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BP, ConocoPhillips endorse LNG project as best for North Slope gas

BP and ConocoPhillips now believe a major liquefied natural gas project is the best option for marketing North Slope gas, the chief executive officers of the two companies said following meetings with Gov. Sean Parnell Thursday morning. Robert Dudley of BP, James Mulva of ConocoPhillips and Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil met with Parnell and then, along with the governor, briefed state legislators on the talks in a separate meeting. Parnell met with the CEOs to discuss how to align the major Slope producers on a major gas project. ExxonMobil Corp., another major producer, participated in the meetings but did not comment afterward while the leaders of BP and ConocoPhillips said their companies now believe LNG is the best way of marketing gas from the Slope. “Given the outlook with shale gas in the Lower 48, it looks like LNG has the best potential. We’re not saying the pipeline (to Canada) is impossible,” but a pipeline to southern Alaska to an LNG plant appears to have the best prospects, BP CEO Dudley told reporters following the meetings with Parnell and legislators. ConocoPhillips’ Mulva agreed with Dudley. “We believe LNG is the best alternative for North Slope gas, far better than any alternatives,” Mulva said. Parnell said the three companies have agreed to work with the state on a review of all alternatives including an LNG export project as an alternative to an all-land pipeline from the North Slope to Alberta. TransCanada and ExxonMobil are now pursuing a land pipeline with state support under the Alaska Gas Inducement Act, or AGIA, but Parnell said an LNG project could be done under the framework of the existing agreement with TransCanada. AGIA includes a provision that an LNG project can be done as an alternative. The AGIA contract provides for the state to provide up to $500 million in grants to support engineering and environmental work in return for TransCanada and ExxonMobil meeting certain state requirements on schedules and tariff structure. AGIA requires TransCanada to file an application for a land pipeline with the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this October. TransCanada vice president Tony Palmer, who attended the noon meeting with legislators but did not participate in the meetings of the CEOs with Parnell, said he supports the new initiative and that the meeting of the three CEOs with Parnell was hugely important. An LNG alternative would involve a large-diameter, 800-mile pipeline to an LNG plant at a south Alaska port, either at Valdez or near Kenai, on Cook Inlet. ConocoPhillips operates a small LNG plant near Kenai that exports Cook Inlet gas to Asia. Valdez has also been considered in the past as a possible LNG plant site because of the deep water harbor, and proximity to infrastructure along the existing Trans Alaska Pipeline System and the Valdez Marine Terminal, which ships crude oil. Cook Inlet is navigable for smaller LNG tankers now used by ConocoPhillips but may have limitations that would impede an expansion of the present LNG plant. Parnell has been urging the producers to shift their support from an all-land pipeline from Alaska to Alberta to an LNG project to export Alaska gas to Asia. The glut of shale gas in Lower 48 gas markets and continued strong markets for LNG in Asia now make an LNG project more viable than a land pipeline, Parnell has said. There has been substantial previous work on a large Alaska LNG project as well as previous efforts on an all-land pipeline. In the 1990s BP, ARCO Alaska (now ConocoPhillips), Foothills Pipeline (now TransCanada) along with Marubeni, a major Japanese company, did conceptual feasibility studies of a pipeline to Valdez parallel to TAPS and an LNG plant built adjacent to the Valdez Marine Terminal. The project did not move forward because the companies felt the Asia LNG market would not be able to absorb sufficient volumes of Alaska LNG to make the project viable. A separate initiative was led by Yukon Pacific Corp., or YPC, a subsidiary of CSX, a major U.S. transportation company. YPC obtained conditional rights-of-way for the pipeline and a lease for the LNG plant along with a federal LNG export license, but the company was never able to get support from the North Slope producers. The producers’ and TransCanada’s current work on a land pipeline began in 2001. It followed a failed attempt by an earlier consortium of U.S. utilities and North Slope producers to build a pipeline in the early 1980s. Changes in U.S. gas markets and deregulation of the gas industry made that project uneconomic.

Oil industry chief warns Obama on Canada pipeline

WASHINGTON (AP) — The oil industry's top lobbyist warned the Obama administration Wednesday to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline or face "huge political consequences" in an election year. Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said it would be a "huge mistake" for President Barack Obama to reject the 1,700-mile, Canada-to-Texas pipeline. Obama faces a Feb. 21 deadline to decide whether the $7 billion pipeline is in the national interest. "Clearly, the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest," Gerard said at the trade association's annual "State of American Energy" event. "A determination to decide anything less than that I believe will have huge political consequences." Gerard said the oil group has teamed up with at least 15 unions to support the pipeline, which would create thousands of jobs. "We will stand shoulder to shoulder" with labor unions that have backed the pipeline, including the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department, Gerard said. "Over the next 60 days, they will not be silent," he said. Gerard repeatedly referred to the Keystone pipeline at his annual speech assessing the energy industry, calling it the business group's top near-term priority. While the pipeline has not been a focus of the GOP race for president, Gerard said the issue has the potential to become a major factor in the general election. "It's already an election issue" in the presidential race and is likely to be a focus of several U.S. Senate races, Gerard said, calling the pipeline the largest "shovel-ready" project in the country. The pipeline, proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada, would carry oil derived from tar sands in western Canada to refineries in Texas, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. TransCanada says the pipeline could create as many as 20,000 jobs over two years, a figure opponents say is inflated. A State Department report last summer said the pipeline would create up to 6,000 jobs during construction. The pipeline proposal has forced the White House to make a politically risky choice between two key Democratic constituencies. Many unions back the project as a job creator in a down economy, while environmental groups fear it could lead to an oil spill disaster. A payroll tax law signed by Obama just before Christmas includes a Republican-sponsored provision that sets a Feb. 21 deadline for Obama to decide on the pipeline. The administration is warning it would rather say no than rush a decision in an election year. Environmental advocates, already disappointed with Obama's failure to achieve climate change legislation and his decision to delay new smog standards, have made it clear that approval of the pipeline would dampen their enthusiasm in his bid for re-election. Some liberal donors even threatened to cut off funds to Obama's re-election campaign to protest the project, which opponents say would transport "dirty oil" that requires huge amounts of energy to extract. If he rejects the pipeline, Obama risks losing support from organized labor, a key part of the Democratic base, for thwarting jobs. Obama appeared to have skirted what some dubbed the "Keystone conundrum" in November when the State Department announced it was postponing a decision on the pipeline until after this year's election. Officials said they needed extra time to study routes that avoid an environmentally sensitive area of Nebraska that supplies water to eight states. The affected area stretches just 65 miles through the Sandhills region of northern Nebraska, but the concerns were serious enough that the state's governor and senators opposed the project until the pipeline was moved. Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who opposed the initial route, says he supports efforts to accelerate the project, noting that provisions in the payroll tax bill allow the project developer to find a new route avoiding the Sandhills. There was no immediate response from the White House.  

