The Department of Interior has concluded its expedited review of Shell’s failed 2012 Arctic drilling campaign.
Before resuming activity in the Arctic Ocean, the company must undergo a third party review of its entire operation.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar put it bluntly.
“Shell screwed up in 2012,” he said.
And now the company must follow new orders from the government before it can operate again in the Arctic Ocean.
Shell must produce an “integrated plan” for future work. The company will have to detail each facet of Arctic drilling – from marine transport, to emergency response, to demobilization.
The company also must allow an outside firm to review its Arctic practices.
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management director Tommy Beaudreau says the review will need to illustrate whether Shell is capable of overseeing the contractors it uses. He says the company continually failed to do so this year.
Shell contracted Superior Energy, a company with a long history in the Gulf of Mexico, to design its underwater containment system.
“Ultimately, Shell, working with Superior, was not able to bring that system online. They were not able to obtain Coast Guard certification for the vessel. The deployment test of the system itself failed,” Beaudreau said.
That’s why the Interior Department only allowed Shell to drill pilot wells last summer.
Beaudreau went on, saying Shell relied on contractors for emissions controls that could not meet government muster. That led to violations of EPA air permits.
And most recently, the company relied on contractors to tow the Kulluk, a rig that grounded New Year’s Eve.
“Taken altogether, this points to the need for strong operator oversight of the contractors they’re working with,” Beaudreau said. “Now these issues, based on our recommendations, are issues that are going to have to be specifically addressed, and we need to be told how they’re being addressed.”
Before the company can resume any drilling – regardless of the depth, Beaudreau says, it must prove the containment dome can operate correctly.
Secretary Salazar says the government reacted appropriately to Shell’s stumbles – that the various agencies in the Department of Interior successfully managed the setbacks.
“We were very much keeping coordinated,” Salazar said. “I was being informed daily on the activities relating to the US Coast Guard and on issues relating to oversight of the Arctic Challenger.”
Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith says the company does not know which firm will conduct the review. Nor did he have an idea how long the review will take.
The company still says Arctic drilling is possible next summer.
“2014 is a possibility, but our future plans offshore Alaska will depend on a number of factors, including the readiness of our rigs and our internal confidence that lessons learned from our 2012 drilling program have been fully incorporated,” Smith said.
Shell sent its rigs to Asia for repair, and last month announced its suspending its drilling program this coming summer.
Conservation groups are disappointed. Michael LeVine is senior council with Oceana. He says Shell should be held accountable, but that’s only the first step.
“It is also necessary for the department of Interior to look inward and fundamentally reassess how and why it allowed an unprepared company to allow in unforgiving, harsh waters in Alaska,” LeVine said.
The Coast Guard is conducting its own review of the company. There is no time frame when that will be released.
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Competition in this year’s Iditarod was nothing less than fierce, and the racing didn’t quite until the finish line. The race for first and second place was close in this year’s Iditarod, but there were three other races among top twenty finishers that were even closer.
In the wee hours of the morning, Rookie of the Year Joar Lleifseth Ulsom narrowly beat out Jake Berkowitz for seventh place. The Norwegian’s lead dog Sivo crossed under the burled arch just as Jake Berkowitz’s leaders caught up with Lleifseth Ulsom’s sled.
When it was all over, Berkowitz said he’d had a lot of fun.
“We were running together he passed me maybe a mile out. Basically our one goal, we saw those lights coming from behind and clocked him at 10 minutes behind us. We just had to do whatever to get over cape Nome and get away from those guys, so we had a real good time out there,” Berkowitz said.
Jake Berkowitz finished with 15 dogs. It’s the largest team to cross the line so far. But it just wasn’t enough to catch the Norwegian.
“He took off and I need to learn some Norwegian commands or something because he took off like a bandit,” Berkowitz said.
Lleifseth Ulsom was all smiles when he finished. He hadn’t expected to place in the top-10, let alone claim Rookie of The Year.
“It’s much better than I thought I could do, I’ve been very happy with the dogs, they’ve been amazing,” Lleifseth Ulsom said.
He gives most of the credit to his dogs. The 26-year-old’s team has a large following back Norway.
