expansion.
That’s according to the office of Rep. Mike Hawker, who chairs the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee.
If the committee does not act on the governor’s plans, the expansion of Medicaid is expected to go forward automatically on Sept. 1. Gov. Bill Walker announced Thursday his intent to expand Medicaid without the legislature’s blessing.
Hawker has previously said he supports Medicaid expansion.
Separately, the committee is taking up contract proposals on Wednesday to hire a Medicaid expert to consult for the legislature through the 2016 legislative season.
Areas of the Interior have received rain in recent days, helping to slow wildfires that have charred more than 4.7 million acres, and fire season is far from over.
A swath of the interior, including the Fairbanks and Denali areas got a thorough soaking over the weekend. National Weather service meteorologist Benjamin Bartus credits a low pressure system that parked itself over the region, and is expected to yield additional showers before moving out. Longer range, he says it appears that the general weather trend has changed.
The rain subdued some of the numerous wildfires around the interior at time of the summer when fire mangers reassess strategy. Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry says mid-July is known as the conversion date.
Not all areas received rain over the weekend and a few new fires have been reported, including a a lightning caused blaze on the Seward Peninsula. Mowry says some aircraft and personnel have been released from service in the state, but minimal demand in the lower 48 has allowed Alaska to retain a lot of suppression resources, including over 2 thousand firefighters. Given the amount and size of Alaska’s wildfires this summer, Mowry says plenty of work remains to be done in the state.
Mowry says state and federal agencies have already spent about a hundred million dollars fighting fire in Alaska this summer.
A fire destroyed a sailboat, part of a dock, and some equipment owned by the Jakolof Bay Oyster Company last night. There have been no reported injuries.
The fire started Sunday evening in Little Jakolof Bay, about 7 miles southwest of Homer on the south side of Kachemak Bay.
Johann Willrich was out on a porch at about 10 pm in Little Tutka, a neighboring bay. He says he saw black smoke that looked larger than a garbage fire, so he and other residents hopped in their boat to find out what was going on.
“I had the handheld VHF and someone was reporting that there was a boat that was on fire and the dock itself was on fire as well…Drove over toward Little Jakolof Bay and as soon as we turned the corner, we saw that the boat was fully engulfed and we got there just in time to see the mast fall over,” says Willrich.
Residents of the remote south bay often are the first responders to incidents, as it can take quite a while for fire departments or other official responders to travel from the larger Seldovia, or from Homer.
The dock and boat are property of the Jakolof Bay Oyster Company. Its owners declined to be interviewed but confirmed the losses.
Willrich says they tried to reach the boat that was on fire, but it was hard because of the farming operation.
“So there were oyster nets strung out all along the dock, a couple hundred yards in either direction. So it was very hard to even approach this burning boat,” says Willrich.
They were able to cut loose some equipment and another boat and tow them out of danger.
Bryan Barratt is the chief of the Seldovia Volunteer Fire Department. They responded just after 10 pm and tried to salvage as much as they could.
“Myself and one other city firefighter was able to get onto the dock and cut loose a raft with their processing equipment and their oyster-picking skiff and get those away from the fire. One of those rafts was on fire and we put that out and pulled it off to the side,” says Chief Barratt.
Barratt confirms there was significant damage to the dock and several floats, the boat sank, and quite a bit of equipment that was stored on the dock was also destroyed.
“I don’t think we’ll every know definitively the cause but the fire originated in a shed that had a running generator in it that was on one of the floats that was across the dock from the sailboat. The fire originated in that building, burned that building, burned the adjacent floats, swept across the floats and caught the rigging and the sails on the sailboat on fire and then burned the boat,” says Barratt.
Steven Russell is the interagency coordinator for the Department of Environmental Conservation. They responded early Monday morning. He says there was no sheening on the water in the area and no known petroleum product spillage.
“Jakolof Bay area is a very sensitive area, not only environmentally speaking but commercially speaking to the extent of mariculture operations that are going on in that area. Certainly DEC will do anything we can to assist the responsible party and the Coast Guard in mitigating any environmental threat,” says Russell.
The full cost of the losses to their oyster operations are not known at this time.
A Ketchikan minister is going barefoot for a month, in hopes of raising awareness of the need for shoes among the world’s poor.
