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Coast Guard arrives to aid disabled barge, tug

The Coast Guard has arrived to help a commercial tug that was pushing a barge when it lost power as it headed from Valdez to Skagway on Sunday. The Coast Guard says the disabled tug and barge are not in immediate danger of running aground. Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley says a patrol boat arrived at about 3 a.m. Monday and a Coast Guard cutter was to arrive about five hours later. Mosley says the tug has a crew of six but they are in no danger. He says the tug reported taking on some heavy waves and the starboard engine quit. The tug still has a port engine that can be used to maneuver, if necessary. The Coast Guard Cutter Maple and the commercial tug Le Cheval Rouge are awaiting first light to get a tow line on the disabled tug, the Nathan E. Stewart, Petty Officer lst class David Mosley, the Coast Guard spokesman, said. The Stewart was towing a barge with 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel and 1,000 gallons of jet fuel from Valdez to Skagway, in Southeast Alaska, and became disabled late Sunday when there was a failure with its starboard engine, leaving the tug operating at reduced power and adrift with the barge about 24 miles off Cape Fairweather. There were 12 to 16-foot seas and winds of 45 miles per hour at the location late Sunday but there is no immediate danger of a grounding, Mosley said. The Coast Guard Cutter Anacapa, a 110-foot patrol boat, has also been dispatched to the scene to provide assistance. The cutter Maple, now at the location, is a 225-foot buoy tender.

Builders Choice cuts ribbon at new SD facility

See a link to story by KCAU-TV in Sioux City, Iowa, on the new Builders Choice facility.   Builders Choice celebrated its official opening in Vermillion, S.D., today with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at its new 45,000 square-foot facility. Anchorage-based Builders Choice, a modular building manufacturer, has already hired over 30 people at its Vermillion operation and expects to add approximately 30 more employees within the next year. “I have been very pleased with the skill level and work ethic of the Vermillion labor pool,” said Builders Choice President Mark Larson. “The South Dakota facility is already proving to be a good addition for our company, and we look forward to continued growth here.” The oil boom in North Dakota opened up a new market for Builders Choice products and caused the company to start looking at new facility options in South Dakota. “We obviously wanted to be physically closer to the expanded market, and Vermillion was able to put us within a desired proximity and offer us a strong workforce. This community is a great fit for us,” said Larson. South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard said the relationship between South Dakota and Builders Choice is mutually beneficial. “Together with Vermillion, we were able to meet the needs of the company and help poise it for growth,” said Daugaard. “And from a state perspective, it’s encouraging to find opportunities that allow job growth in South Dakota by leveraging the positive economic activity in North Dakota.” Steve Howe, Director of the Vermillion Area Chamber & Development Company said, “Builders Choice is great news for our community. The company is investing in Vermillion, creating jobs and helping us diversify our economy. We’re very excited to have Builders Choice in Vermillion.” Builders Choice builds modular solutions for both residential and commercial purposes. At the Vermillion facility, the company manufactures modular units for worksite housing, hotel and apartments, and office and administrative facilities. The company was established in 1996.

Good salmon runs forecast for 2012 in Cook Inlet

Upper Cook Inlet is expecting another better-than-average salmon season in 2012, according to the forecast released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game last week. Managers are expecting a total sockeye salmon run of 6.2 million fish in UCI, with a harvest by all user groups of 4.4 million sockeye. Four million of the returning fish are expected to come into the Kenai River. This comes on the heels of a surprisingly strong Kenai River run in 2011, which was the result of the return of many more than expected age 2-3 fish, or 6-year-old sockeye that spend two winters in fresh water and three winters in salt water. Managers had been expecting around 275,000 of that year class to return last year, and instead 2.9 million came back. Area Management Biologist Pat Shields said managers theorize that the reason that happened with last year's run was large over-escapements in the parent years. There were several years of over-escapement, which can lead to a vicious cycle and ever-diminishing returns. "You can have so many fry in the lake that by the next spring when they are ready to smolt out and leave the system, they haven't gotten big enough to do so, so they stay an additional year," Shields said. "Because they stay in the system an additional year, there's additional pressure on the fry that are from the following year's brood. So you have competition for resources." All of which made forecasting the 2012 run more difficult, according to Shields. He said that the research staff forecasts runs by year class, and when they got to the 6-year-old component for next year's return, there were three primary models they could use. Each one told them something different. "They were highly variable," he said. The model researches had the most confidence in was the one in the middle. It predicts a return of 1.4 million age 2-3 sockeye to the Kenai River, or 35 percent of the run. The 20-year average return of age 2-3 sockeye to the Kenai River is 19 percent. Shields said that the department did not have a great deal of confidence in the methods used to enumerate out-migrating smolt in 2008 and 2009, but if they compared the number of 2-year-old smolt leaving the system in 2008 with the number of 6-year-old sockeye that returned in 2011, and applied that ratio to the number of 2-year-old smolt leaving the system in 2009, it would predict a "very high number" of returning 6-year-olds next season. However, because of the lack of confidence in the model, that was not the number included in the 2012 forecast. The returns to the Kasilof River have been down lately, and the forecast for the 2012 Kasilof sockeye return is 754,000 fish, 21 percent below the 20-year average of 950,000. The forecast last year was for a return of 929,000 sockeye; the actual run came in 7 percent below forecast at 860,000. "The Kasilof is in a period of lower productivity right now," Shields said, noting that the lower numbers may be more a result of forecasting than actual run size. The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Associa-tion, which runs the smolt counting program in the Kasilof River has been counting fewer fish, but Shields said some of that might be attributed to water clarity. He said Fish and Game has received anecdotal reports of clearer water in Tustumena Lake and the Kasilof River, which may mean that the smolt are better able to see and avoid the traps set to estimate their numbers. Shields also said once the season begins there will be some management changes — partly because of regulations and partly because of new strategies based on lessons learned from last season. The 2011 run came in largely all at once, with hardly any fish showing up before the record drift fleet opening on July 14. Up until that point, there was a cumulative commercial harvest of 269,000 sockeye from all gear types, 43 percent below the average harvest of 475,000 from 2000-2010. On July 14, the drift fleet harvested 685,000 fish, or 1,600 per boat, the highest catch per unit of effort ever. The setnet fishery was closed down by regulation. After that, the fishery set several records, including the most fish ever caught by the setnetters in one period, on July 16 (450,000), the most days of the offshore test boat index exceeding 100 (9 days), and the most sockeye past the Kenai River sonar in a 24-hour period (233,000). That, combined with low returns of Kenai River late run king salmon, made headaches for managers, processors, and fishermen alike, something Shields would like to avoid this year. A low king salmon return in 2012 would again complicate things, especially if the sockeye run comes in at or above forecast. Shields said protecting the king salmon run while trying not to over-escape the sockeye run typically involves compromise. "You tend to be high or over the escapement on sockeye, and try to squeak in or barely make the bottom of the other stock," he said. "That presents problems for both." He has some tools in the toolbox that he can use to ease the situation, but is also looking at some new restrictions that did not take place last season, due to the Board of Fisheries clarifying its intent on regulations codified at the 2011 Cook Inlet meetings in Anchorage. "The (ADF&G) commissioner, through the Board of Fisheries, has drafted a kind of amended management plan for the drifters, and it specifies certain days (they) have to fish in the narrow corridor, or old corridor, not the expanded (corridor)" he said, "and then there are other days that (they) can fish the expanded corridor." Those are laid out by specific dates, as is the use of Area 1, south of Kalgin Island. The changes are to three periods, and generally involve removing the expanded corridor from openings that include Area 1. Boats will still be able to fish the original corridor with Area 1. At the anticipated run size for 2012, there also is the possibility of an extra Area 1 and original corridor opening, other than the regular Monday and Thursday openings, between July 9 and July 15, something Shields said may have come in handy last year if the dates had been different. "This coming year, for example, if we had a huge day on the 12th, I'd have the 13th, 14th and 15th that the management plan does allow for the option of a third period." Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at [email protected]  