Pentagon chief: Smaller military means extra risk

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama vowed Thursday the United States will maintain the best-equipped military in history despite deep and looming defense budget cuts, but Pentagon leaders acknowledged the changes present additional risk. "Our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority," Obama said in a rare appearance in the Pentagon briefing room. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and several top military brass lined up on the stage behind him, underscoring Pentagon support for cuts that Panetta and others said they know will be criticized as too drastic. Obama said the emerging strategy overhaul is designed to contend with hundreds of billions of dollars in budget cuts and refocus the United States' national security priorities after a decade dominated by the post.-Sept. 11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The strategy, devised through a comprehensive review by civilian and military leaders, centered on the military the country needs after the "long wars of the last decade are over," Obama said. Panetta said that smaller military budgets will mean some tradeoffs and that the U.S. will take on "some level of additional but acceptable risk." But Panetta said that at this point in history, in a changing world, the Pentagon would have been forced to make a strategy shift anyway. He says the money crisis merely forced the government's hand. The president announced that the military will be reshaped over time with an emphasis on countering terrorism, maintaining a nuclear deterrent, protecting the U.S. homeland, and "deterring and defeating aggression by any potential adversary." Those are not new military missions, and Obama announced no new capabilities or defense initiatives. He described a U.S. force that will retain much of its recent focus, with the exception of fighting a large-scale, prolonged conflict like the newly ended Iraq mission or the ongoing war in Afghanistan. "As we end today's wars and reshape our armed forces, we will ensure that our military is agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies," the president wrote in a preamble to the new strategy, entitled, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense." The strategy hints at a reduced U.S. military presence in Europe, notwithstanding a continuing close relationship with NATO, and says Asia will be a bigger priority. It also emphasizes improving U.S. capabilities in the areas of cyberwarfare and missile defense. Obama's decision to announce the strategy himself underscores the political dimension of Washington's debate over defense cuts. The administration says smaller Pentagon budgets are a must but will not come at the cost of sapping the strength of a military in transition, even as it gets smaller. In a presidential election year, the strategy gives Obama a rhetorical tool to defend his Pentagon budget-cutting choices. Republican contenders for the White House already have criticized him on a wide range of national security issues, including missile defense, Iran and planned reductions in ground forces. Obama also wants the new strategy to represent a pivotal point in his stewardship of defense policy, which has been burdened throughout his presidency by the wars he inherited and the drag these conflicts have placed on military resources. The new strategy moves the U.S. further from its longstanding goal of being able to successfully fight two major regional wars — like the 1991 Gulf War to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait or a theoretical ground war in Korea — at the same time. The document released Thursday made clear that while some current missions of the military will be curtailed, none will be scrapped entirely. "Wholesale divestment of the capability to conduct any mission would be unwise, based on historical and projected uses of U.S. military forces and our inability to predict the future," the document said. The administration and Congress already are slashing projected defense spending to reflect the closeout of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan. The massive $662 billion defense budget planned for next year is $27 billion less than Obama wanted and $43 billion less than Congress gave the Pentagon this year. The Pentagon announced no specifics on the size of expected troop reductions; the Army and Marine Corps already are set to shrink beginning in 2015. The document said the Pentagon will have to find savings in pay and health care benefits for members of the military, but it offered no specifics. Panetta in recent months had previewed the main themes of the strategy by emphasizing a need to continue pressuring al-Qaida and paying more attention to Asian security challenges, including China and North Korea. Factors guiding the Obama administration's approach to reducing the defense budget are not limited to war-fighting strategy. They also include judgments about how to contain the growing cost of military pay and health and retirement benefits. The administration is expected to form a commission to study the issue of retirement benefits, possibly led by a prominent retired military officer. The administration is in the final stages of deciding specific cuts in the 2013 budget, which Obama will submit to Congress next month. The strategy to be announced by Panetta and Dempsey is meant to accommodate about $489 billion in defense cuts over the coming 10 years, as called for in a budget deal with Congress last summer. An additional $500 billion in cuts may be required starting in January 2013. A prominent theme of the Pentagon's new strategy is what Panetta has called a renewed commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific region. The administration is not anticipating military conflict in Asia, but Panetta believes the U.S. got so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 that it missed chances to improve its strategic position in other regions. China is a particular worry because of its economic dynamism and rapid defense buildup. A more immediate concern is Iran, not only for its threats to disrupt the flow of international oil but also for its nuclear ambitions. ___ Ben Feller and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.  

Nome-bound tanker turns back for minor repairs

There's a new twist in the saga of a Russian fuel tanker trying to reach ice-bound Nome. The Coast Guard says the Renda was just 15 miles out from the Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor when it turned back Wednesday to make minor repairs. Petty Officer Erik Ihle said the tanker was anchored just outside Dutch Harbor Wednesday night and plans called for it to head for Nome once again on Thursday. He didn't know the exact nature of the repairs. The Renda can break through ice. Bering Sea storms prevented a fuel barge from making its final delivery to Nome late last year. Vitus Marine LLC arranged the trip by the Renda on behalf of Bonanza Fuel, a subsidiary of the Sitnasuak Native Corp. KTUU-TV reports the Renda is loaded with more than a million gallons of diesel fuel and 400,000 gallons of gasoline. The voyage to Nome is about 700 nautical miles and the last 300 are expected to be through ice about 2 feet thick. The Coast Guard Cutter Healy will escort the Renda.

Denali National Park changes entry to per person

FAIRBANKS — The National Park Service will soon begin charging per person and not by the vehicle to enter Denali National Park and Preserve — home to the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. The park service has decided to eliminate a $20-per-vehicle entrance fee and instead will charge a flat $10-per-person fare for visitors age 16 and older, according to Friday's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The change takes effect Sunday. The Park Service collected about $2.3 million in entrance fees at Denali in 2010. Eight percent of that money stayed in Denali to be used for pre-approved projects that improve visitor services and facilities, said park spokeswoman Kris Fister. The intent of the change is not to collect more money but to rectify the inequity in how the fees are collected, Fister said. The fee is gathered by many groups, including Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Venture, Princess Tours, air taxi services in Talkeetna, and businesses at Kantishna. One of the findings of a 2009 audit of the park's fee program was that the application of who was charged an individual fee versus a vehicle fee was inconsistent, Fister said. The audit recommended the park use only the per-individual fee because there is no entrance station to collect the vehicle fee at the park. Most entrance fees are collected when visitors make their bus and campsite reservations, Fister said. Otherwise, visitors voluntarily stop at the Denali Visitor Center or Murie Science and Learning Center to pay the fee. Over the years, the money collected in entrance fees has funded new trails, dust abatement on the park road, new restroom facilities and other major projects such as the rehabilitation of the Riley Creek Campground. The remaining 20 percent of money collected in entrance fees is used for similar projects in parks that don't collect an entrance fee or for funding agency-wide efforts such as Youth Corps Programs. The park will continue to honor the Interagency (IA) Federal Recreational Passes such as the Annual, Senior and Access passes, and the Denali Annual Pass. Those passes all provide entry for the cardholder and up to three other adults, and they are all sold year-round at Denali National Park. ___ Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

