Elwood Brehmer

‘Bioblitz’ turns up no new non-native aquatics

WHITTIER — When on the hunt for invaders, no news is usually good news. That’s exactly the kind of good news Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientists were able to report to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council after a summer-long search in 2016 for non-indigenous species in the waters around Valdez. Smithsonian Center Research Technician Linda McCann told the council’s board of directors during its September meeting in Whittier that the “bioblitz” the organization led in the Valdez harbor and other species surveys done in Prince William Sound over the summer turned up no new reports of ocean creatures not native to the sound. The Annapolis, Md.-area Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is an arm of the larger Smithsonian Institution focused on studying coastal ecosystems worldwide. McCann said the quick but intense bioblitz built on similar non-native species surveys the council had led. It was also a way to train “citizen scientists” on what to look for when out and about in the Sound. “We wanted to expand our methodology to include the general public,” McCann said. “That gives us an opportunity to not only get to some additional places to survey, but we’ve got some additional eyes out there to look for us.” The daylong bioblitz surveyed every slip in the Valdez harbor via plankton tows, fouling plates and crab traps. It followed two days of training to bring volunteers up to speed on what to look for. “We did a rapid assessment of all the structures (in the harbor) and we pulled up the traps and it also provided an opportunity for us to refresh some of our plate watch monitoring techniques,” McCann described. Plankton tows are done with ultra-fine mesh nets capable of capturing the often-microscopic organisms. The fouling plates used in the surveys were small PVC squares left in the water to be covered by all types of marine invertebrates. “(The plates) are colonized by all kinds of organisms in the water column, so this is a way for us to be able to monitor these organisms under the microscope,” McCann said. Prince William Sound RCAC staff were also trained to identify non-native zooplankton the researchers think could be on their way to Southcentral Alaska waters. Crab traps targeting European green crab were dropped around Valdez as well. European green crab were found in San Francisco Bay in the late 1990s and their movement northward has been tracked since. They were last identified about 60 miles south of Alaska waters and heavy trapping is being done in British Columbia to at least slow their spread, according to McCann. The only species caught in the traps were native crabs and fish, she added. In addition to the bioblitz in the Valdez harbor, Smithsonian researchers also led plankton tows at the city’s ferry terminal and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. oil tanker terminal. Fouling plates were also set at the tanker terminal and in the Cordova marina to expand the study beyond Valdez. Finally, dive surveys were conducted in Valdez and the nearby village of Tatitlek. The dives were in search of a non-native species of tunicates, McCann said. “The only thing we found in the dive surveys was a nonnative bryozoan, an encrusting moss-like animal that we know is all over Alaska and we had seen previously, so all good. The results of all of the surveys was great news,” she said. McCann recommended the Prince William Sound Council continue the “citizen scientist” monitoring and training and conducting comprehensive surveys similar to the bioblitz every two to five years. She also said Smithsonian staff learned that the training to identify particularly small non-natives is a must and that the training is most effective when focusing on fewer species. But it’s certainly something that could be expanded statewide by other organizations as well, she suggested. Council spokeswoman Brooke Taylor said the citizens’ organization is looking at conducting the larger surveys but hasn’t made any decisions yet. Taylor also noted the council does its own invasive species monitoring and sets traps for green crab. “What we do is kind of spot checking in a few communities and this bioblitz — it was basically a full-on check for invasive species in the port of Valdez versus the sampling that we do, which is kind of a snapshot of a couple specific locations throughout the year,” Taylor said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

ExxonMobil stands by its Point Thomson plan of development

ExxonMobil Alaska leaders insist the company has complied with a 2012 settlement with the State of Alaska over the long-challenged $4 billion Point Thomson North Slope natural gas project and that current state regulators don’t understand the company’s future plans. ExxonMobil Alaska Production Manager Cory Quarles wrote to Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack on Oct. 12 that the Point Thomson Unit plan of development the company submitted to the department’s Division of Oil and Gas on June 30 is sufficient, despite the division’s claims to the contrary. Division of Oil and Gas Director Chantal Walsh wrote a six-page letter to Quarles Aug. 29 detailing the multiple ways in which the state believes the company is not making good on its commitments to further develop Point Thomson, as the state argues is required under the Point Thomson Settlement Agreement reached in March 2012. As a result, and most importantly, Walsh approved ExxonMobil’s plan of development, or POD, for the existing Point Thomson initial production system and rejected the portion of the POD document outlining the company’s work to expand natural gas and condensate production from the unit. ExxonMobil submitted a single Point Thomson POD to the state on June 30, but division officials determined it contained two PODs because the 2012 settlement does not spell out what the company must do with its current infrastructure at the large eastern Slope gas field after this year. The settlement does, however, direct the company to start expanding production at Point Thomson by 2019 under one of several scenarios because a large natural gas export project hasn’t been sanctioned yet. Quarles first wrote that DNR regulations, the Point Thomson Unit agreement, and the settlement with the state all call for a single POD. “There are not separate PODs for separate projects, but a single POD for a unit or specific participating area,” he wrote. PODs are submitted annually by the unit operator company for every oil and gas unit in the state and detail the company’s work plan for the coming year. The plans are generally adhered to but not strictly enforced by the state if unforeseen factors, such as changes to a project’s economics from external market forces or technical challenges, arise. But in the unique case of Point Thomson, development is prescribed by the settlement, which the Division of Oil and Gas considers to be a contract with the state, meaning its terms must be upheld regardless of extenuating circumstances, according to Walsh. The current facilities at Point Thomson are capable of producing up to 10,000 barrels per day of natural gas condensates — diesel-like fluids that are shipped down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System — and up to 200 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. However, the company has been unable to keep production at those levels of late because of technical challenges with the reservoir, which is one of the highest-pressure gas reservoirs on Earth. The gas so far is being reinjected into the high-pressure reservoir. In the future, ExxonMobil plans to grow production to upwards of 50,000 barrels per day of condensates and 920 million cubic feet of gas and then pipe the gas 62 miles to the west for injection into the Prudhoe Bay field to further enhance oil recovery if the Alaska LNG Project has not been sanctioned by the end of 2019, according to the POD. Broadly, Walsh contends that ExxonMobil’s use of the words “if” and “would” when discussing future Point Thomson development indicate the company is not committed to what DNR feels are its obligations. According to Quarles, “the POD addresses all the matters identified in the Settlement Agreement and, contrary to the assertions of the division, is consistent with the terms of the Settlement Agreement.” The POD states ExxonMobil has to work out commercial arrangements with the Prudhoe Bay working interest owner companies before advancing into detailed engineering and design of the project. Walsh countered by noting that BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil collectively own 99 percent of both fields — Chevron holds 1.6 percent of Prudhoe — and therefore Exxon would be, in part, negotiating with itself. Quarles rebutted that ExxonMobil has obtained approval from the other working interest owners to progress the expansion project through the end of this year. “All requisite approvals to progress expansion project work to a decision point of year-end 2019 have not been received and thus ExxonMobil has clarified the statues and process for owner approvals,” he wrote. “The POD sets forth a plan to progress that work and that is what the Settlement Agreement requires. The Settlement Agreement neither envisions nor requires certainty of result.” Quarles included a five-page attachment to his letter outlining the regulatory and high-level technical steps the company would have to take to advance Point Thomson expansion. DNR’s Ed King, a special assistant to Mack, said the department is reviewing Quarles’ letter and has 60 days to make a determination. The 2012 settlement with the state also calls for any further disputes over Point Thomson to bypass the typical administrative procedures and be sent directly to state Superior Court. The Point Thomson Settlement, reached under former Gov. Sean Parnell, ended years of litigation between the state and the company in which the state argued ExxonMobil had not fulfilled its responsibility to develop the leases it held for many years. It also set a course for ExxonMobil to develop Point Thomson and start production by May 2016. Production started in late April of last year. Gov. Bill Walker, who’d lost to Parnell in the Republican primary in the 2010 governor’s race, promptly sued the state over the settlement in 2012 on the grounds that it was reached in private negotiations and was not in the best interest of Alaska residents. He withdrew his appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court in February 2015 shortly after taking office following his defeat of Parnell in 2014. Last year Walker’s administration deemed the Prudhoe Bay Unit POD incomplete until BP, as unit operator, and the state reached an agreement after a months-long standoff that the company would provide more information on its efforts to further the Alaska LNG Project in future PODs. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Solving deficit in ‘revenue’ session challenged on multiple fronts