“I don’t know. I bet my mom is proud, huh?,” Lleifseth Ulsom said.
By the time the sun came up, another close race was playing out on Front Street. Veterans Paul Gebhardt and Cim Smyth battled for 15th place as their teams neared the finish line. When Smyth saw Gebhardt five miles out, he knew the time had come.
“There was a little bitty dot and I thought that might be a dog team. I watched it for a while and it was moving like a dog team not a rock,” Smyth said.
A mile and a half before the finish line, Smyth caught Gebhardt.
“We were really cooking at that point, just smoking a long, but neither one of my leaders had ever been here before. There were some people cheering up on the road, and one of my leaders though that’s gotta be the finish line,” Smyth said.
Smyth had to stop his team and switch out his rookie leaders for a 10-year old veteran. But while he was reorganizing his dogs, Gebhardt reclaimed the lead. Once he stripped off his heavy coat, to run with his dogs, Smyth, a 12-time Iditarod finisher, was able to pass one last time.
“I don’t know that there’s been a single race where I haven’t picked up a place or two between White Mountain and here,” Smyth said.
Smyth and his brother Ramey are known for their fast run times into Nome.
“We’re late everywhere else. It’s a last minute thing. Just a last minute kind of guy,” Smyth said. “It’s cause the dogs are ready to go, you know they’ve been nurtured and cared for the whole way and they’re finally primed to run.”
That’s Ramey Smyth, Cim’s brother. He posted the fastest time in the top 20 on the last run from Saftey. A nearly identical race scenario played out for him, but this time, the competition was four-time champion Lance Mackey, who pulled in under the burled arch, panting, sweating and generally flabbergasted.
Like his brother Ramey Smyth’s shy team balked on the city street, so Mackey ran down to help his competition across the line. When it was official, the two shook hands.
Mackey says he was “dilly-dallying” on the trail until he saw Smyth’s team barreling down upon his.
“I seen a little dot coming down the hill, it looked like a snow machine it was coming that fast. So whatever reserve they had I asked them for it. He caught me right here in no man’s land. He had me hands down, came on to the avenue, shot across the road and that was my one opportunity to get it back. I’ve never been passed in the last little bit and that was kind of a weird feeling,” Mackey said.
In hindsight, Smyth says he should have done things a little differently.
“I should have waited to pass him on the street to catch him and not pushed quite so hard to catch him before the street and just take it down the wire and wait to see if it happened,“ Smyth said.
Smyth had a tough race. He was forced to drop a dog from his team early on and he drove for nearly 500 miles on a sled with a broken runner.
Ramey Smyth has now finished 20 Iditarods. He says someday he’ll return to the race, but he needs to recover mentally and financially from this year’s run to Nome.
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It may seem odd that an Alaskan author would write an entire book on the concept of heat, but all things hot is the focus of Bill Streever’s newest offering. Streever is the author of the best seller Cold and in his new book, he explores everything from tasting crude oil to walking on fire, an experience he described as enjoyable.
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Arctic shipping could be possible for unescorted, open-water vessels by mid-century.
“This research quantifies for the first time the speculations that have been buzzing around for a number of years now,” says Laurence Smith, a geographer with the University of California, Los Angeles.
Smith and a fellow geographer modeled Arctic shipping routes using climate change models, and navigation rules. The results show that by 2040, light icebreakers will be able to go pretty much anywhere in the Arctic Ocean during the late-summer melt season, including straight over the North Pole.
“And open-water vessels are able to, definitely able to, cross through the Northern Sea Route over Russia, and increasingly through the Northwest Passage as well,” Smith says.
Right now, there’s almost no commercial shipping through the Northwest Passage, and vessels transiting the Northern Sea Route need an icebreaker escort. But both routes cut thousands of miles off the standard journeys through the Suez or Panama canals, and the ability to travel unescorted could make them increasingly attractive to shippers. Smith says that should concern policymakers in the region.
“The Arctic is a very remote place, a very dangerous place, always will be. The ice will always come back in winter, it’s dark, the charts are poor, and ordinary open-water ships make up the vast majority of ships on Earth.”
And the day when open-water vessels can make the journey may be coming even sooner than Smith’s models predict. The climate change models he used assume incremental change between now and 2040, but Smith says real-world satellite observations tell a different story.