PFD applicants jump the gun

FAIRBANKS (AP) — Filing for an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check is a happy ritual for most Alaskans, but this year some residents have been a little too eager to get their paperwork in the mail. The Alaska Department of Revenue has received hundreds of applications this week for the 2012 PFD and expects as many as 1,000 could arrive in Juneau by the end of the year. That prompt attention comes with a drawback: Applications aren't valid unless they're signed and delivered after Jan. 1. Dan DeBartolo, the state's dividend operations manager, said a miscommunication led the printer to mail out applications about a week early this year. Although the forms state that they must be submitted after Jan. 1, it didn't stop many residents from returning them immediately. Those applicants won't be eligible for next year's PFD without some follow-up paperwork. DeBartolo said a letter will be sent to early applicants, who must return a signature page to make the form valid. DeBartolo said it's not an uncommon situation, although this year's batch of early applicants is significantly larger than usual. He said senior centers and community centers around the state are mailed application forms each year and that some inevitably put out their stacks early. He said a few hundred early applications arrived last year. In the bigger picture, even the possibility of 1,000 early applications this year isn't a huge problem in an office that will process about 670,000 dividend forms this year. "We'll see a few more this year, but nothing we can't handle," DeBartolo said. DeBartolo said he didn't know how many applications were sent out early this year but that most Alaskans no longer receive dividend applications by mail. The state stopped mailing applications out to every resident a few years ago, and they currently are delivered only to households with residents age 55 and older who filed a paper application the previous year. More than 80 percent of dividend applications are filed online, DeBartolo said. ___ Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

Sheffield stepping down from Port of Anchorage Jan. 15

Port of Anchorage Director Bill Sheffield is retiring Jan. 15. His office confirmed the retirement Thursday morning. "My service over the last decade at the Port of Anchorage, Alaska's Port, represents some of the best years of my life. It has been an honor to continue my commitment to the Municipality, the State and to Alaskans. Serving Alaskans in multiple capacities over the past 30 years has been one of the highest honors of my life," he wrote in a letter to Mayor Dan Sullivan. The former governor has served as port director since 2001. His recent work on a massive expansion project has encountered mounting criticism as its projected cost ballooned to $1 billion following several delays and construction snafus. Sheffield suggested a more scaled-down version last May that would require another $400 million in funding and cost a total of about $665 million. Sheffield said he is retiring to spend more time with friends while investing in philanthropies and nonprofits while supporting federal efforts to ensure port funds. “I am confident that I leave the port a more profitable, vibrant, and thriving facility. It is the lifeline for nearly all of Alaska. It is our lifeline for today and the key to economic growth for tomorrow,” he said. In a statement, Sullivan said, “I join Alaskans from all over the state thanking Governor Sheffield for his many years of public service. His passion for the Port of Anchorage is unmatched and his recognition and vision that we must plan for the decades ahead by improving this critical facility is solid. He is a true gentleman and has been a great part of our team.”

Russian tanker making 250 plus miles a day

A Russian tanker is headed toward Alaska in a mission to deliver fuel to Nome. Mark Smith, CEO of Vitus Marine, said Wednesday that the tanker is making more than 250 miles a day, and was reported to be 545 miles south-southwest of Attu in the Aleutian Islands. The tanker left Russia and was loaded with more than a million gallons of diesel fuel in South Korea. The plan is to have it pick up 400,000 gallons of gasoline in Dutch Harbor and then head to Nome. The Coast Guard cutter Healy is on hand to break ice. A massive storm this fall prevented Nome from getting its winter fuel delivery by barge. If everything goes as planned, the tanker could arrive in Nome by the second week in January.

Alaska volcano sends ash plume up to 15,000 feet

A remote Alaska volcano has spewed an ash cloud 15,000 feet into the air. The Alaska Volcano Observatory says satellite images show the ash cloud drifting Thursday from Cleveland Volcano in the Aleutian Islands. The observatory has raised the aviation alert level based on the presence of the cloud. Scientists throughout much of 2011 have monitored activity in the crater at the summit of 5,675-foot Cleveland Mountain on an uninhabited island 940 miles southwest of Anchorage. The ash cloud was spotted 50 miles from the mountain moving east-southeast. The observatory says in a release that satellite data indicates the cloud come from a single explosion event. The observatory says more explosions could send ash plumes above 20,000 feet.

BP money buys sports towels, Xmas lights, jingles

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida (AP) — Sports towels and fleece blankets. A poker tournament. A $1 million Christmas display. A prom for senior citizens. BP gas card giveaways. A "most deserving mom" contest. And advertising, lots of advertising. Florida Panhandle officials made the mix of eyebrow-raising purchases with $30 million BP gave them earlier this year to help tourism recover from 2010's disastrous Gulf oil spill. The money allowed seven area tourism bureaus to try promotions they could never have afforded otherwise, and it has propelled the Panhandle's visitor counts to record numbers this year following a disastrous season right after the spill. The question now is what happens when the BP money dries up, most likely next April. The grants doubled and tripled the tourism-promotion budgets in these Panhandle counties, and officials worry the boost in visitors may prove fleeting. "It is one thing to have your numbers go up when a tremendous amount of money is being put, not only in our economy, but in all of north Florida," said Curt Blair, executive director of the Franklin County Tourist Development Council. "We will see after April whether part of this was a real recovery ... or if we see fall-off. ... Whether we've done that or if we've just propped up the market." BP announced the $30 million tourism grants in April. While the agreement for the $30 million doesn't prevent Florida from pursuing any claims against BP or others, officials there decided a week later not to join other Gulf states in a lawsuit against Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig at the heart of the spill. Florida's tourism spending spree isn't the first time that BP money has allowed government officials to snag items from their wish lists. Separately, BP had already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the four Gulf states in the months after the oil spill — with few strings attached. The Associated Press documented earlier this year how some of the $754 million given to local governments had been spent on tasers, SUVS and pick-up trucks, rock concerts, an iPad and other items with no direct connection to the oil spill. In all, BP has given $150 million to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi for tourism promotion since the oil spill, with the Sunshine State getting the lion's share — $62 million. In the case of the more-recent payout, Florida Panhandle counties have allocated more than $23 million of the $30 million through September, with $13.5 million used on for television, digital, radio and print advertising. The counties have also spent millions on a variety of attention-grabbing gimmicks, The Associated Press found through public records requests and interviews. Some wonder whether the most extravagant promotions — such as Panama City Beach's $1 million Christmas display — are worth it. "It wasn't all that busy out here last weekend," Charles Walsingham, a beachside merchant near the display, said a few days after the Christmas lights were turned on and the ice rink opened in early December. "There weren't that many people over there skating and that is a lot of money to spend." The seven counties spent $2.5 million on promotions alone. In Pensacola, the BP money paid for $30,000 worth of sports towels and another $30,000 worth of fleece blankets given out at local sporting events. In neighboring Perdido Key, officials spent $300,000 on American Express gift cards for overnight visitors. They also purchased $12,500 worth of BP gas cards for tourists who present receipts showing they've stayed in the area, essentially putting BP funds back into the company's pocket. Alison Davenport, chair of the Perdido Key Chamber and Visitors Center, said the goal is to get tourists driving to the area next spring. "We had no hesitation in choosing BP gas cards over any others since BP's grant money has made the incentivized travel promotion possible," she said. Okaloosa County, home to Destin and Fort Walton Beach, is giving away a trip to the Super Bowl and tickets to the BCS championship football game to drive traffic to its Facebook page. South Walton Beach also is giving away BCS tickets on Facebook. Okaloosa County spent a half million dollars marketing and advertising Vision Airlines, which this year launched service from the Northwest Florida Regional Airport to several Southeast cities. The grants have funded a half-dozen fishing tournaments, a poker tournament, a national flag football championship and a soccer tournament. It has paid for contests galore. Carol Daley, of Arlington, Texas, won a "Search for America's Most Deserving Mom" contest from Okaloosa County. Her prizes were a one-week stay in Destin, roundtrip airfare, $1,000 for a spending spree and a 2011 Buick Enclave valued at more than $36,000. Ashley Spencer won a beach photo contest from South Walton Beach that netted her a $15,000 vacation. Franklin County officials sprinkled the area with clues and sponsored a GPS-aided treasure hunt. A $166,000 Panama City Beach program includes a prom next month for senior citizens. The couple chosen prom king and queen from online submissions will get to invite two friends for a weekend at the beach. "We think getting these people to talk about why their friends should be queen and king will really help get this viral, talking about Panama City Beach as a fun beach destination," said Dan Rowe, executive director of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. The BP funding paid for almost 20 different festivals. Santa Rosa County spent $80,000 on a sand-sculpting festival. The money is paying for the Pensacola area's $120,000 Mardi Gras celebration next year, its $25,000 New Year's celebration and a $540,000 music festival. Panama City Beach used the money for a $100,000 pirate-themed festival, a $1.3 million country music festival and a $425,000 Christian music festival. Panama City Beach's Christmas display includes the ice rink, a candy cane forest and an enormous lights display. "I think it's a great idea," said Michael Chers, a visitor from Omaha. "People love it." The BP money was more than tripled the tourism promotion funds normally spent by officials in Okaloosa County. It was double the regular $750,000 budget for tourism officials in Franklin County, home to Apalachicola. The $7 million Bay County got is more than double its normal $3 million budget. "We wouldn't have been able to do two-thirds of what we did without that BP grant," said Mark Bellinger, executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council. "We just never had the money in the past for television ads." Tourists stayed away through much of the summer of 2010 after clumps of gooey tar washed ashore during the spill. Pensacola Beach got a got a heavy coating of gunk for a day or two, but beach towns further east saw mostly smaller tar balls. Tourism experts say the area's image suffered from months of news footage of oiled beaches. Visitors came back in droves, though, in 2011. Okaloosa County had its best-ever June, July and September. In many counties, tourism is up as much as 20 percent over last year. "It appears the ... efforts have been successful," said BP spokesman Craig Savage. "The campaigns, plus pent-up consumer demand have made 2011 a banner year for tourism in the Panhandle." Apart from the advertising the Panhandle tourism bureaus have purchased, BP is launching a new national television advertising campaign this week to outline Gulf cleanup efforts. Florida State University professor Mark Bonn isn't sure negative perceptions about the Panhandle will vanish so quickly, especially the further away the prospective visitor lives. "I think it's going to be a five-year minimal process before people are convinced that everything is OK," said Bonn, a professor of service management. "I think it takes people time to adjust to situations." ___ Schneider reported from Orlando, Florida.