Alaska legislators will convene in Juneau Oct. 23 at the behest of Gov. Bill Walker but indications are their time together could be brief. Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said his caucus will be in Juneau for the necessary formalities of the 30-day special session but will hold most of its committee meetings in Anchorage. Micciche expressed frustration over the situation in a brief interview. He said Senate Republicans asked Walker starting about five months ago to hold informal meetings with them and leaders of the Democrat-controlled House Majority on the hope the three sides could work out a compromise deal to fix the state’s ongoing budget problems. Those meetings never materialized, according to Micciche, so the sides are not any closer to filling the state’s $2.5 billion-plus budget deficit for yet another year. The Senate Majority decided to hold most of its meetings during the special session in Anchorage so the public in the state’s largest city would have more direct access to their legislators in a place where the message isn’t “filtered,” Micciche said. House Minority Republicans have pushed to move the special session to Anchorage, similarly claiming it offers the public more opportunities to provide input on issues and would save the state money because legislators from Anchorage and some from the Mat-Su area would not be able to claim per diem at the full rate they would get while in Juneau. Walker has said legislators can hold committee meetings wherever they choose, but as long as the capitol is in Juneau that’s where he intends to hold legislative sessions. Walker’s spokesman Jonathon Taylor wrote in an email simply that “the governor and member of his administration have been meeting informally with leadership from both houses on (fiscal issues) frequently, both during and outside of the regular and special sessions.” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said in a subsequent interview that he was surprised to hear of the comments from Senate Republicans, stressing his caucus has had regular discussions with officials in the governor’s office about the state’s fiscal issues. He added that House leaders have had “good, constructive dialogues” with their Senate counterparts over the summer but the topic of meetings to reach a fiscal compromise was never broached by the Republicans. “We have been willing to meet anywhere, anytime with them and the governor,” Edgmon said. The House will conduct its work from Juneau, according to Edgmon. An Oct. 18 press release from the House Majority references a Legislative Affairs Agency calculation that an Anchorage special session would cost the state nearly $1 million and be about $220,000 more expensive than Juneau primarily because the Legislature would have to rent space in Anchorage. The former Downtown Anchorage Legislative Information Office building served as a second capitol of sorts in 2015 and 2016 before the Legislature vacated the building last fall. The Midtown Anchorage LIO purchased last year for $11 million is not set up to handle all 60 legislators and staff. Regardless of who is where, Edgmon said ideally the Legislature would “get SB 54 passed and really take a hard look at a long-term fiscal solution” for the state during the special session. While it was first dubbed the “revenue special session,” Walker added Senate Bill 54 to address the rash of low-level crime that is plaguing the state to the call in addition to his modified head tax proposal. The Senate passed SB 54 last spring. The bill would roll back some of the sentencing provisions in the omnibus criminal justice reform legislation, Senate Bill 91, that passed the Legislature with strong bipartisan support in 2016. On the other ever-pressing issue of the state’s continuous budget imbalance, things don’t seem to have changed much. Senate Republicans continue to demand further budget cuts instead of enacting a broad-based personal income tax. The House Majority still insists such a tax is essential for a comprehensive fiscal fix to offset the more regressive nature of the other tools. That’s because the legislation to draw roughly $2.5 billion per year from the Permanent Fund’s income account — the single largest way to resolve the deficit, which passed both bodies but still needs to be reconciled — is likely to lead to smaller Permanent Fund Dividend checks than the current formula and would hit low-income Alaskans the hardest. Walker has generally supported the House Majority’s position, but has also indicated he wants the deficits resolved above all else and the exact means are negotiable. The 1.5 percent payroll tax under the governor’s latest plan is capped at $2,200 per person or twice the previous year’s PFD amount. The House will consider it, according to Edgmon, who called it “a starting point,” noting no bill makes it through the Legislature without changes. He stressed that besides the philosophical reasons for his coalition’s support of a broad-based tax, increasing fixed costs to the state will mean next year’s budget will have to be several hundred million dollars larger just to remain at the status quo. “Where will that money come from?” Edgmon asked. He said he hopes the Legislature can reach a fiscal deal this fall, allowing it to focus on other issues during the regular session starting in January and ideally setting it up to adjourn on time in April, he said. Budget fights in the Legislature have forced Walker to call special sessions each of the last three years to get a budget passed before the state government would shut down on June 30, the end of the state fiscal year. Edgmon acknowledged the challenge of reaching such an agreement in the coming weeks, but said not doing so puts the Legislature on a path to either completely drain the Constitutional Budget Reserve — the state’s last remaining savings account — or make an unstructured draw from the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve Account next spring to fill the deficit, which would set a very bad precedent, he said. “We have less than a year’s worth of reserves left,” in the CBR, Edgmon noted. Administration officials have said the roughly $2 billion that is expected to be in the CBR at the end of the current fiscal year should be left to cover a state emergency or other unexpected expenses that could crop up. Legislators have not objected to that stance but so far have not been able to come to agreement on another option. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

State still seeking major LNG customer by year-end

The Alaska Gasline Development Corp. won’t be asking for additional funding before the agency knows if it will build the roughly $40 billion Alaska LNG Project, corporation leaders told legislators Oct. 16. AGDC Board of Directors Chairman Dave Cruz said in response to questions from several legislators that the state-owned corporation won’t be requesting additional funding in the 2019 fiscal year state budget, which will be sorted out in the next regular legislative session starting in January. He testified before a joint Alaska LNG Project update hearing of the House and Senate Resource committees in Anchorage. Last February the AGDC board approved a $102 million budget plan to carry the agency through the next 18 months, or roughly until midsummer 2018 when the 2019 fiscal year begins. The AGDC spending plan was meant to complete the needed work within the available funds instead of matching funding to meet the expected workload as the Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker spend another year trying to pull the state out of annual deficits averaging nearly $3 billion. At the time, the corporation had $102 million left from legislative appropriations dating back to 2013 to pursue the Alaska LNG Project and the smaller Alaska Standalone Pipeline, known as the ASAP project. However, AGDC Senior Vice President Frank Richards said the agency had spent only about $22 million this year through August; its expenses have averaged about $3 million per month despite board authorization to spend about twice that. As a result, AGDC should get to a final investment decision on whether to build the megaproject much of the state has waited decades for without asking for more money. The major final investment decision is currently pegged for early in 2019 based on AGDC’s current schedule. Democrat Sen. Donny Olson said he was concerned that the nearly $700 million the state has spent on the project over the past five years has led to a mantra that the Alaska LNG Project is “too big to fail” and AGDC and the Walker administration might not be willing pull the plug on it even if it becomes clear the project doesn’t fit in the ultra-competitive global LNG market right now. Cruz acknowledged that AGDC leadership doesn’t yet know if the project will ultimately be successful, but added, “There’s only one way you get that (money) back: it’s to follow through and build something.” Founder and owner of the heavy construction firm Cruz Construction Inc., Cruz has served on the AGDC board since its inception in 2013 and has been one of the biggest proponents of the state’s effort to utilize the long-stranded North Slope natural reserves, through either the state-focused ASAP project or the larger Alaska LNG export plan. “I would say the sun and the moon and the stars have aligned to bring closure to this project,” he said. Alaskans should have a much better idea as to whether the celestial objects will stay in sync at the end of the year when AGDC officials hope to have a prospective Asian LNG customer in the fold. President Keith Meyer, who usually leads AGDC’s legislative presentations, is currently in Asia marketing Alaska LNG to potential buyers. Cruz said Meyer was hired in 2016 with the lone task to “get us a gas customer.” “Are we going to be able to deliver a gas customer? That’s what it really boils down to,” Cruz said. Securing even one large customer would allow AGDC to then start soliciting investors and other forms of project financing, which would be underwritten by the take-or-pay customer LNG contracts. AGDC is shooting to have a letter of intent from an Asian utility or industrial gas buyer by the end of this year. Cruz conceded AGDC probably won’t have a firm contract with a customer by the end of the year, but receiving a letter would be the next best thing. “They don’t break those letters of intent,” he said of LNG buyers. Getting a letter of intent by Dec. 31 would consummate a year of incremental progress for the corporation, which took a big step in April when it filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to start the daunting environmental impact statement, or EIS, process for the Alaska LNG Project that would span from the North Slope wells to a 20 million tons per year LNG plant in Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula. An 800-mile buried gas pipeline would connect the infrastructure at each end of the state’s mainland. In June, AGDC announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with Korea Gas Corp. to work on a partnership to advance Alaska LNG. Kogas, as it is commonly known, is a government-owned corporation and one of the largest LNG buyers in the world. While it was reported that Kogas has MOUs with other hopeful LNG sellers, Cruz said Alaska’s project, while very large, would be a page in the supply portfolio for many Asian utilities that buy immense amounts of LNG each year. AGDC officials are currently in talks with a Chinese state-owned utility that serves 300 million customers, he noted. “Our project is a drop in the bucket for them to contract with us for a long-term supply,” Cruz said. AGDC then received a favorable tax-exempt opinion from the Internal Revenue Service in July, meaning profits the corporation would net for the state from the project would be free of federal income taxes, as AGDC is an arm of the State of Alaska. Profits earned by private investors in the project are still subject to federal taxes. Then, at the end of August, the corporation got interest from one of the large North Slope producers — and former partners with the state in the Alaska LNG Project — in its capacity solicitation, according to AGDC officials. Which of the “big three” has interest in signing up for capacity in the gas pipeline and LNG tolling system is confidential, but Cruz reiterated at the meeting that ConocoPhillips Alaska leaders have repeatedly said the company prefers to sell its gas at the wellhead. In January, BP and AGDC announced a deal in which the producer — which operates the Prudhoe Bay field expected to supply three-quarters of the natural gas for the project — would assist AGDC in advancing Alaska LNG through the end of the year. Regulatory progress AGDC’s Richards said one of the ways the corporation has saved money is by maximizing in-house resources on EIS work to avoid paying outside contractors whenever possible. The corporation has spent the last five months answering FERC questions on the roughly 60,000 pages of environmental, engineering and socio-economic information it filed with the commission to start the EIS in April. In total, AGDC has already responded to more than 800 data requests from federal regulators, according to Richards. He said he hopes the numerous prior examinations of a gasline project will help FERC get the EIS done in the 18-month window AGDC is shooting for. “Many of the questions they’re asking have been asked and answered before,” Richards said. The Alaska LNG Project also qualifies for measures in the 2015 surface transportation reauthorization known as the FAST Act that set a comprehensive schedule for all federal permits for large transportation projects and are intended to expedite project reviews when possible. To that, Richards said he expects FERC to publish the project’s EIS schedule “any day now.” Additionally, the Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure executive order President Donald Trump signed Aug. 15 directs agencies to issue determinations on infrastructure projects within two years of permit applications and requires federal agencies to follow a prescriptive permitting timetable for infrastructure projects. Richards said the Alaska LNG Project meets the guidelines of the executive order. The permitting timeline is critical because AGDC is trying to align its efforts to secure a customer and project financing with the countless federal authorizations it needs to hit the 2019 investment decision and start construction to have the Alaska LNG Project in service by 2025. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