While only part way through his month-long project, Peter Epler has gotten a feel – so to speak – for what many people deal with all the time.
Epler’s bare feet are a little weird in downtown Ketchikan. Most people here and in developed countries around the world don’t think twice about wearing shoes, beyond which pair matches which outfit.
Some places, though, there’s a shortage of affordable shoes, which can be a health and safety hazard.
“(People) walk through dirt roads, sewer systems, manure, sharp rocks,” he said. “Kids get cuts on their feet and infections because of what they walk through, so they can lose their feet or die from the infection. So, shoes tend to save lives in third-world countries.”
Epler is a pastor at Ketchikan’s Church of the Nazarene. That church and other Nazarene churches in Alaska are working together to raise money for an international charity that provides special shoes for kids in developing countries.
The group is called Because International, and the shoes they provide are made to last five years.
“They grow five sizes in five years, so roughly kindergarten through fifth grade,” he said. “And they’re working on a second pair that will take them up to ninth grade.”
And will they actually last five years?
“Yeah, they’ll last five years,” he said. “The rubber on the bottom is made from the rubber you make street tires from. And then they used high-quality leather and industrial snaps. So, these things are very sturdy. It’s multiple iterations. This is the final product they put out. They’ve been working on it for years.”
Many churches involved in the campaign are raising money through their congregations. Epler is taking it a little further in hopes of involving more community members. So, to raise awareness, he’s pledged to go without shoes for a month.
About a week into it, Epler has had some new-to-him tactile experiences.
“I’ve got a blog that I’m kind of keeping track of my own experiences: Things I’ve stepped in that you take for granted with shoes,” he said. “I’ve stepped in unidentifiable wet substances on a hot, sunny day, I’ve stepped in dog poop. I’ve stepped in gum. That was not my favorite. There was a sticky, warm quality to it that was distasteful.”
The point of going barefoot is to attract attention, and hopefully engage people in conversation. Then Epler can talk about the campaign and hand out cards with information about how to donate.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes, not so much.
“Most people give me the once-over stare, like ‘Who’s the crazy guy without the shoes?’” he said.
That was the case as Epler and I walked through downtown Ketchikan. He received a lot of furtive glances.
“Yeah, the glances go from head to toe and they kind of linger, and they look away,” he said. “I tend to wait until someone leans a little in for the conversation before I’m like, ‘Here’s the card and information.’ Because I don’t want to creep people out. It’s enough that I’m the barefoot guy.”
Epler said the campaign is, indeed, raising money, although it’s difficult to say how much in total. People in his church have given about $600, but the cards he’s handing out direct people to not only the church’s web page, but also to Because International’s main site. He said that’s a way to reach more people.
“Some folks might not be religious and might not feel comfortable donating through a church and that’s fine,” he said. “They can still go to theshoesthatgrow.org and donate. “
Epler isn’t the only one going barefoot for the cause. He said a few other people in his church, adults and kids, are spreading the word, too.
“I think kids are the key to this,” he said. “They can relate very much to other kids and they have this unashamed ability to buy into an idea and advertise it quite well, because they’re bolder. They can do a lot of good. Kids can make a lot of difference. And because this project is for kids, I think getting kids involved is the best way to go.”
With several weeks left in the campaign, Epler predicts his feet will become sturdier. And, so far, it’s not been a bad experience.
“I’m feeling more connected to the world around me, which I didn’t expect: sticky things, smooth things, soft things, temperature changes, from going inside to outside. These are things I was completely unaware of before,” he said.
So, Epler’s barefoot campaign is raising a different kind of awareness for himself, along with helping the public learn more about a global need.
Here are links to the Ketchikan Church of the Nazarene campaign: http://www.ktnnaz.org/#/shoes ; Epler’s blog: https://acommonpastor.wordpress.com/ ; and Because International: https://theshoethatgrows.org/
An education bill the U.S. Senate passed last week includes several provisions that boost the role of Alaska Native tribes. The bill, called “Every Child Achieves” re-writes the law known as “No Child Left Behind,” a key piece of the domestic legacy of President George W. Bush.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says she added a provision requiring states and school districts to consult with tribes and Native parents as they develop education plans.