Russian ship heads to Alaska to help iced-in city

A Russian tanker slowed by ocean currents kept to its mission Tuesday of delivering petroleum products to an iced-in Alaska city, even as international red tape thwarted the journey. The 370-foot tanker Renda was in the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday morning was about 740 nautical miles west-southwest of Attu in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. It was encountering currents that had slowed its speed to about 10 mph, the Coast Guard said. If everything goes as planned, the tanker could arrive in Nome by the second week in January. If recent history means anything, that is unlikely. So far, the laws of four nations have had to be considered — Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States. Before the tanker can dock at the Dutch Harbor fishing port in the Aleutians to load gasoline, it will need to pass an inspection to operate in U.S. waters. Then it will need a waiver of federal law to load the gasoline and bring it to Nome — that is if it can go through 300 miles of sea ice around the city of about 3,500 people. "It is challenging," said Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow. Nome normally gets fuel by barge, but a huge storm this fall prevented the last delivery before winter. Now the plan is to have the Russian tanker deliver 1.5 million gallons of petroleum products. The tanker left Russia in mid-December and headed to South Korea where it took on over 1 million gallons of diesel fuel. From there, it was to go to Japan and load 400,000 gallons of gasoline, but international shipping regulations and fierce weather scuttled that plan. The tanker was in the Sea of Japan when the ship was informed it was too small to pull up to the refinery dock. The idea was to have another ship transfer the fuel to the tanker when a storm blew that plan away. A decision was made to head to Alaska and load gasoline at Dutch Harbor. It then will take another 4 to 5 days to reach Nome in what officials say would be the first winter delivery of fuel products by sea to a western Alaska community. The tanker, however, must first get through hundreds of miles of sea ice. That is where the Healy comes in, the Coast Guard's only functioning ice breaker. The Healy is going to break ice for the Russian tanker. "We understand the Healy is a profoundly capable ice breaker," said Mark Smith, CEO of Vitus Marine, the fuel supplier. "There is absolutely no question it is absolutely suitable for the mission." The Healy was due back to its homeport in Seattle just before Christmas, but the Coast Guard extended its mission by a month to assist the fuel effort. Smith said the Renda is an ice class vessel that has spent its career following Russian ice breakers that go across the northern route. It often makes deliveries resupplying vessels and communities without assistance, he said. The depth of the water will prevent the Healy from getting any closer than about one mile from the port of Nome, Wadlow said. The tanker is equipped with a long hose for off-shore delivery, but that plan comes with a host of safety concerns, he said. "It would be extremely unfortunate if there was an accident — a spill on the ice," Wadlow said.  