ANWR authorization through budget would avoid filibuster

Republicans in Congress are angling to use the budget process as a means to opening part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. The House of Representatives passed House Concurrent Resolution 71 on Oct. 5, which authorizes spending for the 2018 fiscal year and provides general recommendations on spending priorities through 2027. It includes language instructing the House Natural Resources Committee to find ways to generate at least $5 billion in new revenue over the next 10 years as a way to cut the annual deficit. The 464-page budget report also instructs Congress to focus on energy production from federal lands. “Unlocking domestic energy supplies in a safe, environmentally responsible manner will increase receipts from bonus bids, rental payments, royalties, and fees,” the budget report states. “The budget allows for greater access in areas such as Alaska, the Outer Continental Shelf, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Intermountain West.” The Senate Budget Committee had its own instructions for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to find ways to generate $1 billion for the Treasury in its 2018 budget resolution released Sept. 29. Murkowski said she was happy to see the directive. “This provides an excellent opportunity for our committee to raise $1 billion in federal revenues while creating jobs and strengthening our nation’s long-term energy security,” Murkowski said at the time. Rep. Don Young said a day prior to the House vote that he’s committed to working with the Senate through budget reconciliation to open ANWR to industry. “There is the ability to include language in (budget) reconciliation that would pave the way to open ANWR — the 1002 — for development,” Young’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow said. The ANWR coastal plain is regularly called the “1002 area”, a reference to the section of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, that describes it. ANILCA established many of the designated federal areas in Alaska, including ANWR. Section 1002 of the exhaustive legislation called for the initial wildlife and hydrocarbon resource assessments and outlines the subsequent steps for oil and gas exploration and development if Congress were to approve it. Using the federal budget as a vehicle to authorize drilling in the refuge would allow Republicans to avoid the 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold needed to pass most bills in the Senate because any measure deemed to reduce the deficit only need simple majority support from each body. The lease and royalty revenue ANWR activity would go towards closing the deficit and therefore standalone ANWR legislation is not needed, Shuckerow said. “Though imperfect, this budget is an important step to unlocking our nation’s tremendous energy resources within ANWR, reforming frivolous regulations that hinder job creation and growth, and tackling the first major tax reform in over three decades,” Young said in a release from his office. It’s an avenue similar to that Republicans tried to use to repeal the Affordable Care Act earlier this year but failed because there was not enough support within the party on the Senate side to reach 50 votes for multiple reasons. Young often mentions he has shepherded ANWR-opening legislation through the House 12 times during his tenure, but each time it has died often in the Senate and once via a veto from President Bill Clinton in 1996. In this case Republicans are trying to replicate what the House did while George W. Bush was president in 2005, when it included opening the ANWR coastal plain to industry activity in the fiscal year 2006 budget, according to Shuckerow. However, it stalled in the Senate and was not included in the final budget bill. Whether there will be enough votes in the Senate to pass a budget bill with ANWR language is still unclear, however. With 52 Republicans in the Senate the margin for dissent is small and Republicans Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine have previously broke from the party on the issue and opposed opening the refuge to industry. If they continue to hold that stance there would be no room for other Republicans to break from the party’s traditional stance with Vice President Mike Pence needed to break a tie if necessary. Recent iterations of ANWR-opening legislation introduced in both the House and Senate by the Alaska congressional delegation have limited the overall development footprint inside the refuge’s coastal plain to 2,000 acres. The ANWR coastal plain is about 1.5 million acres of the total 19.2 million-acre refuge. On May 31 in Anchorage, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered the U.S. Geological Survey to update its oil and gas resource assessment for the refuge, a process that is still ongoing. The last assessment was done in 1998 using seismic data from the 1980s; it concluded the mean estimate for recoverable oil in the coastal plan to be 7.6 billion barrels, with another 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas likely in place. During the winter of 1985-86 Chevron and BP partnered to drill the KIC-1 exploration well on ANWR in-holdings owned by Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. It is the only well drilled in ANWR and what was found remains one of Alaska’s best-kept secrets. National and state-focused conservation groups have long opposed drilling in ANWR, contending it is the most pristine refuge left in the country and the industry activity could drastically damage the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates through the refuge and is relied upon by Alaska Natives and Canadian First Nation Tribes. Pro-development Alaskans counter by noting many North Slope residents support opening ANWR. Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the area’s Native regional corporation has long pushed for drilling the coastal plain. Developing the contentious area is a priority for Voices of the Arctic Inupiat, a nonprofit formed in 2015 that includes 20 North Slope villages and Native corporations as its members. But leaders of the Gwich’in tribe in the Upper Yukon region of Alaska and Canada argue that using the general position of North Slope residents to show all Alaska Natives support opening ANWR is ignoring the people who actually depend on the Porcupine caribou and in-turn the refuge. Gwich’in Steering Committee Executive Director Bernadette Demientieff said in an interview that her group — formed in 1988 to oppose development in ANWR — is going to make itself heard. “Enough is enough. We don’t want more drilling,” Demientieff said. “The people who want more drilling hear what they want to hear.” The Native regional and village corporations that support development have a profit motive and do not speak for the people of the region, she contends. The Gwich’in people rely on the Porcupine caribou for up to 80 percent of their diet, she said, and by extension are “a part of the caribou herd.” Climate change has already pushed the herd’s migratory route through the refuge farther north and potentially into the area that could be developed, according to Demientieff, while other North Slope caribou populations have generally declined of late. “You can’t tell us that our food security is going to be protected when this is happening,” she said. “It’s just really frustrating that we have to be fighting for our way of life like this.” ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Judge overturns Mallott on salmon habitat proposal

Alaskans seeking more protections for the state’s salmon notched a victory Oct. 9 when a Superior Court ruling overturned Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott’s denial of a ballot initiative to overhaul permitting laws for projects in and around salmon-bearing waters. Judge Mark Rindner wrote in a 20-page order that the salmon habitat initiative does not prescribe how countless miles of state rivers and wetlands be used, but rather simply regulates the quality of that water while it is in use. In September the Department of Law deemed the initiative, pushed by the conservation group Stand for Salmon, as an unconstitutional appropriation of state assets and thus recommended Mallott reject its inclusion on the 2018 statewide ballot. He did so Sept. 12. The Alaska Constitution prohibits voter initiatives from appropriating state assets; that power is reserved for the Legislature. In June, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bakalar wrote a letter to initiative sponsors Mike Wood, a commercial fisherman, Bristol Bay lodge owner Brian Kraft and Gayla Hoseth of Dillingham, informing them that a prior version of the initiative would likely be denied because it was deemed to appropriate state resources. At the same time, the state Supreme Court has instructed lower courts interpret initiatives broadly to give voters a say whenever possible, Rindner noted in his order. “We need to have clear rules for projects proposed in sensitive salmon habitat to ensure they’re being done responsibly — as well as provide more certainty in the permitting process for the industry that is proposing the project. That’s exactly what this measure calls for. It works to ensure a prosperous economy for all Alaskans by bringing balance to our approach for permitting,” said Wood, who chairs Stand for Salmon. The decision comes just six days after Bakalar and Trustees for Alaska argued the case in front of Rindner. The mining group Council of Alaska Producers also argued in support of the state’s position. Trustees for Alaska is a nonprofit environmental advocacy law firm, which is representing Stand for Salmon in its appeal. Bakalar contended in oral arguments that a plain-language reading of the eight-page initiative leads to the conclusion that fish habitat is prioritized above all other uses, namely any type of meaningful development. And she said Rindner needed to rule based on how voters would interpret the initiative in the voting booth. Bakalar said, and Rindner similarly wrote, that the dispute is not over whether or not the initiative is good policy, but whether or not it ties the Legislature’s hands when deciding how to appropriate state resources. History suggests the case is headed for the Supreme Court, as a high court ruling is the only way it is truly settled, but Bakalar wrote in an email to the Journal that evaluating whether or not to appeal will take several weeks. Valerie Brown, legal director for Trustees for Alaska and the attorney who argued on behalf of Stand for Salmon, centered her argument on language in the initiative that mirrors what was in a 2008 ballot initiative attempting to restrict mine waste from being discharged into state waters. Voters ultimately shot down that initiative but the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality after a challenge by Pebble Ltd. Partnership, which similarly claimed it amounted to an unconstitutional appropriation of state water. The habitat initiative aims to restrict developments that, even after attempts at mitigation, would inflict “significant adverse effects” on salmon streams. The 2008 “Pebble” initiative looked to prohibit operations that “could adversely affect water that is used by humans or salmon.” The current initiative would allow for developments that could restore damaged habitat in a “reasonable period.” Council of Alaska Producers attorney James Leik told Rindner during the Oct. 3 hearing that Stand for Salmon just scattered the words “adverse effect” into the revised initiative to align it with the Pebble case. If so, it worked. Rindner concluded there is leeway in the language for it to be a permissible regulation and not prescriptive appropriation in favor of fish. “(The initiative’s) definition of ‘substantial damage’ leaves the Legislature the discretion to determine ‘accepted mitigation measures,’ what level of impact ‘adversely affects’ the habitat, the acceptable probability of recovery for fish habitat to ‘likely recover,’ and what timeframe constitutes recovery within a ‘reasonable period,’” he wrote. If the Pebble initiative was constitutional, the one in question today is too because it also “leaves the Legislature discretion in its implementation through the use of a plethora of undefined terms,” Rindner continued. Opponents argue the language ostensibly prohibits any large development that could result in such impacts, but the issue at hand is a matter of law and no one has been able to provide any evidence supporting that claim, according to Rindner. “The impact of the initiative at this time is pure speculation,” he wrote. He wrote further that the Legislature would still have enough room that it “could implement” the initiative in a way that allows development projects. The state’s current salmon habitat law, Title 16, directs the Fish and Game commissioner to issue a development permit as long as a project provides “proper protection of fish and game.” The petitioners contend that is far too vague and an update is needed to just define what “proper protection” means. Rindner added that the argument purported by the Council of Alaska Producers that the initiative favors water for fish habitat mischaracterizes the basis of what the proposed law change is. That argument concludes that water is a public asset and fish habitat is how that asset is used, which is wrong, according to Rindner. “The correct taxonomy is that water is a genus of public asset, and anadromous fish habitat is a particular species of public asset within the water genus,” he described. “(The initiative) does not explicitly favor any particular use of anadromous fish habitat between recreational fishing, kayaking, commercial fishing, hatcheries, mining, pipeline, or dams; it only concerns itself with the condition of the water,” Rindner continued. He ordered the Division of Elections to immediately begin printing petition booklets for the initiative and have them ready by Oct. 17. Bakalar said that while the state obviously disagrees with the decision, officials have been working with Stand for Salmon during the litigation process to make sure the booklets were ready if need be. Even a favorable court ruling does not mean the initiative will surely reach the 2018 ballot. The sponsors still need to get more than 30,000 signatures supporting it statewide before it can be fully certified. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