“I think it’s time that our tribes and our Native organizations throughout the country will be part of designing the plans and shaping the programs used to improve schools that serve our Native students,” she said on the Senate floor.
The bill establishes a competitive grant program to support Native language immersion schools. The legislation doesn’t authorize a specific amount of money for the grants.
Murkowski also used the bill to revise the Alaska Native Educational Equity Program. The long-standing grant program last year gave some $30 million to Alaska school districts, the University of Alaska, tribal groups and non-profits. Murkowski says if the bill becomes law, future grants will go directly to tribes and Native organizations that have expertise running education programs, or to tribes that partner with school districts.
“This will not only honor our constitutional relationship to Alaska Natives but ensure that they can take on more responsibility for helping their children succeed,” she said.
The bill passed the Senate by a wide margin. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised it for easing the mandates of No Child Left Behind and reducing the amount of testing that eats up classroom time. But Duncan also says the bill doesn’t do enough for low-performing schools.
A relative newcomer to Cook Inlet’s oil and gas scene is charging ahead with big development plans, which could equate to oil production at 17,000 barrels a day, and the creation of more than 400 jobs.
In the Cosmopolitan Unit off Anchor Point, it appears that the sixth time’s the charm. BlueCrest Energy is full-speed ahead with an ambitious development plan on its enticing prospects at the site.
Larry Burgess, health, safety and environmental manager for the relatively new independent on the Cook Inlet oil and gas scene, said at a Kenai Chamber of Commerce presentation Wednesday that first oil is expected by second quarter of next year.
“Probably sometimes in April of next year, which is very aggressive since there are no buildings on the site or anything right now other than some gravel and some piles that we’re driving right now,” Burgess said.
BlueCrest is the sixth producer to attempt to make good on the Cosmo Unit’s promise, following Pennzoil, which discovered the field in the 1960s, ARCO Alaska, which became Phillips, and then ConocoPhillips, Pioneer Natural Resources Alaska and Apache Corporation. BlueCrest and a partner acquired two leases from Pioneer, and BlueCrest picked up three more from Apache in 2013.
And that partner?
“Now, I’m going to mention the partner, but I don’t want anybody to throw anything at me,” Burgess said. “That partner was Buccaneer.”
Following its financial troubles, Buccaneer sold its 25 percent share in the project, making BlueCrest the 100 percent owner. But before its financial implosion and withdrawal from Cook Inlet, Buccaneer drilled a delineation well at the Cosmo Unit that proved quite promising.
“That single well that they drilled through the heart of the formation discovered several different pay zones of which was not known about before,” Burgess said.
The small, privately held, Fort Worth, Texas-based company formed in 2006, and once it became full owner of the Cosmopolitan leases it quickly established an Anchorage office and got to work devising a plan to develop oil reserves found at Cosmo, while also exploring possibilities for the shallower natural gas finds sitting on top of the oil.
“We’ve so far spent well over $100 million, we’re at about $112 million right now on the Cosmo project, with much more to go,” Burgess said.
A 38-acre gravel pad has been constructed about six miles north of Anchor Point, at Mile 151 of the Sterling Highway. BlueCrest would like to drill at least one more delineation well to determine the extent of the reservoir next summer with a jack-up rig. Meanwhile, an onshore drilling rig is under construction in Houston, Texas, and will likely arrive via barge by September or October.
“We’ll drill down and then out, and we’re going to drill out about 2.5 miles offshore, at a total vertical depth of around 7,500 feet,” Burgess said. “Total well length can be up to 25,000 feet, which requires a fairly significantly sized rig onshore to drill. And these are not easy wells to drill, either. They’re about $30 million apiece.”
The potential production at maximum is estimated at 17,000 barrels of oil per day, with the drilling phase lasting five years. The plan is to truck the oil from Anchor Point to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski, at least for the first couple of years while other options are considered. At peak production, that could mean a truck leaving Anchor Point every 45 minutes to an hour.
The construction phase is ramping up now and is expected to employ 200 people through at least next March or April. The drilling phase will see 80 shift workers on site at any one time — so, 160 jobs there. The operations phase, with the expected life of the field stretching 30 years to about 2046, will employ as many as 70 people.
“So there will be some good employment during the rest of that timeframe and some good short-term employment for local,” Burgess said.