US warns Iran against closing key oil passage

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The U.S. warned Iran on Wednesday it will not tolerate any disruption of traffic through the Strait of Hormuz after Iran threatened to choke off the vital Persian Gulf oil transport route if Washington imposes sanctions targeting its crude exports. The increasingly heated exchange raises new tensions in a standoff that has the potential to spark military reprisals and propel oil prices to levels that could batter a global economy already grappling with a European debt crisis. Iran's navy chief boasted Wednesday that it would be "very easy" for his country's forces to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the passage at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a sixth of the world's oil passes daily. It was the second such threat in two days following a warning by Iran's vice president that Tehran was close "Iran has comprehensive control over the strategic waterway," Adm. Habibollah Sayyari told state-run Press TV, as the country was in the midst of a 10-day military drill near the strategic waterway. The comments drew a quick response from the U.S. "This is not just an important issue for security and stability in the region, but is an economic lifeline for countries in the Gulf, to include Iran," Pentagon press secretary George Little said. "Interference with the transit or passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated." Separately, Bahrain-based U.S. Navy 5th Fleet spokeswoman said the Navy is "always ready to counter malevolent actions to ensure freedom of navigation." Iran's threat to seal off the Gulf, surrounded by oil-rich Gulf states, underlines the depth of worry over the prospect that the Obama administration will go ahead with sanctions over its nuclear program that would severely hit its biggest revenue earner, oil. The sanctions themselves have raised worries that removing Iran's crude from the market will lead to a spike in oil prices. Gulf Arab nations appeared ready to at least ease market tensions. A senior Saudi Arabian oil official told the AP that Gulf Arab nations are ready to step in to offset any potential loss of exports from Iran, which is the world's fourth largest oil producer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue. Saudi Arabia, which has been producing about 10 million barrels per day, has an overall production capacity of over 12 million barrels per day and is widely seen as the only OPEC member with sufficient spare capacity to offset major shortages. But Iran — the world's fourth largest producer — pumps about 4 million barrels per day, meaning that other Gulf states would also have to up their output to offset the decline. What remains unclear is what routes the Gulf nations could take to bring that production to market if Iran goes through with its threats. About 15 million barrels per day pass through the Hormuz Strait, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. There are some pipelines that could be tapped, but Gulf oil leaders, who met in Cairo on Dec. 24, declined to say whether they had discussed alternate routes or what they may be. The Saudi comment, however, appeared to allay some concerns. The U.S. benchmark crude futures contract fell 77 cents in early morning trade on the New York Mercantile Exchange, but still hovered above $100 per barrel. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner played down the Iranian threats as "rhetoric," saying, "We've seen these kinds of comments before." While many analysts believe that Iran's warnings are little more than posturing, they still highlight both the delicate nature of the oil market, which moves as much on rhetoric as supply and demand fundamentals. Iran relies on crude sales for about 80 percent of its of its public revenues, and sanctions or an even pre-emptive measure by Tehran to withhold its crude from the market would already batter its flailing economy. IHS Global Insight analyst Richard Cochrane said in a report issued Wednesday that markets are "jittery over the possibility" of Iran's blockading the strait. But, he said, "such action would also damage Iran's economy, and risk retaliation from the U.S. and allies that could further escalate instability in the region." "Accordingly, it is not likely to be a decision that the Iranian leadership will take lightly," he said. Earlier sanctions that have targeted the oil and financial sector have added new pressures to the country's already struggling economy. Government cuts in subsidies on key goods like food and energy have angered Iranians, stoking inflation while the country's currency is steadily depreciating. The impetus behind the subsidies cut plan pushed through parliament by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to reduce budget costs and would pass money directly to the poor to pay for their needs. But critics have pointed to it as another in a series of bad policy moves by the hardline president. So far, Western nations have been unable to agree on sanctions targeting oil exports, even as they argue that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran maintains its nuclear program — already the subject of several rounds of sanctions — is purely peaceful. The U.S. Congress has passed a bill banning dealings with the Iran Central Bank, a move that would heavily hurt Iran's ability to export crude. The bill could impose penalties on foreign firms that do business with Iran's central bank. European and Asian nations use the bank for transactions to import Iranian oil. President Barack Obama has said he will sign the bill despite his misgivings. China and Russia have opposed such measures. A likely result of the sanctions would be that oil prices would at least temporarily spike to levels that could weigh heavily on the world economy. Closing the Strait of Hormuz would hit even harder. Energy consultant and trader The Schork Group estimated in a report that crude would jump to above $140 per barrel. Conservatives in Iran claim global oil prices will jump to $250 a barrel should the waterway be closed. By closing the strait, Iran may aim to send the message that its pain from sanctions will also be felt by others. But it has equally compelling reasons not to try. The move would put the country's hardline regime straight in the cross-hairs of the world, including those nations that have so far been relative allies. Much of Iran's crude goes to Europe and to Asia. "Shutting down the strait ... is the last bullet that Iran has and therefore we have to express some doubt that they would do this and at the same time lose their support from China and Russia," said analyst Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix in Switzerland. Iran has adopted an aggressive military posture in recent months in response to increasing threats from the U.S. and Israel of possible military action to stop Iran's nuclear program. The Iranian navy's exercises, which began on Saturday, involve submarines, missile drills, torpedoes and drones. A senior Iranian commander said Wednesday that the country's navy is also planning to test advanced missiles and "smart" torpedoes during the maneuvers. The war games cover a 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) stretch of sea off the Strait of Hormuz, northern parts of the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf of Aden near the entrance to the Red Sea as a show of strength and could bring Iranian ships into proximity with U.S. Navy vessels in the area. Moderate news website, irdiplomacy.ir, says the war games are intended to send a message to the West that Iran is capable of sealing off the waterway. "The war games ... are a warning to the West that should oil and central bank sanctions be stepped up, (Iran) is able to cut the lifeblood of the West and Arabs," it said, adding that the West "should regard the maneuvers as a direct message." ___ El-Tablawy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Dubai and Abdullah Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed.  

Can foreign tourists help US economy?

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Agustina Ocampo is the kind of foreign traveler businesses salivate over. The 22-year-old Argentine recently dropped more than $5,000 on food, hotels and clothes in Las Vegas during a trip that also took her to Seattle's Space Needle, Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo. But she doubts she will return soon. "It is a little bit of a headache," said Ocampo, a student who waited months to find out whether her tourist visa application would be approved. More than a decade after the federal government strengthened travel requirements after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, foreign visitors say getting a temporary visa remains a daunting and sometimes insurmountable hurdle. The tourism industry hopes to change that with a campaign to persuade Congress to overhaul the State Department's tourist visa application process. "After 9/11, we were all shaken and there was a real concern for security, and I still think that concern exists," said Jim Evans, a former hotel chain CEO heading a national effort to promote foreign travel to the U.S. At the same time, he said, the U.S. needs "to be more cognizant of the importance of every single traveler." Tourism leaders said the decline in foreign visitors over the past decade is costing American businesses and workers $859 billion in untapped revenue and at least half a million potential jobs at a time when the slowly recovering economy needs both. While the State Department has beefed up tourist services in recent years, reducing wait times significantly for would-be visitors will likely be a challenge as officials try to balance terrorist threats and illegal immigration with tight budgets that limit hiring. "Security is job one for us," said Edward Ramotowski, managing director of the department's visa services. "The reason we have a visa system is to enforce the immigration laws of the United States." That said, the agency announced earlier this month that it would increase its staff in Brazil and China to speed up the process after seeing huge surges in visa applications from both countries during the 2011 fiscal year. The State Department said in the Dec. 21 statement that while the agency "always puts security first, visitors to the United States make critical contributions to economic growth and job creation." Anti-immigration proponents argue travel to the U.S. is already too accessible and that allowing more visitors would put the nation at greater risk. "Everybody would like to find a way to admit as many people as possible to visit here providing that they visit and then go home," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration group based in Washington, D.C. "A lot of consular officers underestimate how much people want to come and live here," she said. Nearly 7.6 million nonimmigrant visas were issued in 2001, compared with fewer than 6.5 million in 2010. The number of visa applicants also dropped sharply after 2001. Those combined forces pushed the U.S. share of global travelers down to 12 percent last year, from 17 percent before 2001. The proposed immigration overhaul has largely been driven by the U.S. Travel Association, the tourism industry's lobbying giant, and has been endorsed by business titans such as the National Retail Federation, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing the proposed changes through six bills in the House and Senate. Geoff Freeman, the travel association's chief operating officer, said the State Department should be required to keep visa interview wait times at a maximum of 10 days. "Every day a person is waiting for that interview is a day a person cannot be here supporting the American economy," he said. For most foreigners, taking a last-minute business or leisure trip to New York, Los Angeles, Miami or other U.S. travel hubs would be nearly impossible. The average wait time for a visa interview in Rio de Janeiro, for example, was 87 days, according to the State Department. The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency that audits federal programs, concluded that wait times are likely much longer than reported because some department employees artificially reduce the wait times by not scheduling interviews during high-demand periods. The vast majority of visitors enter through the country's visa waiver program, which allows travelers from 36 nations with good relationships with the U.S. to temporarily visit without a visa. Travel proponents want to add nations whose residents are unlikely to illegally move to the U.S., including Argentina, Brazil, Poland and Taiwan. Tourists from the rest of the world, including India, China, Mexico and other nations with affluent travelers looking to use their passports, must obtain a nonimmigrant visa. The process can be expensive and time-consuming. People living far from a visa processing center must arrange travel to the interview location, not knowing whether they will be approved. Roughly 78 percent of all tourist visas were approved so far in 2011. Tourism proponents want the department to embrace videoconferencing as a way to interview more people quickly. The department has no plans to implement videoconferencing interviews because of safety and technological concerns, Ramotowski said. In-person interviews weren't the norm before 9/11, when consular officials had the authority to approve travelers based on an application alone. Since then, however, screenings have become more strenuous, with fingerprint checks and facial recognition screening of photographs. The State Department has made moves to boost its tourist services in recent years, transferring employees from underworked offices to bustling embassies and consular posts. Many visa processing centers are also operating under extended hours. Other proposed changes include granting more multi-entry visas and charging premium fees to tourists who want a visa right away, similar to the premium passport fee charged to Americans with last-minute passport requests. The tourism industry also wants more visa processing officers and to allow travelers to submit applications in their native language. "We can't afford to treat them in a way that gives them an impression that maybe they aren't welcome," said Rolf Lundberg, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's top lobbyist. To help make the U.S. appear more welcoming, Congress approved last year a $200 million annual marketing campaign. In Las Vegas, where travelers to the Strip have traditionally kept Nevada's economy afloat, tourism and government leaders are desperate to keep businesses open and create jobs in a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate. "The industries affected by tourism are all behind it," said Republican Rep. Joe Heck of southern Nevada, who has sponsored a bill in the House that would require shorter visa interview delays, among other measures. "We need the jobs." Ocampo, who spent her vacation shopping at upscale boutiques and visiting family in California, said she would be more eager to come back if she knew her business was wanted. "Everyone wants to visit the Statue of Liberty and Disneyland," she said.  