“The rate of sea ice decline in the Arctic is actually shrinking even faster than even our most aggressive models, so the outcomes of this study should be considered conservative.”
With shippers eager to know when the routes will become commercially viable, Smith says his next project is to expand the study from just September to all twelve months of the year.
You can read the full paper here.
As part of Women’s history month, Alaska Public Media will be bringing you the voices of Alaska women who have made a difference in their communities and the state. Fifteen women were recently inducted into the Alaska women’s hall of fame at a ceremony in Anchorage. Former Lt. Governor Fran Ulmer was inducted herself in 2009. She was on hand to introduce one of this year’s inductees — the late Architect Daphne Brown. Brown’s husband, Jonathan, and daughter, Catherine, accepted Daphne’s award.
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The latest rewrite of a bill cutting taxes on oil companies is expected to bring down state revenue by more than $1 billion next year. That’s more than any version that’s been introduced so far.
The Senate Finance committee offered their adjustments to Gov. Sean Parnell’s oil tax bill on Tuesday, and the Department of Revenue weighed in on how it would affect the state’s treasury Wednesday morning.
Under current production forecasts, the new plan would cut taxes on oil companies by up to $1.3 billion dollars next year. The analysis goes out six years, and during that time, the total tax break would fall somewhere between $7 and $10 billion. For comparison, the governor’s bill is projected to cut taxes by $5 billion over that same period.
Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat who serves on the Finance committee, calls those numbers “truly staggering.”
“Too move this much cash across the table is going to have, in my view, detrimental effects to the state’s operating budget,” says Hoffman.
Representatives from the Department of Revenue say their analysis is preliminary and does not consider how the bill would change levels of oil production. Roger Marks, a tax consultant on contract with the legislature, projects that the finance committee bill would have a neutral effect on revenue if production increased by 70,000 barrels of oil per day over the forecast. If production were to exceed that amount, the bill would have a positive effect on revenue.
Right now, the state levies a variety of taxes on oil, including a profits tax that goes up with the price per barrel of oil. All versions of the oil tax bill that have been considered scrap that element of progressivity. The governor’s original proposal would just have oil taxed at a flat rate of 25 percent, while the finance rewrite ups the base tax by 30 percent with a $5 per barrel credit offset.
Joe Balash is a deputy commissioner with the Department of Natural Resources, and he says that the administration will be working with the finance committee to tighten the revenue projections.
“We’re anxious about that, but the Senate appears to be trying to find its own happy balance,” says Balash.
Balash adds that he’s happy to see that the Senate hasn’t reintroduced any sort of progressive mechanism to the bill.
The Senate finance committee will continue to review the bill this week.
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Congress enacted the Magnuson Stevens Act more than 30 years ago and last amended it in 2006. The bill put an end to foreign fishermen legally harvesting seafood in American waters and stabilized many fisheries by enforcing catch limits.
No member of the House Natural Resources Committee present this morning indicated they’d let the program expire. And everyone who testified said it should be continued, though with some changes.
Commercial fishermen and industry representatives complained about the requirement to have human observers on vessels … recording the size of the catch and by-catch.
“If they were allowed to use less high tech methods, and cheaper methods, they would be allowed to survive,” said Bob Dooley.
Dooley’s company, United Catcher Boats, fishes the west coast and throughout Alaska. He told the committee a captain is responsible for covering the cost of an observer, and it’s prohibitively expensive.
“It’s north of $900 a day, approaching $1,000, for the government to provide an observer,” he said.
That number could neither be verified nor applied to the various fisheries in the state. It took many by surprise, including NOAA’s Sam Rauch.
After the hearing, he said NOAA is concerned about the cost of observers, and is interested in pursuing cameras in their place.
“A technological issue: What can the cameras tell you now? They’re very good at showing discard events. Did somebody throw something overboard? They’re not yet to the point where they could identify individual fish,” he said.
On top of that, NOAA would have to adapt regulatory requirements to include the cameras.
Representative Don Young, an original author of the Magnuson Stevens Act, said the observer program wasn’t included in the original authorization.