CEO unveils Pebble 2.0

Pebble Limited Partnership has finally done one of the things it has long been criticized for not doing: the company released an actual mine plan. CEO Tom Collier discussed the major points of the plan Oct. 5 at a Resource Development Council for Alaska meeting in Anchorage. Long a topic of ample speculation, Collier said the mine plan the company plans to submit for environmental review to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December has a footprint that is 60 percent smaller than the concept the Environmental Protection Agency used to determine Pebble’s prospective impacts in the 2014 Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. He noted that the 1,000-plus page assessment, which Pebble contends was a biased document from its genesis aimed at stopping the project, determined a much smaller mine could pass permitting muster. Pebble’s plan is for a mine pit, waste rock and tailings storage facility to cover 5.4 square miles, which Collier described as “in the ballpark” of the 4.2 square mile project the EPA then deemed acceptable. The EPA used a concept operation covering 13.5 square miles when it concluded in the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment that what was believed to be the company’s plan was unacceptable. In May, the company settled a lawsuit it filed in 2014 against the EPA over the process behind the watershed assessment and the agency’s subsequent proposal to preemptively prohibit the project, which put intense criticism on the Trump administration by Pebble’s opponents. However, Collier said the company also had a deal with the Obama administration that fell apart. “Few people know this — we actually negotiated a settlement with the Obama team before they left the White House and at the very last minute the administrator of the EPA (Gina McCarthy) refused to sign the document that we’d been told for a week had been approved,” he revealed. The EPA is currently taking public comments on whether it should reverse the process started in 2014 to ban a large mine in the Bristol Bay region, despite the fact that as a condition of the Pebble settlement the assessment remains valid and on which the Pebble “veto” was based. In late 2014, Alaska U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland issued an injunction stopping the EPA from completing the Pebble veto until that suit was resolved. Three-quarters of Pebble’s proposed footprint would be the tailings storage facility. Shrinking the size of the project allowed Pebble to move it out of the Upper Talarik Creek drainage that feeds Iliamna Lake and the Kvichak River. The Kvichak River has one of the two largest sockeye returns in Bristol Bay most years. The smaller mine plan also eliminates waste rock piles, as the company will start mining where the copper and gold ore is closest to the surface, according to Collier. Waste rock that is removed will be used in the tailings dam. Additionally, Collier said Pebble acquiesced to opponents over one of their biggest concerns with the project and will not be leaching gold out of the ore. The secondary recovery process would otherwise recover about 15 percent of the available gold, he said. “We’re going to leave that 15 percent of gold in the rock at the mine site and there won’t be any cyanide at Pebble,” Collier said. A redesigned tailings facility with improved buttresses and a more gradual slope increases protection against earthquakes, according to Collier. He said the tailings dam would be built to withstand ground acceleration more than twice what the U.S. Geological Survey believes there is a 2 percent chance to exceed every 50 years at the project site. He also noted the nearest fault line — the Lake Clark fault northwest of the project site — has not been active since the last ice age. “We believe that our mine has been designed to withstand the greatest possible seismicity predicted by science, period,” Collier asserted. Tailings with acid generating potential would be stored in a separate, lined containment facility. Leading up the expected release of Pebble’s new plan, many mine opponents, including state House Speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, who represents the Bristol Bay region, said there is nothing Pebble can do to change their minds about the project they feel will unnecessarily put the region’s world-class salmon fisheries — and the jobs linked to those fisheries — at risk. Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, an organization that has been at the forefront of the fight against Pebble, said the revised vision for the mine was met with skepticism from Bristol Bay tribes in a release from the group and would still be one of the world’s largest mines. “This is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. For more than a decade, the Pebble Limited Partnership has tried to convince Alaskans that it should build a mine in Bristol Bay, at the headwaters of the world’s last great salmon runs,” Hurley said. “In that time, opposition has only increased, and Bristol Bay has been crystal clear on its feelings towards Pebble.” If the worst were to happen and the tailings dam failed — a scenario Collier said many inside Pebble did not want him to discuss — the smaller project would now impact only the North Fork of the Koktuli River, he said, as it is no longer in the Upper Talarik drainage. He added that based on the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, about 20 miles of the North Fork of the Koktuli would be severely damaged for about a decade from turbidity in the water. After that the river would eventually return to being viable fish habitat. The North Fork of the Koktuli, which feeds the Mulchatna River and eventually the famed Nushagak River, produces approximately 0.02 percent of the sockeye salmon that return to Bristol Bay each year, according to Pebble. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to people and asked them why are they against the Pebble project and the answer they tell me is that if we have an accident we’ll kill all the fish in Bristol Bay,” Collier said. “The Obama administration EPA says we’re only going to kill two one-hundredths of one percent if we have a catastrophic incident that we don’t think is even possible to have.” Finally, Pebble has scrapped plans for a road around giant Iliamna Lake in favor of employing an ice-breaking ferry to traverse the lake to supply the mine via a shorter road from a new port that would be built on Cook Inlet near Augustine Island. Cutting out miles of roads removes much of the project’s impacts to wetlands, Collier said. The EPA’s Pebble concept had 86 miles of new roads; the new plan needs 42 miles, according to the company. “Is this project worth building given all the other benefits, given all the risks of it? Damn straight it is and these numbers I think show that,” he said. He continued: “The key, though, is that all this stuff I talked to you about today has to go into the environmental impact statement process and it will be tested. And if the calculations we’ve done are correct we’re going to get a permit. If they’re not correct, if they’re not reliable, we’ll have to change them; we’re going to have to modify our proposal so that it will be correct. “We’re not going to build a project that’s going to damage that fishery. We’re not going to build a project that’s going to have significant environmental damage to that region. But we’re confident that we can build the one that we’re talking about now without any of those consequences and we’re going to move it forward aggressively.” Gov. Bill Walker said that he doesn’t have enough information on Pebble’s new plan to support it in a recent interview with Alaska Public Radio. In an Oct. 6 prepared response to Walker’s comments, Collier said Walker’s hesitancy towards the project is appropriate at this point. Walker “should be skeptical; ask hard questions; and allow the permitting agencies to do their work,” Collier said. The governor said during his 2014 campaign that he was against the — at that point — large mine concept because of the potential impacts it could have on Bristol Bay fisheries, but also criticized the EPA for its move to preemptively prohibit the project because of the fear it could apply the same process to other projects in the state. Collier said in an interview following his talk that the company doesn’t have plans now to expand the project beyond the current proposal if it reaches production but noted any expansion would trigger another scrupulous environmental review. Pebble’s owner company, Northern Dynasty Minerals has indicated in recent investor presentations that it estimates the Pebble deposit holds up to 1.9 percent of all the gold ever mined in recorded history. “It’s not like since you’ve done phase one you get a leg up at all. You start all over, from scratch, new permit,” Collier said of expanding the mine. “And the key to that new permit is it’s going to look at whether the two together are too big and if it’s too big then it’s not going to get a permit but that doesn’t affect the first one. The first one stands on its own. If it works, it works and then if we propose a second one and it’s concluded that’s too big, it’s too much for the region then it doesn’t get built but that’s tomorrow’s question.” He also said that while Pebble and Northern Dynasty leaders previously said the parent company needs to secure a second investor in the project before starting what is expected to be a $150 million environmental impact statement, or EIS, process, that isn’t necessarily the case any longer. But he also said during his presentation that Northern Dynasty should announce a partner on Pebble by the end of the year — the time by which it will be known if Pebble makes good in its statements to formally apply for permits this go-round. Sharing the project The benefits of the mine start with jobs and could end with direct revenue payments to local residents based on the programs Pebble is proposing. Collier acknowledged that “Pebble’s got a credibility problem,” which in part stems from numerous claims not coming to fruition over a decade that the company would advance the project. Further, he noted that because the project is on state land there is no established way for Alaska Native residents in the region to benefit from it as have Natives closer to other mines in the state on Native corporation land. As a result, Pebble is suggesting it could set up a corporation to hold 5 percent of the project and distribute that revenue to the five area Native village corporations and nearby residents. Based on the company’s projections, such a setup would directly pay each of the village corporations about $500,000 and each resident, assuming about 5,000 people signed up, about $500 annually. Pebble would also bring excess power to a region that has exorbitant electricity prices — upwards of 80 cents per kilowatt-hour, Collier said. The company is in discussions with some of the large regional Native corporations in the state about owning the prospective power plant and other infrastructure related to the project, he added. “We’ll need to work with the state; we’ll need to work with the villages on how we wheel that power from the mine site to the region but that’s our clear intention,” Collier said. Pebble is also investigating ways it could benefit the Bristol Bay commercial sockeye fishery, he continued. “We’d like to do something with some of the revenue that this mine generates that would be seen as us showing that we’re good neighbors to that fishery. We don’t buy the dichotomy that you have to choose between the fishery and the mine. We think they can both coexist,” Collier said. The company is pursuing a crop insurance-like concept to mitigate the economic volatility in fishery. Collier described a plan that would pay fishing permit holders in years when the average vessel revenue fleet-wide dropped below a certain point. “When I first looked at this the numbers were daunting but when I went back and looked at it perhaps only for the fishermen from Bristol Bay that hold permits or perhaps only the Alaskan permit holders, the numbers are not quite so daunting,” he said. He also suggested a permit buyback program for Outsiders that hold permits as a way to get more ownership of the fishery back to the region. “We haven’t decided what we’re going to do yet but we have decided we’re going to do something,” Collier said, adding Pebble has economists running numbers while discussing the possibilities with fishermen. Hurley dismissed the revenue sharing concepts as more attempts to purchase support for the project, saying the salmon fishery will sustain the region longer than the life of any mine. In hard numbers, even the smaller project would bring about 2,000 jobs over the projected 20-year life of the mine to the region, according to the company’s figures. It would add about $20 million to the Lake and Peninsula Borough’s annual revenue and pay the state between $49 million and $66 million per year, Pebble estimates. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Permanent Fund trustees seek inflation-proofing bill