Judge dismisses government's claims against BP

U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline has dismissed a claim by the U.S. Justice Department that BP had violated terms of a probation order when a field pipeline ruptured and spilled oil in 2009. BP was on probation over a series of spills in 2006 from Prudhoe Bay field pipelines that were caused by corrosion. In his decision handed down Tuesday, Beistline found that BP did not violate terms of the probation and also released the company from probation, which had been scheduled. Beistline held proceedings in Anchorage from Nov. 29 to Dec. 7 to hear evidence. The 2009 spill occurred with an 18-inch field pipeline that was not in service but still containing a mixture of produced water and oil froze and ruptured, spilling an oil-water mixture on the tundra. BP cleaned up the spill and subsequently repaired the pipe.

Law meant to ban texting while driving challenged

JUNEAU — Alaska's intended ban on texting while driving is facing a legal challenge, with a magistrate in Kenai saying the Legislature should have been explicit if they truly meant to prohibit the activity. The decision this month by Magistrate Jennifer Wells follows challenges to charges under the law in the Fairbanks area. A training judge in Fairbanks has advised magistrates there not to accept cases involving texting while driving because of what was viewed as an exception in the law for cell phones used for "verbal communication," Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny said. "I have a problem with that," he said, adding: "Magistrate judges should make their own choices." Lawmakers will need to decide whether they need to strengthen the law, to make a texting ban explicit. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said the quickest fix would be adding language to a crime bill. "The Legislature's intention was to cover texting," he said; indeed, since the bill's passage in 2008, it has been seen that way by many. But he concedes the law could have been written more clearly. The law refers to driving with a "screen device operating." It never mentions text messaging and does not apply to cell phones used for verbal communication or displaying caller ID information. Alaska does not ban or restrict use of cell phones while driving though bills that would do that are pending in the Legislature. Gara said specific types of technology were not named in the measure because technology is always changing. Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, one of the texting bill's backers, said it took several years for the measure to pass, as it did. He said he would hate to have to go through the fight again, and believes it's "loud and clear" that the state bans texting while driving. The Kenai case involves Tyler S. Adams, 21, who was charged in May with texting while driving. Adams sought to have his case dismissed, which Wells did in October citing the ambiguous language in the law. Earlier this month, declined to reconsider her decision. The state, in seeking that reconsideration, faulted her interpretation of "verbal," suggesting it referred to spoken, not written, communication - and not a blanket exception to the law for texting since the device can be used for verbal communications. It also noted a press release from Gruenberg touting the law as making it a crime to watch a movie or text while driving. Wells wrote that this caused concern that she had misunderstood the legislative history, and examined it further. Aside from the press release, she said the strongest support for the state's interpretation of legislative intent is subsequent legislative analysis. During debates on cell phone bans, for example, she noted that several lawmakers and others made clear their belief that the law bans texting while driving. "Whether the 25th Legislature did, indeed intend the statute to prohibit texting, or whether the statute has gotten that reputation because lawmakers and law enforcement wish this were true, is perhaps irrelevant," she wrote in her Dec. 1 decision. Since the law creates felony and misdemeanor penalties, "it is particularly important that the statute be clear," she wrote. She said California has a law similar to Alaska's aimed at potentially distracting screens. It has another, she said, that refers to "writing, sending or reading text-based communication" while driving. "If the Alaska legislature wanted to prohibit texting, then it should have, and could have, clearly said so, just as California did," she said. The state is appealing Wells' decision. Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said if there's a need for the law to be "airtight," it probably should be. He said he recently called the police on a man he saw at a stoplight, tapping away on a laptop nestled between this stomach and the steering wheel. After relaying the story on Facebook, about 90 percent of the comments were supportive, he said. "I think it's one of those things, people are getting more and more aware of the problem all the time," he said. Svobodny said about 10 cases have been brought under the law in Fairbanks, including six convictions. He said he's not aware of this being an issue elsewhere in the state. He noted that anyone who drives in a manner that creates a danger to the community can still be charged with reckless driving.  