“It was put in there for NOAA to make decisions on the quota,” he said. “And I’m saying let’s go beyond the muleskinner and get into the computer age.”
Young said he’s considering writing a provision into the reauthorization that would allow commercial fisherman to use newer technologies to monitor the catch.
“An observer is probably the worst thing that can happen to the sustainable yield rationalization,” he joked. “An observer is human. He can be corrupted. He can be put into the trawl net, to solve some problems. He could be a drunk.”
The act will expire September 30th, leaving Congress plenty of time to debate the measure.
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Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell announced yesterday a $200,000 multi-year study of Arctic marine shipping. He told a meeting of the Arctic Parliamentarians in Washington, D.C. the project will be conducted by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The state Department of Commerce will pay for the research.
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Seventeen Iditarod teams have crossed under Nome’s burled arch so far, with more closing in quickly. This year’s was one of the most competitive and closest races in Iditarod history.
A crowd in Nome cheered as 53-year-old Mitch Seavey drove his 10-dog team into Nome under the burled arch to become the Iditarod’s oldest champion. Seavey made a tough final push to Nome from White Mountain with Aliy Zirkle chasing close behind.
“I hate to do that to Aliy, but you know there’s only room for one winner this year, so it had to be me,” Seavey said.
This is Seavey’s 18th finish and second win. He says he was pleased with how he ran his dogs in the first half of the race.
“The main key about the whole Iditarod is the run rest ratio, run enough to be in position and rest enough to keep your speed. I think I did a pretty good job of that in the early part of the race,” he said.
But Seavey fretted over the amount of rest is team had as they got closer and closer to Nome.
“I tried to make a couple of big jumps and it took away my speed and so then you get into the wrong kind of a cycle, where you can’t rest enough to get your speed back without losing out on a top position so you get stuck back in the crawling mode and having turtle races out there,” Seavey said.
The top-10 teams spent most of the 936 mile race leap frogging each other. Second place finisher Aliy Zirkle pulled into Nome less than an hour behind Seavey, as the crowd chanted her name.
Zirkle worked her way up to second in the last few runs, but was unable to finally catch the team in front. This is the second time in as many years that Zirkle has finished in second place. It’s also her second loss to a Seavey. Last year she trailed Mitch Seavey’s son Dallas coming into Nome. The Two Rivers musher took a deep breath as she checked her gear and gave her final signature to race officials.
“Yeah, I was glad to be done for sure,” Zirkle said.
Zirkle had a frustrating run into Nome. At times both she and Mitch Seavey could see each other. But Zirkle’s leader, Quito, who ran the entire race up front, just wasn’t feeling up to the chase.
“She had a belly ache. She did and I did and she wouldn’t lope at all today.” 00:08
An hour and a half after Zirkle’s team had left the finish chute, a delighted Jeff King pulled his team across the finish line. The four-time champion and 23-time finisher, from Healy, went up the line greeting each of his dogs on the way.
When he got to his leader, Skeeter, he laid down, lifted the dog on his chest and took a deep breath. King says he’s very proud of his team.
“This team is here in spite of me. I made a couple of really big mistakes. You never really know until you have things play out a bit. In retrospect, I did a couple things I really wish I hadn’t but I can’t complain. An awesome finish with an awesome team and great competitors,” King said.
King made a big move out of Koyuk to take the lead late in the race, but a soft trail and the hot sun worked against him.
“It takes a lot of confidence. The dogs need to know you’re on their side and you’re in this together. It was getting so difficult to travel after such a long run after Unalakleet, basically, such a long run that we just stopped until they had the energy to do it again,” King said.
King will take home a portion of this year’s $600,000 purse, which is split among the top-30 finishers. More than $50,000 of it goes to winner Mitch Seavey. Seavey also wins a brand new Dodge Ram pickup truck.
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The Tanana Chiefs Conference annual convention is happening in Fairbanks this week. Tuesday, delegates heard from four Interior men, the organization believes were wrongly convicted of murder. The men known as “The Fairbanks 4”: George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent are serving long prison sentences for the 1997 beating death of teenager John Hartman in downtown Fairbanks. It’s a case that’s long drawn questions.