The folks in charge of Alaska’s largest asset made few, but significant, requests of the Legislature at their meeting Sept. 28. The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution directing corporation executives to pursue legislation to strengthen inflation-proofing mechanisms for the corpus of the $61 billion Permanent Fund, and passed motions requesting an exemption from state procurement codes and to add up to 10 new employees to its Juneau headquarters. CEO Angela Rodell said during the meeting that inflation-proofing the roughly $40 billion corpus of the Fund — the portion made up of resource royalty and inflation-proofing payments — is the only way to truly ensure growth in the Fund. The Fund holds another nearly $8 billion in unrealized gains from investments, according to its August balance sheet. The trustees also passed a more specific motion asking that inflation proofing be accounted for as part of the Fund’s annual statutory net income calculation. Doing so would prioritize the inflation-proofing payment to be made before tallying the Fund’s gains or losses in a year. Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack, taking part in his first meeting as a trustee, said there are other ways to address inflation proofing beyond making it a part of the income calculation, but added he feels “strongly it should be accounted for in the legislative process.” Mack, a former director at the Alaska private equity fund Pt Capital, was just appointed to the APFC board by Gov. Bill Walker Sept. 27 to replace retired Revenue Commissioner Randy Hoffbeck. Similarly, new Revenue Commissioner Sheldon Fisher said he totally supports strengthening inflation-proofing provisions but he’s not sure if the way proposed in the motion is the best way to do it. He noted the passive inflation-proofing provision in Senate Bill 26, Walker’s bill to establish an annual percent of market value, or POMV, draw from the Fund to pay dividends and support government services. Historically, the Legislature has made the inflation-proofing payments to the corpus of the Fund on an as-needed basis. Inflation payments are transferred from Earnings Reserve Account to the corpus that is off limits to spending by the Legislature. The Earnings Reserve, which holds the Fund’s investment gains and is the only portion of the Permanent Fund that is available for appropriation by the Legislature, currently has more than $13 billion. However, the last two fiscal years the Legislature has broken from tradition and chosen not to inflation-proof the corpus of the Fund while the expectation of employing a POMV draw on the Earnings Reserve has grown. SB 26, passed by both the House and Senate last session but needing reconciliation of details in a conference committee before heading to the governor’s desk, calls for any cash in excess of four times the annual POMV draw amount left in the Earnings Reserve after the draw to be automatically transferred to the corpus as an inflation-proofing payment. With the total POMV draw expected to start at roughly $2.5 billion, the Earnings Reserve as it stands now is almost large enough to trigger those payments. Rodell said in an August interview with the Journal that the precedent set by the Legislature the last two years is worrisome. It has been helpful that inflation rates have been very low of late; two years ago the payment would’ve been just $47 million, she said. But it jumped to more than $500 million last year and is up to $693 million for the current fiscal year, according to APFC calculations. The corporation typically seeks support from the governor first when proposing legislative changes, but APFC leaders can go to individual legislators to find a bill sponsor if need be. Walker’s spokesman Jonathon Taylor said it is too early to speculate on what legislation the governor will support for the upcoming regular session in January. Walker’s former DNR Commissioner Marty Rutherford, who he appointed to the board after she resigned in July 2016, said inflation proofing should be dealt with irrespective of the pending POMV legislation, which is largely expected to be fully passed next year. “I feel very uncomfortable with not pushing the Legislature to deal with inflation proofing because it is in fact a future generations’ protection,” Rutherford said, echoing Rodell’s sentiment. Other requests Getting an exemption from state procurement codes for investment management-related contracts would allow the corporation to more efficiently contract with outside investment managers and consultants on often time-sensitive investments involving proprietary information, according to Fund leaders. The exemption would also require legislative action. In an interesting move, the trustees also approved two proposed fiscal year 2019 budget amounts for the APFC, a $174.2 million “status quo” budget, which would be up from a $151 million budget for the current fiscal year. The second budget — including 10 new positions — would actually be $5 million less than the status quo at $169.2 million. The APFC budget is funded out of the Earnings Reserve. Operations Director Laura Achee said the 10 new jobs, if approved by the Legislature and Walker, would add to the corporation’s internal investment programs and reduce the need for expensive outside managers, thus reducing the overall budget. The budget proposal with the 10 new personnel has $136 million for outside investment manager fees; the status quo budget has a $145 million line item for those costs. The corporation in charge of $61 billion currently has 42 employees. “The Fund has grown $9 billion in the last 15 months and growth in the size of the Fund also triggers growth in the request that we need to have the tools that we need to have in order to be able to manage the Fund in the way that the people of the state of Alaska expect,” Achee said. The new positions would include four investment officers, three finance positions, two IT staff and one office administrator, she said. Additional IT support is needed as the Fund is invested more and more in global markets, which requires tech help be available 24/7 for traveling investment officers, Achee explained. She also said the industry standard for middle and back office support staffing has grown to about 2.5 support personnel for each investment position and the corporation doesn’t come close to that now. “For every front office (investment) position we have 0.8 middle or back office staff, so we’re very much understaffed in that area, in that scenario, where we need to catch up if we’re going to continue to support the work that our front office is doing,” Achee said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

First look at Nanushuk released

The details of how Armstrong Energy plans to develop its billion-plus-barrel North Slope Nanushuk oil prospect are now public after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the draft environmental impact statement for the project. Tucked between ConocoPhillips’ large Alpine and Kuparuk River fields, the Nanushuk project in the Pikka Unit is expected to produce upwards of 120,000 barrels per day of conventional light oil at its peak rate. An exploratory well and sidetrack Armstrong drilled last winter about 20 miles south of the project area indicated the reservoir could hold more than 2 billion barrels of oil, company CEO Bill Armstrong said in a prior interview with the Journal. At this point, though, the Nanushuk project is based on 1.2 billion barrels of proven recoverable reserves. It is named after the Nanushuk geologic formation that is Armstrong’s primary target. Armstrong Energy operates the Pikka Unit for its partners Spanish major Repsol and Denver-based independent GMT Exploration Co. Armstrong increased its stake in the project to become majority owner and took over as operator of the project from Repsol in late 2015. Long an overlooked North Slope play, 3D underground seismic mapping technology has helped geologists locate subtle but large oil-bearing traps in the Nanushuk formation in recent years. Armstrong has emphasized his belief that more Nanushuk oil reservoirs can be found in other areas of the Slope and this past January ConocoPhillips announced its Willow discovery, a 300 million-barrel recoverable Nanushuk find west of the Alpine field in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. For its project, Armstrong Energy is proposing three gravel drill sites just south and east of the Colville River delta to hold a total of 146 production and injection wells. A central processing facility to improve the oil to sales quality would also be located on the northernmost drill site pad. According to the draft EIS, nearby oil processing facilities at Kuparuk and Alpine do not have the capacity to handle the 120,000 barrels per day of peak production from the Nanushuk project. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management also recently released a draft EIS for Hilcorp Energy’s proposed Liberty project, which would produce about 60,000 barrels of oil per day from a manmade island in shallow federal waters just offshore from Prudhoe Bay. Initial production from Nanushuk is targeted for sometime in 2021; however that would overlap with the tail end of what is expected to be a four- to five-year construction period. A final EIS is expected next year, according to the Corps. The workforce on the project is expected to start at just 20 to 50 construction-related workers during the first year of development and peak at about 1,450 construction and drilling personnel by year four. A drilling workforce of about 450 people is expected to remain on the project for up to 15 years after construction, in addition to about 200 permanent operations personnel needed for the length of the expected 30-year production life of the project. Drill Site 3, on the southwest edge of the project area, would be the closest infrastructure to the Village of Nuiqsut, which sits about 6.5 miles to the southwest and across the Colville River from the proposed development. In total, Armstrong’s plan would require 331 acres of new gravel pads, 26 miles of new gravel roads and use an estimated 2.74 million cubic yards of gravel fill from nearby mines. It would impact an estimated 330 acres of wetlands. Three alternative project options developed by the Corps of Engineers would make modest reductions to the cumulative gravel footprint down to 301 acres and 21 miles of road. A southern access plan would utilize a road built by the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and Anchorage-based Brooks Range Petroleum for the small Mustang oil project that Brooks Range is advancing adjacent to the Nanushuk project. But that would move the processing facility and operations camp closer to Nuiqsut on new gravel pads about 10 miles from the village. A northern access option would utilize a road expected to be built for Caelus Energy’s delayed Nuna development to the northeast of Nanushuk. It would also require additional pads for the processing facility and operations camp but would move them farther from Nuiqsut. The third alternative would re-route as much of the road and pipeline infrastructure out of the Colville River’s 50-year floodplain as possible. It would also try to alleviate concerns of area residents and regulators about potential impacts to migrating caribou by routing the roads to be less parallel to the general south-to-north Colville River. Segments of north-south roads and pipelines could act as impediments to caribou traveling along the coast, particularly during the summer when the animals move closer to the Beaufort Sea coast for relief from insects, according to the draft EIS. The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comments on the draft Nanushuk plan through Nov. 14 on the project’s website, www.nanushukeis.com. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Habitat initiative proponents argue appeal in Superior Court