Senate panel acts against lawmaker insider trading

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday that would prohibit members of Congress and their employees from using nonpublic information to enrich themselves. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee sent the legislation to the full Senate. A similar bill is before a House committee, but it's doubtful that the legislation will be considered this year. The Senate bill would extend many of its restrictions throughout the federal government, but the potential impact is unclear because each agency already has restrictions on use of nonpublic information. A provision that only applies to lawmakers and their staffs would require disclosure of any stock or commodities transaction of $1,000 or more within 30 days. The reports would be available online. Currently, members of Congress and their top employees list their financial transactions on annual financial disclosure forms. The committee also ordered a one-year congressional study on the role of so-called political intelligence firms, which try to learn inside information from lawmakers and their staffs and pass it along to private clients. Original sponsors of the legislation sought to have these firms register with Congress, as lobbyists do now. However, committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said more needs to be learned about these firms, and he promised to conduct a hearing next year. The CBS' "60 Minutes" recently reported on members of Congress who may have made money using information learned through their congressional work. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sponsored separate bills to ensure that federal law prohibiting this practice applied to Congress. Lieberman consolidated the two bills into a single piece of legislation. "Members of Congress need to live by the same rules as everyone else, and it must be clear that public service can never be abused for private gain," Brown said. "With the approval of Congress at an all-time low, the full Senate now has the opportunity to pass this bill and begin rebuilding its reputation with the American people." Gillibrand added, "This is not a Democratic or Republican idea. It is a common sense idea gaining momentum every day with bipartisan support." The House bill, introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., has 235 co-sponsors from both parties.  

Soldiers return from Iraq in time for the holidays

@font-face { font-family: "SimSun"; }@font-face { font-family: "Mangal"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: Mangal; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }Sgt. Fred Somerville hugs his 4-year old daughter Evalynn as about 400 soldiers of the 6th Squadron, 17th Calvary Regiment, Task Force Saber return to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks Dec. 6 after a yearlong deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. FAIRBANKS (AP) — Members of a Fort Wainwright squadron — one of the last active-duty Army units to leave Iraq — have returned from a 10-month tour and reunited with loved ones in time for the holidays. Members of the 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, returned Tuesday to their families gathered in a hangar at Fort Wainwright, according to The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Michael McCurry said the troops were part of a maintenance group. Their daily routine was preparing aircraft for launch and follow-ups. The soldiers led an aviation task force called Task Force Saber. Lili Moon climbed a green ladder to hang a sign for her husband. It read, "Your girls have missed you!" Her two daughters — 20-month-old Olivia and 5-month-old Sofia — had a hand in making the sign — adorning it with red hand prints. Sgt. Broderrick Rimes stood with his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Aziana, as buses carrying his wife made their way to Fort Wainwright from Eielson Air Force Base. Rimes and his wife, Staff Sgt. Lady Rimes, have both been deployed in the past but never at the same time since their daughter was born. "At least one of us is here," he said.  

State nets $20.9M, BLM $3.6M in lease bids

The state of Alaska received $20.97 million in high bids for onshore and offshore leases sold Dec 7 in the state's annual area-wide onshore and offshore sales. The onshore state sale, conducted first, brought in $14.11million in high bids for 178 tracts, while the offshore sale, in state-owned submerged lands of the Beaufort Sea, brought in $6.87 million in high bids for 78 tracts sold, said state Oil and Gas Director Bill Barron. Meanwhile, the federal government received $3.66 million in high bids in a National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska lease sale held hours after the state sale. There were 20 high bids submitted on 17 tracts by three bidders in the sale, Ted Murphy, BLM's deputy director in Alaska, said following the sale. Bids were submitted on 141,739 acres out of about 3 million acres of NPR-A lands offered in the lease sale. In the state sales, which included North Slope onshore and Beaufort Sea offshore sales held one after the other, the high bids for both sales came from Pioneer Natural Resources Alaska for $876 per acre for two offshore tracts and one onshore tract. Both parcels were small and adjacent to areas where Pioneer is now working. Independent companies were most active in the state sales, but major companies were also bidding after being absent from North Slope lease sales for several years. ConocoPhillips acquired 23 onshore tracts in the Point Thomson area east of Prudhoe. Bay, as well as one tract east of the Alpine oil field, west of Prudhoe. Shell was high bidder on 17 offshore leases near Harrison Bay, offshore the Alpine field west of Prudhoe Bay. Shell has been conducting exploration on federal leases to the north of the newly acquired acreage, which is offshore the NPR-A. Individual bidders acquired offshore state leases in Beaufort Sea tracts offshore the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore state lands in the Point Thomson and Prudhoe Bay field areas. In the federal NPR-A sale, most bids came in an area on the northeast boundary of the reserve near the Colville River, an area considered of higher potential. ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. and two independent companies, Armstrong Oil and Gas and Woodstone Energy LLC, submitted high bids on 11 leases in this area. Remaining high bids by the same three companies came for leases further south and west in the reserve which are considered of lower potential. Several leases near the Colville River on which Armstrong and Woodstone submitted high bids were adjacent to tracts on state-owned lands east of the river which the companies acquired in a state lease sale held only hours earlier, also in Anchorage. Although the bidding was modest, “we are seeing an increased interest in the North Slope also evidenced by results of the state lease sale. This is in sharp contrast to our last lease sale,” in which there were no bids, said Bud Cribley, the Alaska BLM director. There was more participation in the state sale also held Wednesday. The state received $20.9 million in high bids for onshore and offshore leases in the central North Slope area, with about 15 million acres in total offered.

Cruise line CEO credits state in Alaska decision

JUNEAU (AP) — Norwegian Cruise Line's CEO is partially crediting action by the state of Alaska for the decision to bring another cruise ship to the state in 2013. Kevin Sheehan says the timing for adding another ship felt right, given what he called "strides" by state government, and the continued popularity of Alaska as a cruise destination. The Legislature last year passed legislation cutting the passenger head tax from $46 to $34.50 and allowing deeper offsets for ships stopping in at least one of two ports. The measure, pushed by the Parnell administration, was hailed as a way to settle an industry lawsuit over the tax and attract more ships and tourists. Norwegian has two ships scheduled for Alaska next year and three in 2013, the most it's had here since 2009.