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On Wednesday, March 6, Tom Marsik and Kristin Donaldson of Dillingham had their home on Gauthier Way tested for air tightness. A conventional blower door test was used, which is common practice for energy audits. But Wednesday’s was no ordinary test; it was actually an attempt to secure an official world record for “Tightest Residential Building.”
On Monday, March 11, Tom and Kristin were notified by email that their results had been certified by the World Record Academy, and that they indeed are now recognized as having the most air-tight house known to exist in the world.
“We are certainly excited about this,” said Marsik. “The purpose of this world record attempt was to help bring attention to energy efficiency, and hopefully motivate others to be energy efficient. With this official world record recognition, I think it really helps emphasize our message of what’s possible.”
The Marsik home tested at 0.05 ACH (air changes per hour) at 50 pascals of pressure. That’s an extraordinarily low number; some experts point to buildings in the 1-2 ACH range as being exceptionally efficient.
Tom and Kristin began building their super-efficient home in 2010, modeled after a “Passive Office” designed at the UAF Bristol Bay campus. A “passive” building relies on heat from passive solar gain, body heat, and “waste” heat from lighting and electrical appliances to maintain a comfortable inside temperature. Key to the Marsik place’s efficiency are both the 28″ thick, fully-insulated walls, and the extremely air-tight seal.
The 600 sq. ft. house and all its amenities run entirely on electricity. In 2012, Tom says it took just 3700 kWh to power the place. To keep the place warm, he calculates the house needs an electrical equivalent of just 35 gallons of heating oil per year.
Tom and Kristin say they’ll be alright if someone beats their world record in the future; actually, they’d be happy to see people try. Building the house and advertising the success has never been about personal recognition so much as they hope to spread the word about energy efficient designs and the new technologies that make them possible. Marsik, who teaches in the Sustainable Energy program at UAF’s Bristol Bay campus, is always looking for opportunties to share what he’s learned with anyone who’s interested.
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Alaskans and conservationists worldwide are mourning the passing of Ginny Wood, who died Friday at age 95. A memorial service will be held early next month for the Alaskan pioneer, aviator, world traveler and environmentalist.
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The Anchorage Assembly has passed an ordinance allowing Anchorage bars to stay open an hour later. But they won’t be able to serve alcohol that extra hour. The ordinance is aimed at reducing problems downtown at closing time.
Assembly Member Patrick Flynn first proposed an ordinance to address the problems associated with patrons crowding onto the street at closing time, back in December. He was pushing for downtown bars to stop serving alcohol an hour earlier – at 2 a.m., rather than 3, in hopes it would allow people to filter out rather than flood into the streets. Some bar owners didn’t like that idea, saying it was punitive, because it just applied to downtown bars. So Assembly members Dick Traini and Adam Trombly proposed a new version, which was approved.
“What was approved was a little bit different in that it didn’t change the hours of service and it maintained the hours of consumption, but it did allow bars to stay open for one extra hour, if they opt in and it’s city wide not just downtown specific. But it does retain the restriction that all consumption has to be concluded by 3 o’clock and it’s only on Fridays and Saturdays,” Flynn explained.
Sylvia Villamides, is the Director of Anchorage CHARR, the Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association. She testified before the Assembly about the ordinance. She says allowing bars to stay open for the extra hour will make Anchorage safer.
“This safety hour is for our patrons to have a place safe to wait for a ride home or a taxi cab. You won’t have the influx of people leaving all at one time,” Villamides said.
The ordinance is city-wide. It was adopted on a trial basis and sunsets in 1 year. Bars will have to apply for a permit to stay open the extra hour. It will cost $100.
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A bill that would allow the state to drug test recipients of cash assistance programs got its first hearing on Tuesday.
The measure would require a person seeking public assistance to sign a sworn statement that nobody in their household uses illegal drugs or abuses alcohol. If a recipient is suspected of lying, the state can test the person as part of their investigation. The bill also specifies that only American citizens and legal aliens can collect cash assistance. Nearly 200,000 Alaskans receive some sort of assistance from the state.
Rep. Wes Keller, a Mat-Su Valley Republican, sponsored the bill, and he says the point is to encourage personal responsibility. But members of the Health and Social Services committee had concerns about the scope of the bill and its constitutionality.