USDA program boosts tech, oysters, beer

JUNEAU — Over the last three years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has invested more than $153 million in at least 25 Southeast Alaska economic development projects. Far from being one large lump of cash, the department and its agencies have distributed strategic sums to public-private projects as varied as a $2.75 million technical center in Ketchikan, a nearly half-million dollar biomass energy system at Alaska Brewing Co. in Juneau and $99,000 worth of oyster farmer training at OceansAlaska's new $1 million mariculture research, training and development center in George Inlet. Originally intended as a marine aquarium and tourist attraction, OceansAlaska's goal changed to adapt to public opinion and funding costs, said Tom Henderson, OceansAlaska Mariculture Director and oyster farmer. "An aquarium is a very expensive project," Henderson said. The project has been in planning for nearly two decades and though OceansAlaska had its supporters during this time, its detractors played a role in its change of purpose. "Some local tour operators saw an aquarium as a government funded project that was going to compete with private enterprise," Henderson said. "Now we consider ourselves a 'marine research facility,' currently concentrated on mariculture." The center is located on 28 acres granted by the state of Alaska and Ketchikan Gateway Borough in 2006. Its mission is to "contribute significant and sustainable long term economic growth to coastal Alaskan communities by supporting Alaska's shellfish industry," according to OceansAlaska's website. That industry brings in more than half a million dollars a year in Alaska, according to the Pacific Coast shellfish Growers Association. The floating facility is made up of the 1,750-square-foot center on a 120-foot, 1 million pound concrete barge. Henderson said the center will offer its first mariculture classes starting in spring 2012. The classes will focus on oyster farming. "Our cooperative effort with (the Department of Labor & Workforce Development) should have apprenticeship classes available this spring," Henderson said. "Additional educational material will be available later in the summer." OceansAlaska plans to make oyster farming accessible to almost anyone. The center will open its information to the public and "I suspect we will have mini-courses or seminars available and open to anyone who wishes to participate. Our goal is to make information available and encourage participation in mariculture," Henderson said. He said a successful oyster farmer requires a wide range of skills. "A new grower should understand some biology of the species of interest, some understanding of marine ecological relationships, how to work the different types of growout gear and the pros and cons of different methods, how to handle the shellfish, how to select a suitable site, plus some basic business skills," Henderson said. Henderson said oyster growers also need to learn how to navigate bureaucracies. Growers are working in public water, in public waterways and on public beaches, he said. Therefore all growers work with three state agencies — the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Fish & Game and the Department of Natural Resources. A grower may also have to work with the state Park Service, the federal Forest Service (for uplands use), the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Food and Drug Agency. "The state agencies require permits and substantial fees before shellfish can be grown and sold," Henderson said. OceansAlaska will also conduct research at its George Inlet facility. "We are just getting started," Henderson said. "Our first project is to set oyster and geoduck spat for Alaska growers to address the current critical lack of commercially available spat." The goal is to provide spat to farmers and also collect data on operating cost of a hatchery, especially the manpower and energy costs, Henderson said. The oyster's lifecycle starts with free-swimming larva, which eventually attach to a hard surface, called spat. Oysters farmers raise their bivalves from spat to the size customers find at restaurants and seafood markets. The mariculture industry met in Ketchikan this fall to set industry priorities. Priority was given to research into the production of oyster and geoduck spat, the expansion of nursery capacity, ocean acidification monitoring, paralytic shellfish poisoning and depuration of oyster and geoducks, Henderson said. The center's operation funding will come from a mix of tuition, research grants and federal and state funding. Henderson knows the difficulty of starting an oyster farm from scratch with little outside help. A lifelong Alaskan, Henderson said he worked in salmon hatcheries since he was in high school and has fished salmon while at ADF&G. "So I have a long-term interest is the marine environment," Henderson said. "An oyster farm seemed like a good way to work on my own, at my own business, live in a place I enjoy (in Kake). Growing oysters seemed like an excellent opportunity to match my interests." Henderson said he would have benefited from training like that offered at OceansAlaska. "When I started in 1994, I knew only one other grower," Henderson said. "There was no place to look for up-to-date information on costs, on equipment, on best growout methods." He said he ended up inventing all his own routines and some of his equipment. "In retrospect," Henderson said, "I certainly should have traveled to British Columbia to learn from successful growers in that area. A ready source of information like OceansAlaska would have been a big help and would probably have moved my farm into profitability much sooner." For more information, visit www.oceansalaska.org.  

NORAD Santa trackers stand by for another big day

DENVER (AP) — Santa already is piling up big numbers on social networking sites this season, so the volunteer Santa-trackers at NORAD are bracing for tens of thousands of calls and emails when their operations center goes live on Christmas Eve. "We expect our numbers to be very high this year," said Joyce Creech, project leader for NORAD Tracks Santa at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. Last year, NORAD Tracks Santa volunteers answered 80,000 phone calls on Christmas Eve, Creech said. They also answered 7,000 emails. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has been telling anxious children about Santa's whereabouts every year since 1955. That was the year a Colorado Springs newspaper ad invited kids to call Santa on a hotline, but the number had a typo, and dozens of kids wound up talking to the Continental Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor. The officers on duty played along and began sharing reports on Santa's progress. It's now a deep-rooted tradition at NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canada command that monitors the North American skies and seas from a control center at Peterson. NORAD's Santa updates are just about everywhere — on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, www.noradsanta.org and television. And this year, there's a new Santa-tracking app for smart phone s, built by visionbox, a Colorado Springs software developer. It has the Elf Toss, a game similar to Angry Birds. The app was downloaded more than 234,000 times from Android Market and iTunes App Store by mid-December, Creech said. NORAD Tracks Santa already has had more than 754,000 "likes" on Facebook this year, compared with 716,000 through Christmas Eve last year. Twitter numbers also are up, with 60,000 followers so far this year, up from 54,000 last season. The NORAD Tracks Santa website has had more than 2.2 million unique visitors this year, compared with 2 million last year. The rows of telephones in the operations center are still the heart of the operation. More than 1,200 volunteers answer calls in shifts, checking big-screen computer monitors indicating Santa's location and passing that along to children, many who seem dumbstruck. "It's just so precious to hear the little sigh or (only) breathing on the other end, and you realize how nervous they are," Creech said. "But we've had really heart-wrenching stories as well," she said. "'Can you ask Santa to heal my brother of cancer?' Or, 'Can I get a new pair of shoes? I don't have any.'" Calls like that make the volunteers feel fortunate to have what they do, she said. NORAD Tracks Santa has added 20 phones this year, bringing the total to 120, and four more laptops, for a total of 23. The phones will be answered from 4 a.m. Mountain Time on Christmas Eve until 3 a.m. Christmas Day. Creech said the rising numbers are probably a reflection of how much people look forward to the season, and how much of a tradition calling NORAD has become for many families. "You can tell that it really brings people joy, and especially kids," she said. ___ NORAD Tracks Santa: 877-HI NORAD (877-446-6723) Online: http://www.noradsanta.org Twitter: http://twitter.com/NoradSanta Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/noradsanta YouTube: httphttp://www.youtube.com/NORADTracksSanta  

Alaska Communications trims dividend

Anchorage-based Alaska Communications has lowered its annualized dividend to shareholders by 77 percent as it prepares for less federal support and a new competitor. The telecommunications company says there will be a 5-cent per share fourth quarter dividend. That will make the dividend on an annualized basis 20 cents per share. That compares to the prior level of 86 cents per share. The company says for the year, this will let it keep $29.8 million cash. Spokeswoman Heather Cavanaugh says this is part of a long-term plan to grow the business. She says the company expects a decline in federal support for a program that helps telecommunications firms in high-cost areas provide affordable service. It's also preparing for Verizon's entrance into the Alaska market and wants to pay down debt.