First-class mail: Just a little bit s-l-o-w-e-r

Mail carrier Zack Wyscarver delivers mail in freezing temperatures in Omaha, Neb., Dec. 5. Unprecedented cuts by the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service will slow first-class delivery next spring and, for the first time in 40 years, eliminate the chance for stamped letters to arrive the next day. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) WASHINGTON (AP) — Already mocked by some as "snail mail," first-class U.S. mail will slow even more by next spring under plans by the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service to eliminate more than 250 processing centers. Nearly 30,000 workers would be laid off, too, as the post office struggles to respond to a shift to online communication and bill payments. The cuts are part of $3 billion in reductions aimed at helping the agency avert bankruptcy next year. They would virtually eliminate the chance for stamped letters to arrive the next day, a change in first-class delivery standards that have been in place since 1971. The plan technically must await an advisory opinion from the independent Postal Regulatory Commission, slated for next March. But that opinion is nonbinding, and only substantial pressure from Congress, the business community or the public might deter far-reaching cuts. Many postal customers could be upset. "The post office is a mainstay of America, and the fact that these services will no longer be available is absolutely crazy," said Carol Braxton of Naperville, Ill., as she waited in line at a mail sorting center Monday with the holiday shipping season picking up steam. At a news briefing in Washington, postal vice president David Williams said the post office needs to move quickly to cut costs as it seeks to stem five years of red ink amid steadily declining mail volume. After reaching a peak of 98 million in 2006, first-class mail volume is now at 78 million. It is projected to drop by roughly half by 2020. The agency already has announced a 1-cent increase in first-class mail to 45 cents beginning Jan. 22. Williams said in certain narrow situations first-class mail might still be delivered the next day — if, for example, newspapers, magazines or other bulk mailers are able to meet new, tighter deadlines and drop off shipments directly at the processing centers that remain open. But in the vast majority of cases, everyday users of first-class mail will see delays. The changes could slow everything from check payments to Netflix's DVDs-by-mail, add costs to mail-order prescription drugs and even threaten the existence of newspapers and time-sensitive magazines delivered by postal carrier to far-flung suburban and rural communities. The Postal Service faces imminent default — this month — on a $5.5 billion annual payment to the Treasury for retiree health benefits and expects to have a record loss of $14.1 billion next year. "Are we writing off first class mail? No," Williams said. "Customers are making their choices, and what we are doing is responding to the current market conditions and placing the Postal Service on a path to allow us to respond to future changes. We have to do what's in our control to put the Postal Service on sold financial ground." The cuts would close 252 of the nation's 461 mail processing centers beginning next spring. They would result in the elimination of roughly 28,000 jobs. Because the consolidations typically would lengthen the distance mail travels from post office to processing center, the agency also would lower delivery standards. Currently, first-class mail is supposed to be delivered to homes and businesses within the continental U.S. in one to three days. That would lengthen to two to three days, meaning mailers no longer could expect next-day delivery in surrounding communities. Periodicals could take two to nine days. About 42 percent of first-class mail is now delivered the following day. An additional 27 percent arrives in two days, about 31 percent in three days and less than 1 percent in four to five days. Following the change next spring, about 51 percent of all first-class mail is expected to arrive in two days, with most of the remainder delivered in three days. The Postal Service initially announced in September it was studying the possibility of closing the processing centers and published a notice in the Federal Register seeking comments. Within 30 days, the plan elicited nearly 4,400 public comments, mostly in opposition. On Monday, postal customers said they valued having mail service but also acknowledged the realities of the Internet in everyday life. "The post office services that we need as a nation are just too big at this point, so things have to be cut and there is nothing that can be done to change it other than email goes away," said Ron Connor of Naperville, Ill., as he walked into a local post office branch. Separate bills that have passed House and Senate committees would give the Postal Service more authority and liquidity to stave off immediate bankruptcy. But prospects are somewhat dim for final congressional action on those bills anytime soon, especially if the measures are seen in an election year as promoting layoffs and cuts to neighborhood post offices. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has been pushing for congressional changes that would give the agency more authority to reduce delivery to five days a week, raise stamp prices and reduce health care and other labor costs. But the agency also opposes current provisions in the House and Senate measures that would require additional layers of review before it could close post offices and processing centers. The Postal Service, an independent agency of government, does not receive tax money, but is subject to congressional control on major aspects of its operations. The changes in first-class mail delivery could go into place without permission from Congress. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate committee that oversees the post office, believes the agency is taking the wrong approach. She says service cuts will only push more consumers to online bill payment or private carriers such as UPS or FedEx, leading to lower revenue. And Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a member of the House committee that oversees the agency, said he would fight the changes. "This privatization plan is bad for Americans, bad for businesses, bad for the economy and bad for workers. We can do better than to dismantle the Postal Service and privatize its operations," he said. Ruth Goldway, chair of the Postal Regulatory Commission, said the commission will be reviewing the proposal closely to ensure that the Postal Service can continue its mission of providing adequate, effective service in a fair manner to all parts of the U.S. She said, "I think if the Postal Service does not respond to public concerns, it will bear the consequences of that itself."  

Senators irked by unpublished salmon virus study

  SEATTLE (AP) — American scientists and senators criticized Canadian officials after the disclosure that the country failed to reveal the results of tests that appeared to show the presence of a potentially deadly salmon virus nearly a decade before a salmon-virus scare this fall. The Canadian researcher's work recently resurfaced after she was denied permission by a Canadian official to try to have her data published in a scientific journal. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is calling for stronger communication between the two countries. Sen. Lisa Murkowski joined Cantwell in speaking out, demanding answers from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on whether it knew about the Canadian report and how NOAA is addressing the issue. “Weeks ago, I was troubled to hear of the possibility of infectious salmon anemia in nearby fisheries.  But now I am absolutely alarmed that this was not the first our neighbors to the east had heard of this, and had sat on critical information for ten years – putting us ten years behind in addressing this situation.” Researchers with Simon Fraser University in British Columbia announced in October they had detected infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, in two wild juvenile Pacific salmon collected from the province's central coast. The disclosure prompted fears the influenza-like virus could wreck the salmon fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest. U.S. scientists on Tuesday said they were disappointed that Canadian officials never mentioned the researcher's earlier, 2002 work. "We had no knowledge of any of this," said Jim Winton, a top fish virologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle who recently reviewed the researcher's findings "No one ever revealed that there was a publication that was ready to go to a journal or that the data were as compelling as they appear to be. This is puzzling and very frustrating." Cantwell said there must be more cross-border communication. "American and Canadian scientists need to have access to all relevant research on this deadly virus," the senator said in a statement. "We can't afford to leave the Pacific Northwest's fisheries jobs at risk." Fisheries and Oceans Canada issued a statement acknowledging the researcher's work, but said the tests were in error. "Based on the best science available, it was concluded that her results had produced a false positive," the statement said. However, Winton and other scientists said the research appeared to be thorough. The type of genetic tests the Canadian scientist performed were unlikely to have produced all false positives, unless all samples were contaminated, they said.

Alaska scientists raise smoking fish to art form

KODIAK, Alaska (AP) — In some Alaska places, smoking fish has been raised to an art form. Residents who smoke their own salmon or other species can make a product that commercial smokers wouldn't generally attempt — guarding the recipes they've perfected through years of trial and error. "One of the most unique products that I've seen over the years is a semi-smoked black cod that was smoked at 115 degrees Fahrenheit," said seafood technology specialist Chuck Crapo. "It wasn't quite cooked and it wasn't quite raw. It had an amazing texture to it." The various and intricate methods of smoking fish were the topic of a lunchtime lecture at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge visitor's center recently. Crapo is a fish smoking enthusiast and has been able to interact with home smokers and commercial operations across the state. "Every time I go in I learn something different, because everyone is doing so many different things with smoked fish," Crapo said. "There's really not just one way of doing it. There's probably 650,000 ways of smoking fish." Crapo said he's used some of the things he's learned over the years in his own fish smoking routine. "One of the biggest challenges in all this stuff is how do you make the same product year in, year out," he said. "It doesn't matter if you've had one year of smoking or 50 years of smoking — you still get surprised by how the product turns out. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it isn't." The key to getting consistent results, Crapo said, is doing the same thing the same way each time. Fish caught at different times of the year can smoke differently due to their fat content. Fish that are frozen may react differently from fish that are fresh. Different sized fillets may come out different, and temperature is always a factor to watch, whether cold-smoking or hot-smoking. It's a process that takes a few years to figure out, if it ever can be said to be truly figured out completely, he said. "Sometimes you think you have a consistent product and there's some material that doesn't react like you think it should," Crapo said. Crapo related how one man who smoked king salmon would not divulge his recipe — king salmon are difficult to smoke well. Crapo didn't mind sharing the formula he uses for brine and for dry salting, after explaining he has something of a sweet tooth. There are different theories to brining salmon before smoking it. Some cookers call for a solution high in salt and placing the fish in the solution for a short time. "One of the things I've seen over the years is processors are having a difficult time keeping their salt solution consistent, so they've decided to go to the other side and adjust their production system going down really low, using brines maybe 2 percent salt." The idea is to leave the fish in the brine for a long time, such as overnight, so the salt is distributed uniformly. "There are no hard and fast rules," Crapo said. "I've seen people do brining in all different ways." Crapo prefers a brine that is 3 percent salt and 10 percent brown sugar. That's 1/2 cup of salt and 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar for each gallon of water. This brine does not require a rinse step. Not only does the brown sugar satisfy his sweet tooth, Crapo said, it also gives a great color to the smoked salmon. For dry salting, the best way to produce a product you want to cold smoke, Crapo recommended a 1-to-1 mixture of salt to brown sugar with a brief rinse to clean off the salt before smoking. The salt reacts with proteins in the fish to produce a sticky film on the face of the filet, Crapo said. This film captures the smoke flavor, so it shouldn't be rinsed off too thoroughly. Another important part of the smoking process is drying. "You go down to the store and you look at product, you'll find some people who are really good at this and some people who aren't doing so good," Crapo said "Perhaps they're not drying well enough." The brine and the drying of the fish are two of the tricks that will improve the appearance and quality with the end result being a smoked product that looks like it is professionally produced, he said. Many people Crapo knows have gone into smoking salmon as a hobby and turned it into a business. "You can make so many different products," he said, "it's fun to experiment."  