A preliminary project design to extract natural gas has been developed but isn’t being actively pursued by BlueCrest at this point. Still, the plan would be to drill for the gas from two offshore, monopod platforms because the gas zones are too shallow to drill from shore. BlueCrest estimates being able to produce 60 to 70 million cubic feet of gas per day.
But what to do with the gas is the challenge. BlueCrest is discussing a partnership with WesPac Midstream LLC, which is exploring an LNG project to supply communities in Interior Alaska that currently only have diesel fuel.
Transporting the gas is the biggest hurdle. The natural gas distribution system can’t currently accommodate the volume of gas BlueCrest could produce.
“Right now they can accept around 30 million cubic feet a day from us, but Enstar is not the only owner of the pipeline distribution system and there are some constraints to go over that that we would have to overcome,” Burgess said. “BlueCrest would be responsible for putting in compression, probably.”
For now, BlueCrest is plenty busy focusing primarily on Cosmo’s oil.
A Wings of Alaska Cessna 207 flying from Juneau to Hoonah crashed into a side of a mountain Friday afternoon, killing the pilot. The U.S. Coast Guard, Juneau Mountain Rescue, Alaska State Troopers and Temsco Helicopters coordinated efforts to rescue the four surviving passengers. The crash site was north of Point Howard at 1,330 feet above sea level.
In this video, a Coast Guard Air Station Sitka MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew lowers rescue personnel to the site of the plane crash and hoists survivors for transport to medical care. The survivors were all initially brought to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau.
The video is provided by the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka.
The large barge picking up marine debris from the Gulf of Alaska coast is skipping Southeast.
A month-long helicopter-and-barge operation will remove stored trash, much from 2011’s Japanese tsunami.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Tsunami Marine Debris Coordinator Janna Stewart says communities in the region are sticking with existing shipping and landfill agreements.
Margot O’Connell of the Sitka Sound Science Center says the barge is great. But it’s just too expensive.
She says Sitka already takes such debris to its transfer station, where it’s loaded into containers that are shipped to Pacific Northwest landfills.
“So for us, that’s been a lot more cost-effective. And it’s also a relationship we want to maintain. So it doesn’t really make sense for us to participate in the barge-disposal effort, since we already have this great set-up going on here,” she says.
Recyclable glass and plastic is removed before the beach trash is shipped off.
O’Connell says Southeast shoreline clean-ups find a wide variety of trash, from fishing line to large appliances to plastic water bottles.
She says it’s difficult to determine where it all came from. But some was clearly washed out to sea by the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
“A lot of the big aquaculture floats, we didn’t really see those in the same numbers and now there’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. A lot of foam and things like that are likely from Japanese buildings. We find quite a few kerosene jugs that were used for home heating and things like that that are pretty definitely tsunami debris,” she says.
O’Connell says Port Alexander, on southern Baranof Island, also brings marine debris to Sitka’s transfer station. Craig, on southern Southeast’s Prince of Wales Island, uses the local landfill.
Alaska State Troopers say a Trapper Creek man died after his plane struck a tree while flying over his daughter’s wedding reception.
KTUU-TV reports that 54-year-old Michael Zagula died Sunday after the landing gear from his Cessna U206G struck a tree and caused the aircraft to crash.
Trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen says the crash occurred in Trapper Creek.
National Transportation Safety Board chief Alaska investigator Clint Johnson says an investigator is scheduled to visit the crash site Monday.
Zagula’s body will be sent to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
In a ruling issued Friday, Alaska’s Supreme Court upheld the overturning of the ‘Save Our Salmon’ Initiative.
Save Our Salmon was adopted by a narrow vote in the Lake and Peninsula Borough in 2011. It established a borough-level permitting process to develop a mine like Pebble. Its sponsors believed it would not only add a layer of protection against Pebble, but perhaps preempt the mine developers investing further in the project since that permit would be all but impossible to obtain.
Save our Salmon was challenged in court by Pebble and the State of Alaska in separate lawsuits which were later joined. In March 2014, Superior Court Judge John Suddock ruled in their favor, striking down the initiative, saying it superseded the state’s natural resources permitting authority under the constitution.