McConnell: Extend tax cut short-term and long-term

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's top Republican on Thursday urged the GOP-led House to pass a short-term renewal of payroll tax cuts and break an impasse that threatens 160 million workers with a 2 percentage point tax increase on Jan. 1. The move by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is aimed at breaking a stalemate between House Republicans and Democrats controlling the Senate. He urged House Republicans to pass a new short-term extension while calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to appoint negotiators on the separate House measure that would bring a year-long renewal of the payroll tax and jobless benefits. In competing news conferences and statements, all sides sought to avoid blame for raising taxes every working American Jan. 1 — just as they would begin paying holiday bills. House Republicans in particular were facing fire from GOP establishment figures incensed that they would risk losing the tax cut issue to Democrats at the dawn of the 2012 presidential and congressional election year. McConnell's move intensifies pressure on House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to cut his losses and agree to a short-term bill. But Boehner is thus far holding firm. "This is an issue where an overwhelming number of people of both parties agree. How can we not get that done?" Obama said in an appearance in which he was flanked by several people who tweeted the White House about how they would be adversely impacted if the tax cuts were not extended. "Has this place become so dysfunctional that even when we agree to things we can't do it?" Obama asked, rhetorically. "It doesn't make any sense. Enough is enough." In a Thursday morning phone call, Boehner urged President Barack Obama to send administration officials to the Capitol to negotiate an agreement on a long-term measure demanded by Republicans. Obama declined the offer. "The president told Speaker Boehner that he is committed to begin working immediately on a full-year agreement once the House passes the bipartisan Senate compromise that prevents a tax hike on 160 million Americans on January 1," said a White House statement. McConnell wants to reclaim a political victory asserted by Senate Republicans — winning agreement from Democrats and the White House for a decision within 60 days on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil to the U.S. and create thousands of construction jobs. "Leader Reid should appoint conferees on the long-term bill and the House should pass an extension that locks in the thousands of Keystone XL pipeline jobs, prevents any disruption in the payroll tax holiday or other expiring provisions, and allows Congress to work on a solution for the longer extensions," McConnell said in a statement. McConnell's move was welcomed by Democrats but received a tepid reaction from Boehner, R-Ohio. "We believe, as Senator McConnell suggested, the two chambers should work to reconcile the two bills so that we can provide a full year of payroll tax relief — and do it before year's end," said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith. He declined to comment on McConnell's suggestion that House Republicans back away from their insistence on a year-long extension — or none. But Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the powerful chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and a House negotiator on this issue, suggested that he would be open to a three-month extension. House Republicans have objected that the Senate's 60-day extension would be hard for companies to implement and would be too complicated for businesses — which file taxes every three months — to implement. "A two-month extension only perpetuates the uncertainty that too many employers already have in dealing with the economy and what's coming out of Washington," Boehner said. The Senate passed the two-month measure after Reid and McConnell tried but failed last week to come up with a long-term extension. Reid said that if the House passes a short-term measure he'll restart talks on a year-long plan. "We have made good progress towards a year-long extension of all of these programs, but there remain important differences between the two parties," Reid said. "Once the House passes the Senate's bipartisan compromise ... I will be happy to restart the negotiating process to forge a year-long extension." McConnell's idea would require the House to generate a new bill — which could address the flaws Republicans have complained about — and send the measure to the Senate. It would take unanimous agreement by the Senate to pass the measure during a pro forma session next Tuesday or Friday and it would also take such "unanimous consent" for Reid to appoint negotiators on the earlier year-long measure since the chamber is otherwise shuttered for the holidays. In an appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Box," Camp seemed open to an idea like McConnell's. "The policy that would work best for this country is to do a year. If we cannot do a year, we should at least do a quarter," Camp said. A Camp spokeswoman said that he was not proposing the idea but was pointing out problems with the Senate approach. "We all agree it should happen," Obama said. "So why not make it sooner rather than later?" The conflict arose after the Senate, on a bipartisan vote, passed legislation last week to extend for two months the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits, as well as a "fix" for Medicare reimbursements for doctors. The House had just days before passed a full-year extension that included a series of conservative policy prescriptions. McConnell was a driving force behind the Senate measure and had been virtually silent in the political firestorm that has erupted since, knocking tea party House Republicans on their heels. The Republican establishment was putting special pressure on House Republicans who were refusing to compromise for the greater good of preserving the payroll tax cut. From 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain to former George W. Bush confidant Karl Rove and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, conservative leaders were urging Republicans on Capitol Hill to get it together. The impasse also put Republican presidential contenders in an awkward spot less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses that kick off the nomination process. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney refused to be pinned down on the issue, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich castigated Congress for "an absurd dereliction of duty."  

NRC approves new nuclear reactor design

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators have approved a nuclear reactor designed by Westinghouse Electric Co. that could power the first nuclear plants built from scratch in this country in more than three decades. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved the AP1000 reactor on Thursday. The certification, to take effect within two weeks, will be valid for 15 years. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said the newly approved design would ensure safety through simplified, passive security functions and other features. He said plants using the design could withstand damage from an airplane crash without significant release of radioactive materials — an issue that gained attention after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Approval of the design is a major step forward for utility companies in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas that have billions of dollars riding on plans to build AP1000 reactors in the Southeast. Without NRC approval, the utilities could not have gotten a license to build their plants. Federal officials approved an earlier version of the AP1000 reactor in 2006, but it was never built in the United States. Four AP1000 reactors are now under construction in China. Aris Candris, Westinghouse president and CEO, said the road to receiving design certification of the AP1000 "has been long and sometimes arduous." The NRC vote brings the U.S "one step closer to constructing AP1000 units and putting thousands to work to ultimately provide future generations with safe, clean and reliable electricity," he said. Utilities in Georgia and South Carolina have been waiting for the design certification so they can move ahead with applications to build two reactors in each state. Atlanta-based Southern Co. applied to build the first two AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Ga. The $14 billion effort is the pilot project for the new reactor and a major test of whether the industry can build nuclear plants without the endemic delays and cost overruns that plagued earlier rounds of building years ago. President Barack Obama's administration has offered the project $8 billion in federal loan guarantees as part of its pledge to expand nuclear power. Close on its heels is SCANA Corp., which is also seeking permission to build two reactors at an existing plant in Jenkinsville, S.C. Other applications that use the AP1000 design include two plants in Florida, one and South Carolina and another in North Carolina. Each application is for two reactors. Even with the design certification, it remains unclear when the Vogtle reactors will receive final approval — a major concern for Southern Co. since any delays could increase the cost of the project. The biggest difference between the AP1000 and existing reactors is its safety systems, including a massive water tank on top of its cylindrical concrete-and-steel shielding building. In case of an accident, water would flow down and cool the steel container that holds critical parts of the reactor — including its hot, radioactive nuclear fuel. An NRC taskforce examining the nuclear crisis in Japan said licensing for the AP1000 should go forward because it would be better equipped to deal with a prolonged loss of power — the problem that doomed the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Marilyn Kray, president of NuStart Energy Development, a nuclear industry consortium that has worked to demonstrate the design's effectiveness, said she was pleased to see the design move forward. "The AP1000 is the reactor design that will set the foundation for the next generation of nuclear plants in the U.S.," Kray said. A nuclear watchdog group called the vote disappointing, saying the NRC should have done a new analysis in the wake of the Japan crisis, which occurred after a March 11 tsunami sent three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant into meltdowns in the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. A new study could have helped identify and correct any vulnerabilities based on lessons learned from Fukushima, said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It would be more efficient and cost-effective to address problems that could be corrected at the design stage now, before any new plants are constructed," Lyman said. After plants are built, any new safety requirements would have to be addressed through costly retrofits and other actions, Lyman said, adding that he was "far from convinced" that the AP1000's passive safety features would be effective in coping with severe accidents. Under existing rules, a reactor design that commissioners have voted to approve must be published in the Federal Register for 30 days before it is legally effective. The NRC granted Southern Co.'s request to make the design effective immediately after publication in the Federal Register, expected by Jan. 4.  

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