Rep. Benjamin Nageak, a Democrat from Barrow who caucuses with the majority, was especially critical of how the bill might affect rural Alaska, where there are high level of alcoholism and poverty.
“This bill won’t stop the disease of alcohol,” says Nageak. “It’s just going to punish those people who, through no fault of their own, need assistance from one point or another.”
Rep. Lora Reinbold, a Republican from Eagle River, offered support for the measure.
“It’s simply identifying people who are abusing drugs and alcohol,” says Reinbold. “Is it a wise thing to be giving cash to people who are abusing alcohol and drugs? Is that wise? We need to ask ourselves as a state: is that the maximum return on our investment for our public resource dollars?”
So far, there hasn’t been an analysis of whether the bill would cost the state money or increase savings. The bill does not specify whether the state or the beneficiaries would be responsible for paying for investigations.
Seven other states have already passed legislation that would allow for drug testing of welfare recipients. In Florida and Georgia, similar laws struck down were struck down by a federal appeals court on grounds that they violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
Mitch Seavey has won the 2013 Iditarod, crossing the finish line at 10:39 p.m. Tuesday.
After racing neck and neck with Aliy Zirkle through the last few checkpoints, he widened the gap after both mushers left White Mountain about 15 minutes apart, not taking a minute over their mandatory 8-hour layover.
Zirkle claimed the runner-up spot for the second year in a row.
Jeff King is currently in third.
At today’s prices, Alaska’s oil tax system can be compared to those of Norway, Russia, and Venezuela in terms of how much money it puts in state coffers. A plan introduced by the Senate finance committee today would change that. It’s a new version of a bill Gov. Sean Parnell introduced earlier this session to bring down taxes on oil companies with the intent of curbing a decline in production.
Under the Senate finance committee’s substitute, companies would pay lower taxes on oil from the North Slope than they do on shale from the Eagle Ford formation in Texas, the Haynesville formation in Louisiana, or the Bakken formation in North Dakota. PFC Energy, a consulting firm, presented charts showing as much before the finance committee on Tuesday afternoon. Their analysis prompted a question from Co-Chair Kevin Meyer, a Republican from Anchorage.
“You’ve proven the point anyway that we’re competitive,” said Meyer of the new legislation before the committee. “Now, the next concern will be what’s it going to cost us to get there?”
Over the next few days, the finance committee will be working to figure just that out.
Their new bill in some ways is a mix of Gov. Sean Parnell’s initial bill to cut oil taxes and a rewrite done by the Senate’s resource committee in February. The finance version would bump the base tax rate on oil production from 25 percent up to 30 percent, instead of all the way to 35 percent like the resources committee wanted. But like the resources bill, it gives oil companies a $5 credit for every barrel they produce. And like both earlier versions of the oil tax plan, it scraps a mechanism known as progressivity, which increases taxes as the price per barrel goes up.
The new version of the bill also gets rid of a change to increase a tax break on oil from new fields. It keeps what’s called the “gross revenue exclusion” at 20 percent, like the governor initially proposed. But their bill does make it so the credit can be applied to new oil from fields that are already developed.
Meyer says that’s to encourage new production no matter where it happens.
“If it’s new oil that’s not currently being produced, then yes, it doesn’t matter to us if it’s coming from a legacy field or from outside the legacy field.”
That specific change prompted criticism from some Democrats. Sen. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage has been stumping on the issue of oil taxes, and he thinks that tax break doesn’t need to be applied to legacy fields.
“In new fields, it’s a good thing. In new participating areas, it’s a good thing. You don’t need it in the legacy fields,” says Wielechowski. “The legacy fields are where 90 percent of our oil projections for the next decade are coming from. The Senate finance version gives them a massive tax break for oil they’re already planning to produce.”
Wielechowski also says any version of oil tax reform that passes the legislature should keep the progressivity mechanism intact, and he has concerns that the bill hasn’t been properly vetted.
The next step for the finance committee is getting an analysis from the Department of Revenue on what their bill does to the state’s treasury at forecasted levels of oil production. This week, they’ll also be taking testimony on the bill from the public and industry players. Meyer says that because he hasn’t seen hard projections on just how their bill will affect production, testimony from oil companies will be especially important to him.