Is there discretion in the term “significant adverse effects?” That is the question at the center of the court debate over a ballot initiative aimed at reforming Alaska’s permitting laws to better protect salmon habitat from large development projects. The Department of Law doesn’t think so, and Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bakalar stressed as much during about 90 minutes of oral arguments Oct. 3 in Anchorage for Stand for Salmon’s appeal of Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott’s rejection of the initiative, which was based on a Department of Law recommendation. Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner heard the appeal. Valerie Brown, legal director for the nonprofit environmental advocacy law firm Trustees for Alaska, argued on behalf of fellow nonprofit Stand for Salmon that the initiative entitled, “An Act providing for protection of wild salmon and fish and wildlife habitat,” indeed affords the Department of Fish and Game adequate discretion to determine what constitutes significant adverse effects on salmon habitat. Mallott rejected the citizens’ ballot initiative Sept. 12 after receiving a legal opinion from Bakalar, who wrote that the proposed law change would blatantly limit the Legislature’s ability to allocate state assets; in this case anadromous fish habitat. In June, Bakalar wrote a letter to initiative sponsors Mike Wood, a commercial fisherman, Bristol Bay lodge owner Brian Kraft and Gayla Hoseth of Dillingham, informing them that a prior version of the initiative would likely be denied because it was deemed to appropriate state resources. The Alaska Constitution reserves the power of resource appropriation for the Legislature and thus prohibits ballot measures from doing so. Brown repeatedly stressed that the initiative’s key language mirrors a 2008 initiative that was rejected by voters after making it to the ballot after being upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court. In that case, the initiative, aimed at restricting discharges from the proposed Pebble mine, would have prohibited large mining operations from releasing or storing pollutants that “could adversely affect water that is used by humans or salmon.” The state’s current salmon habitat law, Title 16, directs the Fish and Game commissioner to issue a development permit as long as a project provides “proper protection of fish and game.” The petitioners contend that is far too vague and an update is needed to just define what “proper protection” means. Opponents in the mining, oil and gas, and construction industries argue the initiative would ostensibly prohibit projects of any meaningful size, including many pipeline and road construction efforts, among others. Bakalar reiterated that argument as proof that the initiative would appropriate waters for fish habitat. However, she said, “This is not a policy debate. It’s a question of Article XI, Section 7 (of the Alaska Constitution.)” Bakalar added that the initiative’s language might indeed be good policy, but that is up to the Legislature to decide. To that end, House Bill 199 sponsored by Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, which mirrors the language in the voter proposal, is up for consideration by the Legislature come the regular legislative session in January. According to Bakalar, even if the initiative is not a strict appropriation, Judge Rindner must rule on how voters would interpret the proposed changes in the voting booth. She said it “defies plain English” to read the language of the proposal as anything but putting water for salmon habitat above all other uses. Brown said the current initiative in question would add scrutiny to the permitting process for large development projects but would still allow them to go forward if Fish and Game determined they would not have those “significant adverse effects” on salmon-bearing waters. Additionally, the department would have the discretion to permit large projects even if they impacted salmon waters as long as mitigation and restoration measures helped the waters recover to be viable fish habitat in a “reasonable period,” as the initiative states. “The definition of substantial damage includes the discretion of Fish and Game to determine how much harm is substantial damage so that makes it very similar to the Pebble case where the commissioner can allow some kinds of harm,” Brown argued. “He can’t allow harm that is so significant that it rises to substantial damage and that’s exactly the kind of regulation that’s allowed to prohibit harm to a state asset.” The first iteration of the initiative also required restoration to support historic levels of water flow and fish populations, Brown noted, but that requirement was pulled from the version now in court. “It would have to say no disturbance of fish habitat is permitted” to be an appropriation of assets, she added. Brown said that the now-abandoned Chuitna coal mine, which Stand for Salmon fought to prevent, would have been allowed under the initiative if the habitat restoration methods proposed could be proven effective. Bakalar noted that the initiative generally requires water restoration to account for the life cycle of salmon; meaning restoration could have to happen in such a short time frame to make it unfeasible. “There’s simply no way to build some of these projects without dewatering habitat,” Bakalar said. James Leik, arguing on behalf of the Council of Alaska Producers, a mining industry group, said the initiative is much broader than the 2008 Pebble case emphasized by Brown. “Very fundamentally the initiative changes the priority for the use of these assets. That in itself restricts the Legislature’s ability to allocate those assets,” Leik said. The petitioners simply “scattered the words ‘adverse effect’ into several of the provisions” of the revised initiative to make the claim it aligns with the Pebble case, he contended. Brown rebutted that Rindner shouldn’t speculate on how Fish and Game would implement the provisions, but that he must only determine whether or not there is discretion in the language. “The initiative doesn’t establish a preferred use as anadromous fish habitat. Anadromous fish habitat is the asset that’s being regulated and the question is: Is the initiative a permissible regulation of harm to that asset?” Brown said. “It’s clearly not a priority of use initiative; it is about protecting a specific asset, anadromous fish habitat, from harm.” Rindner said he would rule on the appeal as expeditiously as possible, acknowledging trial court judges such as himself are often seen as “speed bumps” on the way to the Supreme Court, a nod to the almost certain appeal that will follow his ruling, whichever side it favors. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Walker talks special session in Anchorage

Gov. Bill Walker is making one last push for his plan to end the state’s ongoing multibillion-dollar budget deficits. On Sept. 20 Walker released a proposal for what members of his administration describe as a capped 1.5 percent payroll tax; others have called it a modified head tax. On Sept. 22 he formalized the prospect of a special legislative session to address the state’s finances starting Oct. 23 that he previously told legislators to expect when he signed a proclamation making it official. Walker made his pitch Sept. 29 for the special session to a breakfast gathering of the policy forum Commonwealth North in Anchorage with his new Revenue Commissioner Sheldon Fisher and Chief of Staff Scott Kendall in tow. Correcting the state’s ever-worsening financial situation has dominated the governor’s agenda nearly since the day he took office in December 2014. It was during the last months of that year’s general election campaign that oil prices began to take the dive they have yet to substantially recover from. The results of nearly three years of tussling with legislators over how to best close the budget cap — projected at about $2.6 billion for the current fiscal year but down from close to $4 billion in fiscal year 2016 — were apparent in Walker’s comments Sept 29. The Republican-turned-independent has consistently drawn sharp criticism from his formerly party comrades for saying Alaska needs to reinstitute a broad-based personal tax. While overall state spending has been cut more than 40 percent during Walker’s tenure, most Republican legislators have been adamant that cuts need to continue before residents are taxed. The budget passed in June was smaller but did not have the major spending reductions of recent years. Part of that was the Democrat-led House majority, which took control after pulling together a coalition that included three Republicans following the 2016 election, pushing against deeper cuts. Part of it was leaders of the Republican-dominated Senate not being able to drum up enough support for some reductions. “A lot of work has been done. The Legislature has made a lot of tough votes and I appreciate that very much and we have made some very tough — it’s not fun to roll out stuff involving the word — I don’t know how many ways you can disguise the word tax but we just say it the way it is; it’s a tax. We’re at a point where we can no longer afford to be the only state in the nation that doesn’t have a broad-based tax,” Walker said. Of his tax proposal, he continued: “It’s not one of those feel good levers but you know what? It doesn’t feel good to not do something and to sit back and continue to draw down on savings after having gone through $14 billion in savings. At some point you have to say enough is enough. We need to bring this to a close.” The current fiscal year budget was paid for primarily with state savings. The state’s last savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, will have about $2 billion left in it at the end of the fiscal year next June 30, according to Fisher. The general consensus is that the state needs to have about that much left in savings to cover the costs of a potential natural disaster or a mechanical one, such as a lengthy shutdown of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, or both. During the 2016 legislative session Walker introduced a state income tax that would’ve been 6 percent of an individual’s federal liability, which was part of a suite of nine industry and personal tax increases he proposed to minimize the impact on any single sector of the economy. He quipped Sept. 29 that “no one was jumping over tall buildings to vote for any of those.” Early this year Walker supported the House majority’s income tax plan that was summarily shot down in the Senate. With that as background, some form of personal tax was expected on the call for what has been dubbed the “revenue special session.” What is accompanying the tax bill on the call, Senate Bill 54, was not. SB 54 amends some of the provisions in Senate Bill 91, the criminal justice reform package that passed the Legislature in 2016, by giving judges and prosecutors more discretion in how low-level crimes are punished. The reform efforts in SB 91 focused on treatment and rehabilitation of shoplifters, burglars and others convicted of misdemeanor crimes as a way to prevent what were seen by some as unnecessary incarcerations, which are also very costly to the state. SB 91 has subsequently been criticized amid a spike in all categories of crime statewide despite the fact that it has been law for little more than a year. SB 54 passed the Senate last April and will be taken up by House committees during the special session. “I don’t like living in an Alaska where Alaskans are afraid and that’s where we are right now in many regards,” Walker said. He added that he expects the House to pass it fairly quickly given that public safety is a priority for all in office. “I don’t say it’s a panacea that all of a sudden crime is going to come to a screeching halt as a result of (SB) 54 but it’s a tool and we need to put some tools back in the toolbox for our prosecutors and judges — for those that are out there — our police officers,” he continued. The Senate bill that was expected on the call but left off is SB 26, the plan to enact a percent of market value, or POMV, draw from the earnings reserve of the Permanent Fund to support government services and pay future dividends. Both the House and Senate passed similar versions of the bill last spring but the contingencies that each attached to the legislation have prevented the versions from being reconciled and sent to the governor’s desk. With the potential to spin off roughly $2 billion for state government while paying Permanent Fund dividends in the $1,000 to $1,200 range, SB 26 or something like it, is the only means available to drastically reduce the deficit without extreme additional budget cuts that most in the Legislature agree aren’t feasible. Walker said the House leadership’s insistence on a progressive broad-based tax to offset likely smaller future dividends that are characterized as a “regressive tax” by Democrats, pushed him to keep SB 26 off the special session call, for now, despite his two-year push to pass such a bill. “(SB) 26 can be added in short order. I can’t remove something from the call but I can certainly amend it and add it. So if House and Senate leadership came to me and said, ‘Governor, please add this to the call’ — or there’s a process they can (add it) — we would certainly do that,” Walker said. “It’s really the structural issue that needs to get resolved on the broad-based (tax) and then there’s no reason that the POMV couldn’t dovetail right behind that.” The Senate has insisted on a spending cap to accompany a Permanent Fund bill, which Walker again said he is amenable to as well. He said he is open to most ideas that would resolve the deficit and restore financial confidence in the state. “On the fiscal situation there’s little I would oppose as far as bringing through concepts that finish it out. We don’t say what we propose is absolutely perfect; I guarantee you it’s not perfect but it’s something on the table to have that discussion,” Walker said. Walker’s Chief of Staff Kendall said the 1.5 percent payroll tax, which would be capped at either a $2,200 payment or twice the previous year’s dividend, is critical because it would once again link government to economic growth even if the roughly $300 million it’s projected to generate would barely cover 10 percent of the deficit. The tax would also apply to nonresidents working in the state. “We’ve got the Alaska disconnect.” Kendall said. “What it means is economic growth punishes state government. So if Amazon decided 50,000 employees, we’re moving them to Anchorage and that’s our new headquarters, the state would lose tens of millions of dollars. There is no connection between economic activity and state revenue except for the oil industry. Everything’s balanced on the back of one industry.” He described further that economic growth meaning more jobs and more people in the state naturally leads to more need for government services and infrastructure and without a tax to link the two government has no way to pay for the increased demands place on it. “It’s a modest structure but it’s a structure that says when the economy grows, when there are more jobs, the state revenue can take care of those people,” Kendall said further. He also noted that Alaskans would remain the lowest-taxed people in the country “by orders of multiples” even with the governor’s payroll proposal. “So to the folks who say, ‘That’s it. I give up on Alaska; I’m leaving’ — where are you going to go?” Kendall commented. On the flipside, for those who want to retain the current PFD formula that would’ve paid out checks in excess of $2,000 per person this year and suggest closing the gap with taxes and spending cuts, Kendall said the state’s small population won’t let the numbers work. “Even if we put New York state’s entire suite of taxes in place — income taxes and everything else — we would still be running something like a $1 billion deficit,” he said. “We just don’t have enough people. It just doesn’t work, so it’s a little of this and a little of that.” To those skeptical about the ability to pass a new tax or overhaul how the Permanent Fund is used as election talk for 2018 is already ramping up, the governor was blunt. “It’s time to do the people’s business and not worry about our own political futures,” he said. “I’m all in on getting this done. Alaska deserves an answer this year and that’s what we’re going to do.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