The ballot sponsors, George Jacko and Jackie Hobson, who were backed financially by Bob Gilliam, appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. On Friday, the court issued a 20 page opinion siding with Suddock that Save Our Salmon was not lawful and leaving it overturned.
A key ship in Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling fleet left Alaska on Sunday.
The icebreaker is headed south to Oregon for repairs after a three-foot gash was discovered in its hull.
The icebreaker, called the Fennica, hit an uncharted rock as it was leaving Dutch Harbor for the Chukchi Sea.
It had to return to port for temporary repairs. That was two weeks ago.
Now, the Fennica is making a week-long journey to Portland, Oregon, for a more permanent fix.
Shell wouldn’t say how long those repairs could take.
The company can only drill during the brief Arctic summer, and it cannot drill for oil without an oilwell-capping device that’s on board the Fennica.
Two Shell oil rigs are already on their way to the drill site in the Chukchi Sea.
U.S. officials have not said whether the missing icebreaker will influence their decision on two final permits that Shell needs to begin drilling.
The Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area is just east of Sterling where the Card Street Fire first ignited. The area spans about 45,000 acres but only accounts for a little over 2 percent of the massive Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Despite the Skilak’s size, Refuge Manager Andy Loranger says it was still an inconvenience to the Refuge’s visitors when the fire forced the recreation area to close.
“It means that folks are not able to hike their favorite trail or maybe camp in their favorite campground. This is a very popular time for use of refuge boat ramps to access the Skilak Lake and the Kenai River,” says Loranger.
The recreation area was shut down on June 17th. Once the fire was sufficiently contained the Skilak and its amenities reopened. It was closed for a total of 16 days. Loranger doubts this year’s closure or the danger posed by the Funny River Fire will have lasting impacts on the Refuge’s reputation.
“I don’t think so. I think short term there were folks that were disappointed and certainly inconvenienced. Even as large and longer term as the Funny River Fire was last year much of it was in the Refuge backcountry,” says Loranger.
Although the Card Street Fire and most other fires on the peninsula are started by people, Loranger says fire is still part of life in Alaska and he thinks people recognize that.
“Natural fires have occurred here historically and they’re a part of what we call the Natural Disturbance Regime. There’s a regeneration of the forest that occurs and animal populations respond to those changes,” says Loranger.
In the coming years biologists will study the effects both the Funny River Fire and the Card Street Fire have had on habitat within the Refuge. The Refuge already has monitoring programs used to collect data on vegetation. They will use satellite imaging and aerial photography combined with in person observations to get started. There are also programs in place to study wildlife populations.
“The Alaska Department of Fish and Game very actively monitors many of the big game species on the Kenai Peninsula as an example. That kind of work will continue,” says Loranger.
Loranger expects to see differences between impacts from the Card Street and Funny River Fires. The Funny River Fire started about a month earlier than the Card Street.
“Things were greener. The duff layer, which is the organic layer right at the ground level, the duff moistures were probably higher. The duff was actually less dry during the Funny River Fire so we did not have a lot of combustion of the duff layer as opposed to this fire,” says Loranger.
Loranger says the differing moisture levels mean it’s likely more of the duff layer was consumed in the Card Street. So we can probably expect to see a very different vegetative response to each fire. In the years after wildfire, biologists are generally curious which plant species will grow back first and how they will change the ecology of the area.
“As an example, a species like moose is going to respond very favorably to hardwood regeneration and willow regeneration that would occur following fire,” says Loranger.
Loranger also asks questions about what a warming climate means for the landscape’s revegetation… and will the fire give invasive species a leg up in the area?
And will the fire give invasive plant species an opportunity to thrive?
“There could be many other relatively important questions to answer,” says Loranger.
It will take many years to answer them. In the meantime visitors are welcome to enjoy all areas of the Refuge. But, Loranger says everyone should be cautious travelling through burned areas. He’s most concerned about people falling into ash pits.
“They’ll show up as a sort of white ash at the ground’s surface. Those are areas that might actually still pose a hazard in terms of heat as well as, you could actually sink down into an area that is still burning,” says Loranger.
The Card Street Fire came to life about a month ago on June 15th. It is still burning although it is now mostly contained. According to the Division of Forestry it now rests at 8,876 acres.