Airlines cut small jets as fuel prices soar

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The little planes that connect America's small cities to the rest of the world are slowly being phased out. Airlines are getting rid of these planes — their least-efficient — in response to the high cost of fuel. Delta, United Continental, and other big airlines are expected to park, scrap or sell hundreds of jets with 50 seats or fewer in coming years. Small propeller planes are meeting the same fate. The loss of those planes is leaving some little cities with fewer flights or no flights at all. The Airports Council International says 27 small airports in the continental U.S., including St. Cloud, Minn., and Oxnard, Calif., have lost service from well-known commercial airlines over the last two years. More shutdowns are planned. Travelers in cities that have lost service now must drive or take buses to larger airports. That adds time and stress to travel. St. Cloud lost air service at the end of 2009 after Delta eliminated flights on 34-seat turboprops. Now, passengers from the city of 66,000 have a 90-minute drive to the Minneapolis airport 65 miles to the southeast. Roger Geraets, who works for an online education company based near St. Cloud., flies at least twice a month from Minneapolis. He used to connect from St. Cloud. Now he drives, leaving an extra half hour for bad traffic. There are other headaches. Parking at St. Cloud was free, but in Minneapolis it costs $14 per day. And getting through airport security in Minneapolis takes longer. Another city without service is Oxnard, 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, which lost three daily turboprop flights operated on behalf of United. The airport's website advises travelers to catch a bus to Los Angeles International Airport. Atilla Taluy, a tax preparer who lives in Oxnard, ends up driving or taking the shuttle to Los Angeles. "In morning traffic, it becomes quite a burdensome trip," he says. Pierre, S.D., will lose Delta flights to Minneapolis in mid-January. Pierre officials are waiting to find out whether those flights will be replaced or whether the city will be left with only Great Lakes Airlines flights to Denver. The Denver flights add almost 600 miles in the wrong direction for people who want to fly from South Dakota's capital to Washington, D.C. "I don't know if they really care about (passengers) in the small markets," says Rick Steece, a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control who travels overseas from Pierre two to three times a year. In the late 1990s, when jet fuel cost one-fourth of today's prices, the small jets and turboprops were a profitable way for airlines to connect people in small cities to the rest in the world. The flights attracted business travelers who tended to pay more for tickets. Airlines loved the planes. Bombardier and Embraer sold more than 1,900 50-seat jets during the late 1990s and early 2000s. "We all got carried away with it," says Glen W. Hauenstein, Delta's executive vice president for network planning, revenue management and marketing. Then jet fuel prices soared. They're at $3.16 per gallon today, up from 78 cents in 2000. That's changed the economics of small planes. For airlines, it all comes down to spreading fuel costs among passengers. A Delta 50-seat CRJ-200 made by Bombardier takes 19 gallons of fuel to fly each passenger 500 miles. Fuel usage drops to just 7.5 gallons per passenger on Delta's 160-seat MD-90s over the same distance. So while the bigger jet burns more fuel overall, it's more efficient. Delta is moving away from small jets more aggressively than other airlines. It will eliminate 121 50-seat jets from October 2008 through the end of next year. That will leave it with 324. Lynchburg, Va., lost Delta's three daily flights on 50-seat jets earlier this year, although US Airways still flies similar jets there. Airport manager Mark Courtney says Delta also served nearby Roanoke and Charlottesville, Va., each about 60 miles away, so it may have figured its Lynchburg customers will drive to those cities to catch a flight. Lynchburg is the home of the 2,000 workers for French nuclear services company Areva, and its largest international destination had been Paris by way of Delta's Atlanta hub, Courtney says. Some Delta routes served by 50-seaters are getting bigger planes instead. Delta's Atlanta-Des Moines flights are on larger MD-88s, which seat 142, and it has shifted the mix toward larger planes between Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., Nashville, and Savannah, Ga., too. United Continental Holdings Inc. still has 354 50-seat jets. But that number is expected to shrink, said Greg Hart, the airline's senior vice president of network. Continental's effort to get rid of its 37-seat planes shows how eager airlines are to quit flying them. It has 30 of the jets under lease, some until 2018. Twenty-five are grounded. The rest are subleased for $6 million less than Continental is paying for them. American Eagle, which feeds traffic to its corporate sibling American Airlines, owns 39 of the same 37-seaters . But 17 of them were parked as of the end of last year. Parent company AMR Corp. had been trying to sell some of those planes in 2009 but couldn't get any buyers. Many travelers won't miss the small jets. One of them, Tony Diaz, is a technology support manager from Dallas. He was changing planes in Minneapolis on his way to Moline, Ill. The second leg was a small Delta jet. "The larger planes are definitely better to ride in," he said, glancing down at his larger-than-average frame. There's still a market for larger jets, which allow airlines to spread out fuel costs. Nearly all so-called regional jets sold between 2010 and 2019 are expected to have 51 seats or more — with the biggest category being jets with 76 to 130 seats, according to Forecast International. "More of those are going to see the skies," said aviation consultant Mike Boyd. But those aluminum-skinned 50-seaters will be scrapped for parts. "They're on their way to the Budweiser display."

Delegation disappointed by supercommittee failure

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska's congressional delegation said Monday that the debate over debt reduction isn't over, in spite of the failure of a bipartisan supercommittee charged with finding $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski said members of Congress need to come together and work to put the nation on a financially sustainable course. Rep. Don Young remained hopeful that "cooler heads will prevail" and a debt reduction package of more than $1.2 trillion will eventually be passed, his spokesman, Luke Miller, said. "The congressman was skeptical of the process all along, as he would have preferred Congress not pass the buck to 12 members," Miller said. Failure by the committee is, by law, to trigger about $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts in military and domestic government programs beginning in 2013. Whether that happens, though, given next year's elections and their potential to shake up the political landscape, is unclear. The delegation expressed a willingness to keep pushing toward getting the nation on a stronger financial footing. Begich, a Democrat, said there must be "the right mix" of spending cuts, tax changes and investments in areas like education, infrastructure and energy to jumpstart the economy and reduce the deficit. He said the "wealthiest 2 percent need to pay their fair share to help make this happen." Murkowski, a Republican, called for a combination of spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs, the tax code and the federal budget process. Young, a Republican, is pushing development of American resources — including the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling — as a way to create jobs and boost revenue. The senators said the finger-pointing over why the supercommittee failed must end. "Americans don't care about whose fault it is. They just expect us to fix it and put our country on a sustainable course," Murkowski said in a statement. "Every day we don't develop a plan for the future, the deficit grows steeper, along with the stakes."