State loses another court fight over Roadless Rule

The courts have not been kind to the State of Alaska when it comes to the Roadless Rule. Federal District Court Judge for the District of Columbia Richard Leon threw out the state’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sept. 20, ruling the conservation regulation enacted more than 15 years ago was properly promulgated. Multiple state administrations and Alaska’s congressional delegation have fought against implementation of the Roadless Rule in Alaska, contending the Clinton-era regulation has severely damaged Southeast Alaska’s once robust timber industry. However, in July 2015 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an exemption to the rule for the Tongass National Forest instituted by the USDA under President George W. Bush. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the state’s subsequent appeal in that case. Simply, the Roadless Rule prohibits new road construction in most areas of national forests. And in the most recent ruling, Leon dismissed the state’s case with prejudice, meaning he ruled on the merits of the arguments in the suit and not on procedural grounds. In its lawsuit filed in June 2011, the State of Alaska argued the USDA ignored the economic impacts the Roadless Rule would have on the state when it was approved in 2001. The Alaska Forest Association, the Southeast Conference, the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the City of Ketchikan, among other development groups, joined the state as plaintiffs in the suit. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Alaska Center for the Environment and several national conservation groups also joined the suit in defense of the rule. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Meredith Trainor wrote in a Sept. 22 post on the group’s website that the decision is a “resounding win for the Tongass and national forests throughout the United States.” “This decision provides a critical affirmation of the importance of the Roadless Rule in protecting our nation’s and the state of Alaska’s most essential intact habitat and forested lands,” Trainor wrote. “The precedent-setting decision should remind all Americans of the importance of protecting our public lands from attacks by industry groups seeking to undermine our most fundamental and cherished environmental protections.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement from her office that she is frustrated with Leon’s ruling. “A judge can dismiss a case, but Alaskans cannot dismiss the negative impacts the Roadless Rule is having on our communities. The rule has decimated our timber industry and serves mainly to prevent the access needed to construct everything from roads and power lines to energy and mining projects,” Murkowski said. “I recognize the damage this rule is causing, particularly in Southeast, and will pursue every possible legislative and administrative option to exempt us from it.” Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young said the fight against the Roadless Rule will continue. “When the court fails Alaska, I believe it is Congress’ responsibility to act,” he said. Forest Service officials have said Southeast’s timber industry has declined primarily due to economics: the high cost of harvesting timber from the Tongass and its remote location make it hard for Alaska mills to compete with Lower 48 timber. State industry leaders contend a lack of access to timber due to the Roadless Rule has caused the downfall. While the Roadless Rule also applies to the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral, relatively little logging activity has occurred there. State Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills said Gov. Bill Walker’s administration is reviewing its appeal options but no decision has been made on how it will proceed at this point. Leon noted in his 45-page memorandum that documents posted in the Federal Register at the time the Roadless Rule was being considered projected Alaska could lose nearly 900 jobs and more than $38 million in personal income as a result of its implementation. Yet, he concluded that the USDA followed the National Environmental Policy Act because it obtained all the relevant information about the rule’s potential economic impacts, even if it did not make its decision solely based on them. “Put simply, NEPA ensures ‘a fully informed and well-considered decision, not necessarily the best decision,’” Leon wrote. He also called the fact that the USDA issued a rule that impacts 2 percent of all land in the country in less than 15 months “alarming,” but found the agency followed NEPA in its decision-making process. The state also asserted the rule violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which prevents agencies from withdrawing more than 5,000 acres of lands in the state from potential use without congressional approval. Leon determined that while the rule ostensibly prohibits development in roadless areas, it does not technically. “Critically, the Roadless Rule does not exempt (inventoried roadless areas) from the operation of the mineral leasing laws. Instead, the rule restricts the terms of surface occupancy of the land, which is within the USDA’s authority under the mineral leasing laws,” he wrote. “Indeed, the rule explicitly allows for new mineral leases in the (inventoried roadless areas), provided that there are no new roads constructed in conjunction with those new leases.” Joint timber sale A day after Leon’s ruling, the state Department of Natural Resources announced a joint young-growth timber sale on state and federal lands near Edna Bay on Kosciusko Island just off of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast. DNR Commissioner Andy Mack said the $2.6 million sale to Alcan Timber Inc. of Ketchikan is the largest sale in Southeast this year. The state-federal sale was put together under the Good Neighbor Authority agreement the state Division of Forestry and the Forest Service signed last November to allow for such a sale. “We are excited that this new partnership with the Forest Service is providing more wood to Alaska’s forest products industry while maintaining a healthy forest. We will continue to press for more timber to be made from Alaska’s forests,” Mack said. The sale is for about 1,500 acres of young-growth timber totaling 29 million board feet, according to a DNR release. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Progress for Interior gas project with supply contract