“Obviously, if we’re not going to have increased production then we’re kind of wasting our time here,” said Meyer before the finance committee. “But I know that’s a hard forecast for you guys to make, and that’s why I’d like to hear from industry.”
The governor’s office is still reviewing the finance committee’s version of the oil tax bill and does not have a comment on their proposal yet.
Finance is the third and final committee to hear the bill. Meyer says that a final version could be on the Senate floor as early as next week. After that, it will be sent to the House.
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Mitch Seavey left the Iditarod checkpoint of White Mountain at 1:11 this afternoon. Aliy Zirkle followed 13 minutes later. According to GPS, she is currently running about one mile behind Seavey. Seavey is a former Iditarod champion. Zirkle’s best finish in the race was second, last year.
By 6:30 tonight, the tightly grouped top ten mushers in the field should all be on the final stretch of trail to Nome. APRN trail reporter Emily Schwing talked to the top mushers as they rested today in White Mountain. She says Seavey says he isn’t going to push his dogs too much on the final run.
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The Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest, stretches 500 miles along the southeast panhandle.
And it’s part of one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries.
“The economy has really transitioned to this replenishable, healthy fishery,” said Jesse Remund.
Remund fishes with his family off the southern tip of Baranof Island. He said the region has moved beyond timber. In fact, he doesn’t know anyone who works in logging anymore.
His family fishes black cod and halibut and Coho salmon.
Remund, in Washington D.C. this week, met with Democratic Congressional staffs to urge them to upgrade the protective status of some 1.9 million acres in the Tongass.
“We would like to see these 77 watersheds protected as a start, it’s just under two million acres, so we’re not trying to cut off any possibility for all development,” he said Tuesday morning.
The advocacy group Trout Unlimited organized the trip. It hopes Congress will officially designate the 77 watersheds, which are scattered throughout the forest, from north of Yakutat to south of Ketchikan, as Land Use Designation Two (LUD-2) Unlike wilderness status, LUD-2 allows some limited development.
Matt Boline runs a fly fishing company in Juneau. He takes tourists of the cruise ships into the forest on float planes. He said people pay to catch fish; they don’t like to fork over money and not catch anything.
He takes them where he knows they’ll get bites, including some of the 77 watersheds he’d like to see upgraded. He said 60 of them never been logged or have no roads.
“The heart of this is that we’re trying to protect something that’s not broken yet, instead of going back and fixing something after we’ve screwed up,” he said at the office of the Alaska Wilderness League.
The timber industry, much of which was effectively idled in the mid 90′s, would love to get into the old growth forest. Owen Graham, director of the Alaska Forest Association, called the increased protection totally unnecessary.
“We don’t have enough access to timber resources to keep more than one sawmill open in a region that has the largest national forest in the country,” he said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Graham said the state and federal governments have enacted sufficient protections for salmon habitat, and 77 new protected watersheds would not increase the health of the fish population.
His main concern: getting people back in logging jobs.
“We’ve gone from about 3,000 to 4,000 people with direct jobs to our industry to somewhere between 400 and 600 people.”
The timber industry has an ally in the U.S. Forest Service, at least on this issue.
Wayne Owen is a director with the Forest Service. He said the Tongass National Forest already has various land use designations designed to protect salmon.
“We have substantial amounts of wilderness in the Tongass National Forest,” he said Tuesday morning. “There are a lot of roadless areas that protect salmon. And frankly, a lot of the northern parts of the Tongass where a number of these watersheds are are not actively managed, there’s not a lot of ground disturbing activities in them. For the most part, we’re doing a very good job.”
Trout Unlimited brought forward a similar plan last Congress only to see it fade. This time around, it said it’s more optimistic it will gain traction.
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It may be months before the Federal Communications Commission rules on GCI’s application to take over two small television stations in Southeast Alaska and one in Anchorage. Commercial broadcasters have lined up to oppose the purchase and request a hearing before the commission, something the FCC is often reluctant to do.
The question hinges on whether the merger is in the public’s interest.
Juneau resident Walter Gregg is old enough to remember when television in Alaska was all tape delayed.
“We didn’t watch the moon landing live, we watched it later and not very high quality,” he recalls.