North Dakota surpasses oil production record

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota oil drillers have outdone last year's record crude production and are nearing a milestone of a half-million barrels of oil a day, according to an Associated Press analysis confirmed by state and industry officials. The AP count based on current drilling activity and production estimates found the state already has surpassed the 113 million barrels produced through all of 2010. Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, confirmed the numbers on Wednesday and said the state should end the year with about 150 million barrels of oil. "Those are significant numbers for home-grown domestic crude," said Ness, whose group represents about 250 companies working in the state's oil patch. Record drilling, strong crude prices and favorable fall weather have pushed production in the state's oil patch, said Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. The state Industrial Commission said crude production in September totaled 464,122 barrels a day, or nearly 123,000 more barrels than September 2010. The state Industrial Commission said crude production through September totaled about 105.8 million barrels. September statistics are the latest available because oil production numbers typically lag at least two months, but current drilling activity indicates the state likely surpassed last year's record sometime in October, Ness said. North Dakota sweet crude prices have been nudging $100 a barrel this week, up about $25 a barrel from last year. Helms said the state would surely hit the half-million daily barrel mark by year's end. "We should be about there," said Helms, the state's top oil regulator. He earlier had predicted the state to reach 475,000 barrels by the end of 2011. A record 204 rigs were drilling in western North Dakota in the past week, nearly all aiming for the rich Bakken and Three Forks formations. Helms expects about a dozen more rigs working by the end of the year. The state had a record 6,071 producing oil wells in September, up 120 from August, and nearly 1,000 more than a year ago. "It looks like we will continue drilling wells at a record pace," Helms said. Still, oil production has been slowed by the lack of crews to perform hydraulic fracturing, a process that uses pressurized fluid and sand to break open oil-bearing rock 2 miles underground. Helms said an additional 10 so-called frack crews are slated to be working in western North Dakota by next spring, bringing the number to 45. The ability to move crude to market is keeping pace with North Dakota's oil production, said Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. The so-called daily takeaway capacity for North Dakota and eastern Montana at present is about 773,000 barrels, including 438,000 by pipe and 335,000 by rail, he said.  

Economy gets mixed batch of news ahead of holidays

WASHINGTON (AP) — At the start of the critical holiday shopping season, the economy received a dose of mixed news Wednesday. Consumers barely increased their spending in October, and businesses pulled back on investment in long-lasting manufactured goods. Still, Americans' pay rose by the most in seven months, a sign they may spend more in coming weeks. Some economists were discouraged by the reports, especially after a separate report earlier this month showed Americans spent more on retail goods in October for the fifth straight month. Paul Dales, a senior U.S. economist with Capital Economics, said the slower consumer spending growth and decline in business investment suggest economic growth in the October-December quarter could be weaker than first thought. He now expects just 2.5 percent growth instead of 3 percent. Consumer spending increased 0.1 percent last month, the Commerce Department said. It was the poorest gain in four months. Spending on durable goods such as autos showed a solid increase. But spending on nondurable goods, such as food and clothing, fell. "Today's report was a good reminder that much of what consumers spend their money is not purchased at the shopping mall, but is rather spent on their homes and on their health," said James Marple, senior economist at TD Economics. "With services spending making up 65 percent of total consumption expenditures, the poor performance here more than made up for the continued gains in spending on goods." The report also showed that Americans earned more in October. Income increased 0.4 percent last month, the best showing since March. Private wages and salaries drove the gain. The solid increase followed five straight months of weak income gains. And when subtracting taxes and adjusting for inflation, income rose 0.3 percent in October. Many Americans chose to save the extra money. The savings rate ticked up to 3.5 percent of after-tax incomes, up from 3.3 percent in September — the lowest level since December 2007, the month the recession started. Some economists predicted consumer spending would slow because Americans spent more over the summer while earning less. Consumer spending is important because it makes up 70 percent of economic activity. A separate Commerce report showed businesses cut orders for durable goods in October. The 0.7 percent decline was largely because of a big drop in volatile commercial aircraft orders. Still, demand for core capital goods, which are considered a good proxy for business investment spending, dropped by the most since January. That followed two straight months of gains. Durable goods are products expected to last at least three years. Orders fluctuate sharply from month to month. A third report showed the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits rose slightly last week to a seasonally adjusted 393,000 after two months of steady declines. The four-week average of applications, which smooths week-to-week fluctuations, fell to its lowest level since April, the Labor Department said. The downward trend suggests companies are laying off fewer workers. The economy grew at a rate of 2 percent in the July-September quarter. The modest growth is not nearly enough to lower the unemployment rate, which has been stuck near 9 percent for more than two years. Many Americans could take home less next year if Congress doesn't extend a Social Security tax cut and emergency unemployment benefits. Both expire at the end of this year. The Social Security tax cut gave most Americans an extra $1,000 to $2,000 this year. If long-term unemployment benefits expire, roughly 6 million families could lose an average of $300 per week. For some, that's their only source of income. Both changes would leave Americans with an estimated $165 billion less to spend. The Federal Reserve expects the economy to grow only 2.7 percent next year, and economists say the expiration of the two programs could reduce growth by a full percentage point.  

Occupy protests cost nation's cities at least $13M

In this Nov. 15, 2011, file photo, police officers disperse Occupy Wall Street protesters near the encampment at Zuccotti Park in New York. A survey by the Associated Press shows that since the protests began, the Occupy Wall Street protests have cost local taxpayers at least $13 million in the 18 cities with active protests. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) NEW YORK (AP) — During the first two months of the nationwide Occupy protests, the movement that is demanding more out of the wealthiest Americans cost local taxpayers at least $13 million in police overtime and other municipal services, according to a survey by The Associated Press. The heaviest financial burden has fallen upon law enforcement agencies tasked with monitoring marches and evicting protesters from outdoor camps. And the steepest costs by far piled up in New York City and Oakland, Calif., where police clashed with protesters on several occasions. The AP gathered figures from government agencies in 18 cities with active protests and focused on costs through Nov. 15, the day protesters were evicted from New York City's Zuccotti Park, where the protests began Sept. 17 before spreading nationwide. The survey did not attempt to tally the price of all protests but provides a glimpse of costs to cities large and small. Broken down city by city, the numbers are more or less in line with the cost of policing major public events and emergencies. In Los Angeles, for example, the Michael Jackson memorial concert cost the city $1.4 million. And Atlanta spent several million dollars after a major snow and ice storm this year. But the price of the protests is rising by the day — along with taxpayer ire in some places. "What is their real agenda?" asked Rodger Mawhinney as he watched police remove an encampment outside his apartment complex in downtown Oakland. "I've gone up and asked them, 'What are you truly trying to accomplish?' I'm still waiting for an answer." The Occupy movement has intentionally never clarified its policy objectives, relying instead on a broad message opposing corporate excess and income inequality. Aside from policing, cleaning and repairing property at dozens of 24-hour encampments, cities have had to monitor frequent rallies and protests. The spending comes as cash-strapped police departments have cut overtime budgets, travel and training to respond to the recession. Nonetheless, city officials say they have no choice but to bring in extra officers or hold officers past their shifts to handle gatherings and marches in a way that protects free speech rights and public safety. In some cities, officials say the spending is eating into their overtime budgets and leaving less money for other public services. Protesters blame excessive police presence for the high costs in some places. And they note the cost has been minimal in other cities, and worth the spending because they have raised awareness about what they call corporate greed and the growing inequality between rich and poor. "We're here fighting corporate greed and they're worried about a lawn?" said Clark Davis of Occupy Los Angeles, where the city estimates that property damage to a park has been $200,000. In Oakland, where protesters temporarily forced the shutdown of a major port, the city has spent more than $2.4 million responding to the protests. The cash-strapped city, which had to close a $58 million budget gap this year, was already facing an uphill battle when Occupy Oakland began Oct. 10. "The cost of the encampments is growing and putting a strain on our already fragile resources — police, public works, and other city staff," said Mayor Jean Quan. "We will continue to be vigilant and ensure that public safety remains our first priority and that our downtown businesses are protected from vandalism. We will not tolerate lodging on public property, whether in parks or open space. It is illegal." Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said Occupy-related costs will soar past $3 million when it's all said and done. The city, he said, had to pay more for mutual aid when police removed the encampment at City Hall for a second time on Nov. 14, nearly three weeks after its first early morning raid, leading to dozens of arrests. "A lot of this could've been avoided if we stood our ground when we went in there in the first place," Arotzarena said. "I know we would've saved the city a significant amount of money." Portland, Ore., has spent a total of about $785,000 — much of that in police overtime when officers enforced the mayor's order to evict protesters from two downtown parks because of concerns about sanitation and public safety. Randy Leonard, a city commissioner and former firefighter, said he thinks the protest could have cost the city much more if not for a restrained police response. "The amount of money we're saving by (our) very strategic response versus sending police out en masse to arrest people and cause confrontations dwarfs whatever we've spent so far," Leonard said. In New York City, the police department has spent $7 million in overtime on the protests. But that's small change given the department's $4.5 billion budget, which allots money for emergency overtime. Last year, the NYPD spent about $550 million on overtime. "Public safety and providing essential services is what we do. So the first thing we're going to do is handle the situation, and any situation that comes up," Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said. "So yes, this has been significant and it's been going on for many days, but really in the broad scheme of things, it's not something that we aren't prepared to deal with." Pete Dutro, a protester in charge of finances in New York City, called the NYPD's response "completely unnecessary." "It's $7 million of taxpayers' money that's being spent to stifle our First Amendment rights," he said. "You know, they've consistently overreacted." In Seattle, where the National Guard was deployed during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, the mayor has publicly supported the Occupy protesters. But that doesn't mean taxpayers won't feel the pinch later on; the city has already spent at least $625,000 on the protests, with the police department taking the bulk of the costs. "These costs are currently being absorbed by the departments and may result in reduced service levels in other areas in the future," said Julie Moore, a spokeswoman for Mayor Mike McGinn. She did not specify which public services might suffer. Other cities were not too concerned about mounting costs, with officials saying they budget for events like these. "Our view is that unexpected things happen," said Sonji Jacobs, spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. "Occupy Atlanta is something that folks didn't necessarily see coming, but the good news is that we have flexibility in our budget." Overall, the city spent nearly $652,000 on the protests, paying for everything from overtime for police officers and firefighters to running its mobile command center. The city has $56 million in its reserve fund. Costs were far lower in Boston than City Council President Stephen Murphy initially predicted last month, when he said police costs for providing security at Occupy Boston for October would be as high as $2 million, based on what a police commander at the scene of mass arrests told him. The city of Boston has spent $575,000 in overtime through mid-November to pay officers policing Occupy Boston. That's about 2 percent of this year's $30 million police overtime budget. "We have a history of starting, as well as managing, historic demonstrations," said City Councilor Michael Ross. "We've done it well and we've managed it well, and that's not going to stop anytime soon, and that doesn't cease to exist after it hits a certain budget threshold." St. Louis; Des Moines, Iowa; Providence, R.I.; and Burlington, Vt., were among the cities surveyed by AP that reported costs of less than $10,000. Don Tripp, the parks director in Des Moines, said protesters camped out in a city park have arguably saved money by taking their garbage out of the park in barrels and shoveling the sidewalk after the first snow, tasks city employees normally handle. Unlike some other cities, protesters also agreed to pay the full cost of their electricity usage. Tripp noted the protests did come with an intangible "social cost" — discouraging other residents from using the park that they pay to maintain, too. "But at the end of the day, the thing that has been in the back of my mind is that during times of public discourse in our country parks are noted for being places where people have the chance to demonstrate their First Amendment rights," he said. "I think their use has been consistent with that." But not all protesters have been the best neighbors. In Tennessee, where protesters have been camped outside the Capitol, a State General Services spokeswoman said two cleaning crew members have spent about three hours every morning pressure-washing entrances to the building using household cleaners to deodorize them. And in Los Angeles, property damage to the park surrounding City Hall — where nearly 500 tents are jammed in — is estimated to be at least $200,000, including the destroyed lawn, sprinklers, graffiti on a fountain and damage to trees and shrubs. City Hall spokesman Peter Sanders says there's not a definite estimate on damage yet because workers have not been able to properly inspect the site. For police officers, the longer hours mean bigger paychecks but come at a cost, driving up their stress levels and potentially leaving less money for other initiatives in the long-term. Unlike a parade or a one-day march, the Occupy protests are in their third month in some cities and show no signs of easing up, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank for police chiefs. "You're dealing with 50 to 75 cities where this is going on. In some cities it's a minimal expense. In some cities, it's considerable," he said. "For a city that has slashed overtime, this has an impact. And that means they are going to have to cut back in other ways." ___ Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Nigel Duara in Portland, Ore., Christina Hoag in Los Angeles, Colleen Long in New York, Errin Haines in Atlanta, Jay Lindsay in Boston, Jamie Stengle in Dallas, April Castro in Austin, Texas, Patrick Walters in Philadelphia, Chris Grygiel in Seattle, Terry S. Collins in Oakland, Calif., Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt., Jim Salter in St. Louis, Lucas Johnson in Nashville, Tenn., Jessica Gresko in Washington, D.C., Laura Crimaldi in Providence and Karen Hawkins in Chicago.