Gregg lives in downtown Juneau and is a regular viewer of five major network stations over the air, including low power NBC affiliate KATH and CBS station KXLJ, which carries some programming from the Anchorage CBS affiliate, KTVA.
In November, GCI announced that its subsidiary, Denali Media Holdings, would buy KATH and sister station KSCT in Sitka as well as KTVA.
The stations are picked up in parts of their respective communities by television antenna for free. Now Gregg wonders if he’ll eventually have to pay to watch NBC & CBS on GCI cable, as do viewers in much of outlying Juneau where cable and satellite providers are the only way to get TV.
“I had a gut reaction against what they were doing just from the standpoint of oh my gosh, the cable’s going to own the broadcast stations, too,” he says.
Juneau Senator Dennis Egan says he also will weigh in on GCI’s application. He’s been hearing from constituents about it and shares their concerns.
“You know, it worries me that you’re going to have to subscribe to cable to get over the air television,” Egan says.
Until GCI publicly announces details of its expansion, the concerns are speculation. The company has not stated its intention for the stations, except to become “a news and entertainment leader unparalleled in Alaska.” That worries Alaska’s commercial television licensees, who will compete over the air and on cable.
GCI claims it is capable of serving 80 percent of Alaska households with voice, video and broadcand. It already has 70 percent share of the consumer broadband market. The company’s2012 year-end financial statement, just released, indicates revenues of $710.2 million, a 4.5 percent increase over 2011.
“GCI is really a monopoly in cable TV and broadband in this state and very strong in wireless,” says Andrew MacLeod, president and general manager of KTUU in Anchorage, an NBC affiliate.
KTUU and four other licensees of television stations in Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks recently submitted a Petition to Deny to the FCC; Anchorage station KYES has filed a separate petition.
MacLeod says the broadcasters welcome competition, but doubts a distribution company as large as GCI could compete fairly:
“When you mix distribution and content, we want to make sure there’s a level playing field because distributors can squeeze out content providers like us, who provide news and entertainment, via their strength and distribution,” he says.
GCI is leasing space in the Anchorage Daily News building for a news department. The company has hired former KTUU news director John Tracy to help create a news division. Tracy is now co-owner of advertising agency Bradley Reid and Associates.
GCI spokesman David Morris says the company’s entry into the broadcast market will increase competition:
“It’s our goal to create a premiere news and information company,” Morris says. “We plan to roll out high definition and we think that’s what consumers want. And to the extent that stimulates other broadcasters to become more competitive, we think that’s a good thing.”
The broadcasters’ Petition to Deny compares GCI’s application to Comcast’s 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal. Comcast was already one of the nation’s largest communications companies, and the FCC required a number of conditions limiting competition between cable and broadcast television.
KTUU’s MacLeod calls the conditions “safety guides, so that a strong distribution company like Comcast couldn’t operate a content company and disadvantage all the other content companies.”
Angela Campbell is a communications attorney and professor at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C. Over the years, she has filed numerous challenges to applications before the Federal Communications Commission.
Campbell believes the Comcast / NBC case does provide precedent, but in all cases before the FCC,“the question really is, is this in the public interest?” That is, would it benefit the markets served by the TV stations?
While broadcasters argue GCI’s television station takeover would put too much power in the hands of one company, GCI’s qualification to assume the licenses is not being challenged. And the FCC has thrown out a rule that once prohibited ownership of a cable and television station in the same market.
“This is a much harder case for the challengers to win, because they (commissioners) don’t have a specific rule to help them,” she says.
Campbell says concern the stations would no longer operate over the air but only on cable might be real, considering the FCC’s push to free up space on the broadcast airwaves.
“They’re basically trying to get television broadcasters to be willing to give up their spectrum in exchange for money and give their spectrum back to the FCC, then the FCC is going to auction that to wireless,” she says.
However, the value of spectrum in the tiny television market of Juneau would probably be low.
Campbell says the current FCC looks more favorably on the cable industry than have past commissions and is very interested in expanding broadband, which GCI has been steadily doing throughout the state.
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The junior national cross country ski championships are happening in Fairbanks this week. Several Alaska skiers posted top performances yesterday.
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