Livestock farmers say ethanol eats too much corn

In this June 30, 2008, file photo farmer Nathan Weathers evaluates young corn stalks that will be used for feed corn and silage for nearby cattle feeders and an ethanol plant in Yuma in Yuma, Colo. The amount of corn used by the ethanol industry and demand overseas has farmers worried if corn production drops sharply, feed costs could skyrocket, forcing them to reduce their herd size. That, they say, could result in smaller meat supplies and higher prices at grocery stores. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Brian Brainerd, File) DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Livestock farmers are demanding a change in the nation's ethanol policy, claiming current rules could lead to spikes in meat prices and even shortages at supermarkets if corn growers have a bad year. The amount of corn consumed by the ethanol industry combined with continued demand from overseas has cattle and hog farmers worried that if corn production drops due to drought or another natural disaster, the cost of feed could skyrocket, leaving them little choice but to reduce the size of their herds. A smaller supply could, in turn, mean higher meat prices and less selection at the grocery store. The ethanol industry argues such scenarios are unlikely, but farmers have the backing of food manufacturers, who also fear that a federal mandate to increase production of ethanol will protect that industry from any kind of rationing amid a corn shortage. The subject of debate is the Renewable Fuel Standard, a 2005 law requiring the nation to produce 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2012. The standard was changed in 2007 to gradually increase the requirement to 36 billion gallons by 2022. While a $5 billion-a-year federal ethanol subsidy is scheduled to expire this year, the production requirement will remain, unless it's changed by Congress. That has other corn consumers worried that if production falls and rationing is needed, ethanol companies will be exempt. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reduced its estimate of this year's corn crop because of flooding in the Midwest and drought in the southern plains, and corn reserves are expected to fall to a 20-day supply next year. A 30-day supply is considered healthy. At the same time, the price of corn for livestock feed has risen from an average of just over $3 a bushel in 2006-07 to an average of more than $6 this year. "If we get a short crop, the ethanol industry does not participate in rationing and the brunt will fall on livestock and poultry," said Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics, a livestock and grain marketing and economic advisory company in Adel, Iowa. A bill introduced last month by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would partially waive the ethanol goals when corn inventories are low. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food and beverage makers, also has endorsed the bill. "We're behind livestock producers on this issue," said Geoff Moody, the association's director of energy and environmental policy. "We believe if there is a need to ration that ethanol will eat first because of the mandate." About 5.9 billion bushels of corn were used for animal feed last year; 2.4 billion were exported; and about 4.9 billion were used for ethanol, up from about 630 million bushels in 2000, according to the National Corn Growers Association. About 1 billion bushels were eaten by humans in products such as cereal, sweeteners, and beverages. U.S. corn farmers have steadily increased production over the years thanks to hybrid seeds and improved techniques, but Meyer said a 20 percent decline in the harvest would be enough to force corn rationing and lead to feed shortages. That would leave livestock farmers with little choice, he said. "We can't shut down feeding," Meyer said. "The only way to do that is to kill the animals." Even if there's no rationing, ethanol manufacturers generally have been better able to cope with high corn prices than livestock farmers because their business has bigger profit margins, said Darrel Good, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois. Randy Spronk, who raises corn and hogs in Edgerton, Minn., said farmers don't want to attack the ethanol industry but they want a plan in place if the corn supply should drop significantly. "We really don't want to attack ethanol but wise people make plans," he said. Matt Hartwig, chief of staff for the Renewable Fuels Association, called the effort to rewrite the fuel standard law "little more than a Trojan horse effort" to weaken or even eliminate it. He said the farmers' complaints were overblown and most livestock producers and meatpacking companies were making good profits. Also, the ethanol industry now produces about 1 billion gallons of ethanol more than is required and if corn supplies fall short, it could cut back, he said. The Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the fuel standard, said in a statement that states can already ask for a waiver "under certain circumstances, including inadequate domestic supply or harm to the economy or environment of a state." Texas Gov. Rick Perry did this in 2008, claiming rising corn prices were hurting ranchers in his state. The EPA said it denied the request because the quota for renewable fuel wasn't causing severe economic harm to the state. Meyer said many farmers are skeptical about a process that leaves such decisions to the EPA administrator, who "many in agriculture believe won't consider the best interest of livestock." Good, the University of Illinois farm economist, said meat supplies could tighten if competing demands force corn prices higher. He said it boils down to a simple choice: "We're going to have to reduce our rate of increase in corn consumption or we're going to have to produce more corn."

'Beyond' premiers in Anchorage

The independent movie “Beyond” made its world premiere at a standing-room only crowd at the Bear Tooth Theatre Pub in Anchorage on Nov. 17. The movie was shot entirely in Alaska last year. During that time it was called “Ghost Vision.” Cast and crew engaged the crowd and talked about the growing Alaska film community and the benefits of using the locations and the state film tax incentives. Actor Jon Voight referred to Alaska itself as a character in the movie. Many Alaskans worked on the production. Cheers of recognition erupted several times when familiar local names and places came on the screen. An especially loud applause was for the credits’ mention that the production was done entirely in Anchorage and Whittier. “Beyond” stars Voight as an Anchorage detective who reluctantly gains cooperation from a psychic to find a missing child. Actors Dermot Mulroney and Teri Polo also star.

Group wants changes to state tax credit law

Ron Holmstrom, left, Screen Actors Guild representative for Alaska, is shown during a news conference Nov. 16 in Anchorage. He is a member of the Alaska Film Alliance, a group that formed to seek changes in the state's film incentive program, which will be considered for reauthorization during the next legislative session. On the right is another alliance member, Jan Welt. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)   ANCHORAGE (AP) — A coalition of Alaska filmmakers and support personnel want changes to the state's tax incentive law, which is already credited with bringing two major movies to the state. The Alaska Film Alliance outlined broad changes during a news conference in Anchorage on Wednesday, just a few blocks from where finishing touches are being put on the Nicolas Cage feature film "The Frozen Ground." The group would like to see changes in how tax credits are distributed. Currently, the state is part of a broker system, where studios or producers sell — or broker — their tax credits to companies that have a tax liability in the state. Alliance spokeswoman and member Berndadette Wilson said it would be simpler to just cut a check to the producer. That, Wilson said, would also go a long way toward achieving another of the group's goals: more transparency within the film office. "The program needs to be transparent, competitive and good for all Alaskans, and we will work toward having a bill that will best serve our state," said another member, Ron Holmstrom, the Screen Actors Guild representative for Alaska. Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, is the sponsor of SB 23, a bill reauthorizing the tax incentive program. The House Finance Committee earlier this year held off a decision to extend the bill. It would add another $200 million to the tax incentive program and extend it for another 10 years past its 2013 expiration. The bill provides for incentives including a 30 percent tax credit to qualifying productions spending at least $100,000 in the state. Added incentives for Alaska hires, as well as offseason and rural shoots, boost credits to a maximum of 44 percent. "If they feel like in the past that their voice hasn't been heard by other private sector groups, their voice is being heard and has been heard by the Legislature and by me, in particular, and I am working with them and the drafters and attorneys to come up with language to incorporate any of their good ideas into the legislation," Ellis said. The alliance also is calling for more Alaska hires, and using part of the tax credits to build more infrastructure, like enclosed sets and sound stages, in Alaska. The group would also like to see a film board or commission oversee the state's film office instead of a small staff with an equally small budget. "They're a pretty lean operation at the film office, so I think some of the people in this new trade group have been frustrated there's not a more robust effort on the part of the film office," Ellis said. The idea of an overseeing board has merit, Ellis said, but might be a tough sell in the Legislature or Gov. Sean Parnell's administration. But that will be part of the bill's vetting process during the legislative session, which starts in January, Ellis said. Addressing another concern, Ellis said a program will start in the next few months that will help train Alaska tradesmen like carpenters and electricians to work on movie sets. The Legislature provided $486,000 over three years in the capital budget for the training. "Productions will not come here if there aren't qualified, trained workers," Ellis said, adding that many Alaskans received good training during last year's filming of the Drew Barrymore movie, "Big Miracle." "Between major motion pictures, reality TV shows, documentaries and TV commercials, which are very lucrative, I think people can piece together jobs and a livelihood in the state of Alaska," Ellis said.

GOP tax plan targets itemized deductions

Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., rushes through the Capitol Nov. 15 to a closed-door meeting with other Republican members of the Supercommittee, in Washington. A GOP plan to raise taxes by $290 billion over the next decade would limit deductions for mortgage interest, charitable donations and state and local taxes as part of a deficit-reduction deal. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) WASHINGTON (AP) — A GOP plan to raise taxes by $290 billion over the next decade would limit deductions for mortgage interest, charitable donations and state and local taxes as part of a deficit-reduction deal. Some workers could also see their employer-provided health benefits taxed for the first time, though aides cautioned that the plan is still fluid. The plan by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who serves on the 12-member debt supercommittee, would raise revenue by limiting the tax breaks enjoyed by people who itemize their deductions, in exchange for lower overall tax rates for families at every income level. Taxpayers who already take the standard deduction instead of itemizing — about two-thirds of filers — could see tax cuts. The one-third of taxpayers who itemize their deductions might find themselves paying more. The top income tax rate would fall from 35 percent to 28 percent, and the bottom rate would drop from 10 percent to 8 percent. The rates in between would be reduced as well. A GOP congressional aide said the plan is designed to raise taxes on households in the top two tax brackets. That would affect individuals making more than $174,400 and married couples making more than $212,300. Some Republicans say the plan offers a potential breakthrough in deficit-reduction talks that have stalled over GOP opposition to tax hikes and Democrats' objection to cuts in benefit programs without significant revenue increases. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke of it favorably, but his party's majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, has declined to endorse it. Several GOP presidential hopefuls also have criticized if for offering to increase taxes. Democrats, meanwhile, have panned the plan, saying it would cut taxes for the wealthy, raise taxes on the middle class and generate less revenue than advertised. The supercommittee has a Wednesday deadline to come up with a plan to reduce government borrowing by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade. If the panel fails, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts to domestic and military programs would take effect in 2013. Some details of Toomey's plan remain in flux, in part because he is open to changes to help forge an agreement, said the GOP aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations. The aide confirmed that Toomey's plan is closely modeled after a proposal by three experts at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private research organization perhaps best known for deciding when recessions begin and end. The three experts are Martin Feldstein, a Harvard University professor who was President Ronald Regan's chief economic adviser; Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget; and Daniel Feenberg, a research associate at the bureau. Under their plan, the tax benefits from itemizing deductions and excluding employer-provided health insurance from taxable income would be limited to 2 percent of taxpayer's adjusted gross income. That means if a taxpayer has an adjusted gross income of $50,000, deductions and exemptions could reduce his or her tax bill by a maximum of $1,000. Taxpayers who face limits on their tax breaks could opt to take the standard deduction instead. Currently, about one-third of tax filers itemize their deductions. The rest claim the standard deduction, which in 2011 is $5,800 for individuals and $11,600 for married couples filing jointly. The plan envisions millions of additional taxpayers switching to the standard deduction, which would simplify their returns, MacGuineas said. Policymakers across the political spectrum agree the federal tax code is too complicated, and most agree on a basic formula for simplifying it: Reduce tax breaks and use the additional revenue to lower the overall tax rates for everyone. There is little agreement, however, on which tax breaks to target. The most generous provisions exempt employer-provided health insurance and retirement benefits from taxable income. The top itemized deductions include those for mortgage interest, charitable donations and state and local taxes. Toomey's plan attempts to sidestep debates over which tax breaks to target and instead proposes to limit taxpayers' overall ability to reduce their tax bills. "This is a far more practical way to start to scale back the influence and costs of tax expenditures in the code by kind of glopping them together and capping them," MacGuineas said. "You're not picking the winners and losers." Economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin said the proposal "strikes me as quite clever." "Right now we let people choose between the standard deduction and itemized deductions," said Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and an economic adviser to President George W. Bush. "All we're saying is we're capping the total amount of the itemized deductions." Democrats, however, argue that such big reductions in tax rates would result in large tax cuts for the rich, which would be paid for by eliminating tax breaks that primarily benefit the middle class. Toomey's plan starts with the premise that tax cuts enacted under Bush, and extended through 2012 under President Barack Obama, would be made permanent. The tax rates would be reduced even further under Toomey's plan, giving even more benefits to the wealthy, according to an analysis of Toomey's plan prepared by Democratic congressional aides. Toomey's plan "would lower the average tax rate on high-income taxpayers significantly below the level of the Bush tax cuts, while raising the average tax rate significantly for low- and middle-income households above the level of the Bush tax cuts," the Democratic analysis said.

Chu says WH did not contact him on Solyndra loan

WASHINGTON (AP) — Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Thursday that no one from the White House ever contacted him to make a political decision on a half-billion-dollar loan to a California solar company that later went bankrupt. Testifying under oath on a widening controversy, Chu said he was unaware of his staff predictions in 2009 that Solyndra was likely to face severe cash-flow problems. He said that market changes which led to a steep decline in the price of solar panels were "totally unexpected." Solyndra went belly-up after getting the $528 million loan from the government, and Chu told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he made all decisions involving the loan to the solar-panel manufacturer. He said he made all judgments regarding Solyndra with the best interests of the taxpayer in mind. Chu also said he doesn't expect taxpayers will recover much of the money lost in the transaction. The secretary's position before the committee was that politics played no role in the decisions on the loan, despite emails and other documents released by panel that revealed some pressure from the administration on Solyndra to delay an early round of layoffs until after the 2010 elections. Other documents showed that campaign donor George Kaiser was involved in discussions about the loan program. "I want to be clear: Over the course of Solyndra's loan guarantee, I did not make any decision based on political considerations," Chu said. He was facing sharp questions in the biggest showdown so far in the energy panel's nine-month investigation of Solyndra. Chu denied he was influenced by a major Obama campaign donor, George Kaiser, an Oklahoma billionaire who invested $400 million in the solar company through an investment vehicle connected to a family foundation. Kaiser has said he played no part in helping Solyndra win the 2009 loan, but emails released last week show he discussed Solyndra with the White House on at least one occasion. Kaiser also directed business associates on how to approach the White House and Energy Department to help Solyndra deal with its financial problems. Chu told lawmakers he did not know who Kaiser was when the loan was approved. He says he is aware of Kaiser now, in the wake of media reports about Kaiser's investment in Solyndra. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said he found it hard to believe that Chu did not know who Kaiser was, since Kaiser was an Obama financial "bundler" who visited the White House frequently in 2009, while the Solyndra loan was being considered. "Everybody and their dog at DOE knew who he was. He was there at the White House 16 times," Barton said of Kaiser. In a joint statement, Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and Cliff Stearns of Florida said at the outset Thursday that they intended to find out how decisions were made to guarantee and lend more than $500 million to Solyndra. Upton chairs the energy panel while Stearns heads a subcommittee on investigations. "We want to find out why the administration restructured the loan after Solyndra had reached a technical default, and how they explain putting private investors in line ahead of taxpayers," the pair said. "And we need to understand how all the warnings, from inside and outside the Department of Energy, were ignored and this risky bet was allowed to happen." Chu said his decision to approve the loan was based on the analysis of experienced professionals and on the strength of the information they had available to them at the time. "The Solyndra transaction went through more than two years of rigorous technical, financial and legal due diligence, spanning two administrations, before a loan guarantee was issued," he said. "Based on thorough internal and external analysis of both the market and the technology, and extensive review of information provided by Solyndra and others, the (Energy) Department concluded that Solyndra was poised to compete in the marketplace and had a good prospect of repaying the government's loan." Chu also took responsibility for a later decision to approve a restructuring of Solyndra's debt that allowed two private investors to move ahead of taxpayers for repayment in case of default The Energy Department faced a difficult decision in late 2010 and early this year, he said: Force Solyndra into immediate bankruptcy or restructure the loan guarantee to allow the company to accept emergency financing that would be paid back first if the company was still unable to recover. "Immediate bankruptcy meant a 100 percent certainty of default, with an unfinished plant as collateral. Restructuring improved the chance of recovering taxpayer money by giving the company a fighting chance at success," Chu said. Although both options involved significant uncertainty, Chu said he made the judgment that restructuring was the better option to recover the maximum amount of the government's loan. The decision also meant continued employment for the company's approximately 1,100 workers, he said. Chu said it was worth noting that U.S. taxpayers remain first in line for repayment of the initial loan and noted that private groups invested nearly $1 billion in the company. Solyndra faced another crisis in August, Chu said. This time, after consulting with outside analysts, he decided that the U.S. should not provide additional support to Solyndra. Days later, the company filed for bankruptcy. While disappointed, Chu said the U.S. should continue to support clean energy. "When it comes to the clean energy race, America faces a simple choice: compete or accept defeat. I believe we can and must compete," he said. Solyndra was the first renewable-energy company to receive a loan guarantee under the 2009 stimulus law, and the Obama administration frequently touted the company as a model for its clean energy program. Chu attended a 2009 groundbreaking when the loan was announced, and President Barack Obama visited the company's Fremont, Calif., headquarters last year. Since then, the company's implosion and revelations that the administration hurried a review of the loan in time for the September 2009 groundbreaking has become an embarrassment for Chu and Obama and a rallying cry for GOP critics of the administration's green energy program.

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