Interior Energy Project leaders can finally see the light from a small, blue flame at the end of the tunnel. Gene Therriault, the former Fairbanks-area state senator who of late has led the project to expand natural gas availability in his hometown, outlined the terms of the key natural gas supply contract Pentex Alaska Natural Gas Co. recently secured with Hilcorp Alaska to underpin the whole operation during the Sept. 21 Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority board meeting. Pentex is the parent company to Fairbanks Natural Gas; both are currently owned by AIDEA. For starters, Therriault said the contract with Hilcorp, which takes effect April 1, 2018, eliminates a 4 percent increase to the current price of gas that was set for Jan. 1 in the utility’s existing deal with Hilcorp. The new deal, with a three-year term, also provides “a great deal of volume flexibility,” he said — a particularly important factor considering the IEP is still mostly theoretical at this point. “We do anticipate of course the signing of new customers but we didn’t want the project to have a whole lot of take-or-pay risk and so the contract offers a lot of flexibility to grow that (gas) volume without actually having to sign up for take-or-pay risk ahead of the customers actually signing up,” Therriault told the board. AIDEA officials have been trying to reach a gas supply deal with Cook Inlet producers since early 2016 but the fact that the ultimate demand for gas is still unknown hampered progress. What is known is that at least initially that demand will be small, another challenge. The contract is for a flat price of $7.72 per thousand cubic feet, or mcf, of natural gas for its duration. That is also the highest price Hilcorp is allowed to sell gas for this year under the five-year Consent Decree agreement the company signed with the state when it purchased Inlet assets from major producers in 2012 and immediately became the dominant gas supplier in Southcentral Alaska. The Consent Decree expires Dec. 31. A prior Interior region gas demand forecast study commissioned by AIDEA projected gas use would increase about 50 percent per year once additional supply was available. Based on that assumption, AIDEA believes demand will grow to 3.25 billion cubic feet, or bcf, of gas by 2023 and reach nearly 5 bcf by 2027. That volume growth should drive prices down from the roughly $20 per mcf current Fairbanks Natural Gas customers are paying to $17.30 per mcf in 2020 when the new supply should come online and hit the target $15 per mcf range by 2022. A work in progress since its inception in 2013, the underlying goal of the Interior Energy Project has been to compete with the price of fuel oil on an energy-equivalent basis since oil prices fell sharply in late 2014. Natural gas at $17.30 per mcf is equal to fuel oil priced at $2.39 per gallon, according to AIDEA. Therriault acknowledged the promising numbers are all based on projections that could still change significantly and that the project’s price goals simply aren’t feasible on day one. “It really does highlight that this is a volume enterprise and whatever we can do in conjunction with the local communities to help customers use this new cleaner fuel — it helps the economics tremendously,” he said. While it appeared it would be relatively easy to convince residents to convert from fuel oil furnaces to natural gas appliances at the outset of the IEP when fuel oil was near $4 per gallon in Fairbanks, it is now much less clear how many households will commit to spending upward of $10,000 in some cases to overhaul their home heating systems with fuel oil closer to $2 per gallon. As a result, AIDEA and the region’s local governments have looked for ways residents could lower conversion costs or use various mechanisms to finance them, such as adding conversion costs to property tax or natural gas utility bills. To that end, Therriault said getting businesses to buy quantities of gas potentially equaling dozens of homes is imperative to the project’s success. “We certainly want to get residential customers, but we just want volume and if it’s a business customer that’s good,” he said further. “It’s all about units of gas primarily.” LNG plant, storage Getting a gas deal done allows AIDEA and Fairbanks Natural Gas to move ahead with the other primary components of the IEP: expanding gas processing and LNG storage capacities. Therriault said full-fledged engineering and design work will begin soon on the long-anticipated $46 million expansion of the Titan LNG plant on Point MacKenzie that supplies FNG. The expansion will add about 3 bcf per year of gas processing capacity to the existing roughly 1 bcf per year plant. Coinciding with that, FNG is currently taking proposals to build a 5.25 million-gallon LNG storage tank in South Fairbanks to match the future LNG production growth. The utility hopes to break frozen ground on the $42 million LNG storage project in February or March of next year and have it done in late 2019, according to Therriault. If all goes as planned, the larger Titan plant will be ready to ramp up production very shortly after the LNG storage facility is complete and the whole system should start bringing more natural gas to the Interior in 2020. Finally, having the gas supply deal in hand also gives AIDEA and the Fairbanks North Star Borough-owned Interior Gas Utility what they need to fold Pentex and Fairbanks Natural Gas into the IGU. It has been presumed since AIDEA bought Pentex in 2015 that the two Fairbanks-area gas utilities would be integrated to maximize operational efficiencies across what is a relatively small service area. Late last December, AIDEA agreed in principal to sell Pentex to IGU for $58.2 million. A memorandum of understanding between the local startup utility and the state-owned authority outlining that deal also included preliminary terms for AIDEA to fund up to $333.6 million of natural gas infrastructure throughout the utility’s supply chain — from expanding the Titan LNG plant to constructing LNG storage facility to continuing build-out of the gas distribution network to homes and businesses in Fairbanks and North Pole. Most of the $333.6 million will come from the $332.5 million financing package of loans, bonds and grant money approved by the Legislature in 2013 for the Interior Energy Project. Therriault said in an interview that the sides have continued to work under the terms of the MOU — which originally had a closing date of March 31 — to finalize the finer points of the financing and sale package. The hope now is to have the whole thing wrapped up by the end of the year, he said. AIDEA board member and Fairbanks resident Gary Wilken thanked state legislators, AIDEA staff and local government leaders in Fairbanks and North Pole for their continued support and patience toward the multiple iterations of the Interior Energy Project before voting to approve a project plan that again was contingent on the gas contract. Wilken also said the conversation among Interior residents about getting natural gas has slowly changed in recent years from disbelief to hope. “Today it’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when,” he said. IGU General Manager Jomo Stewart also thanked AIDEA officials for their work on the project in comments to the board. “With the passage of this resolution we now have a project,” AIDEA board chair Dana Pruhs concluded. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Valdez tug transition on track, Alyeska official says

WHITTIER — The major move to a new oil tanker escort firm in Valdez is going well according to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. managers. “All the vessels, based on schedule analysis and the visits we make to the shipyards, are on schedule,” said Mike Day, the manager of Alyeska Ship Escort/Response Vessel Systems, or SERVS. Day reported to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council board of directors at its Sept. 14 meeting in Whittier on the progress of the SERVS operator transition from Crowley Maritime to Edison Chouest Offshore. Edison Chouest announced in June 2016 that it had secured a 10-year contract from Alyeska to conduct SERVS operations out of the Valdez oil terminal starting in summer 2018. Crowley tugboats have assisted oil tankers docking in Valdez since the 1977 startup of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which terminates there. The company added the Prince William Sound tanker escort and oil spill response duties to its work in 1990, a year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Edison Chouest is building 14 new vessels and spill response barges to fulfill its duties under the SERVS contract. The new SERVS fleet will include five large tanker escort tugs and four smaller support tugs, which are under construction at Edison Chouest’s various Louisiana shipyards. The first two tugs and a spill response barge are scheduled to arrive in Valdez in February. Shortly thereafter, the new tug captains and crews will begin five months of live training exercises — some with tankers in tow — before officially taking over for Crowley next July, according to Day. But formal crew training will begin before the tugs arrive. Day said each of the roughly 160 people Edison Chouest plans to commit to the SERVS contract will first go through 68 hours of classroom training starting in October on how to operate spill response equipment. Those folks will then get another 12 hours of hands-on equipment training “before they ever step foot on a vessel,” he said. In July, Edison Chouest shipped spill response equipment to Louisiana for two weeks of initial training. A ship bridge simulator Edison Chouest built in Louisiana will also be moved to Valdez once the company is done with it down south. Vessel operators are expected to put in 36 hours of simulator time and Day said Alaska Tanker Co. officials have expressed interest in participating in simulator training. Alaska Tanker Co. operates four 1.3 million-barrel capacity tankers for BP. Also starting in October, each SERVS tug captain will travel to Valdez and get on a working Crowley tug for at least a week. That observational training, which will run through March, was originally planned for last winter but was rescheduled for logistics issues, according to Day. “We’re hopeful they might find a big wave or two, or some wind, snow — find out what it’s like to operate a vessel in winter in Prince William Sound,” Day said. Sea trials on the first tugs are set for November. This past January, longtime Canadian naval architect Robert Allan made a presentation to the council board in which he was highly critical of the tug designs selected by Edison Chouest. Allan outlined a long list of perceived design flaws that could hamper the ability of the tugs to operate safely and successfully in the harsh winter conditions of Prince William Sound. However, he also acknowledged that he did not have access to the full, detailed tug design documents. At the time, Edison Chouest Alaska leaders could not be reached for comment but an Alyeska spokeswoman said the terminal operator has confidence in Edison Chouest and also noted that Allan only reviewed high-level information. In a separate presentation during the September meeting, Nathaniel Leonard, president of Maine-based Little River Marine Consultants, said Edison Chouest is using different design and construction methods than many in the industry are accustomed to. “Edison Chouest is a top-notch company and they’re building top-notch boats,” Leonard said to the council board. Day also reiterated Alyeska’s confidence in the full-service maritime company in comments to the board. When the tugs get to Alaska they will be thoroughly tested to assure they meet performance requirements, such as the ability to stop a loaded tanker moving at 6 nautical miles per hour with wind at its stern, Day said. He noted specific weather conditions will not be sought out for the performance tests; it will be up to the tug and tanker captains to decide when weather and sea conditions permit the exercises. Also, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation wants Alaska Tanker Co.’s largest tanker available for the tug tests, according to Day. The tests done with loaded tankers will at least first be done in the deep and open central area of the sound and not in Valdez Narrows to minimize the risk of an incident during training, he said. “I don’t anticipate any single test that’s pass or fail but a stepped approach to the force we put on a ship,” Day added. Such tests, in which the tugs are tethered to the tankers, only take about 10 minutes each, so several can be done in a day, he said. Additionally, Edison Chouest tugs will follow Crowley tugs on tanker escorts until they have passed all tether and towing exercises, Day said, which could continue through 2018 after the official July transition. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

State works to formalize method for assessing oil and gas properties

Some of the affected parties are raising concerns as state tax assessors are finalizing a methodology for valuing oil and gas properties other than the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System for the first time. Alaska Petroleum Property Assessor Jim Greeley said in an interview that the way the state currently assess values for oil and gas properties isn’t new; it’s been phased in over the last five years. However, the means for assessing the industry’s often complex and extremely expensive infrastructure has never been spelled out in state regulations, according to Greeley. “The regulation provides only high-level, broad guidance that basically says for production properties you have to use replacement cost (valuation),” he said. “Then for pipelines it says you can use sales, income or replacement cost and it stops there so there’s no specifics of methodology in currently. That’s what we’re trying to fix.” The vagueness of the regulations opens the door to subjectivity by the state and local governments or the property owners, creating a situation that’s “ripe for appeal,” Greeley added. That’s exactly why local governments and the producers fought over the value of TAPS for so many years, he said; there were no ground rules defining how it would be valued. The Tax Division hopes codifying a specific methodology in regulation will add transparency to the assessing process and clarity to the results so everything is understood by all the involved parties, he continued. The challenge in valuing oil and gas properties in the state — just another in the list of issues unique to Alaska — is that they don’t fit the mold of traditional business and residential properties, or even that of similar industry infrastructure elsewhere. The property tax assessments most folks are familiar with are market-based but that doesn’t work for Slope oil pipelines or process facilities. “When you have 50,000 homes in Anchorage you’ve got all sorts of comparables and you actually have an active market of buying and selling to conduct those assessments under that (market value) standard. We don’t have an active (oil and gas property) market where we have similarly situation properties to compare to. There’s only one Alpine; there’s only one Prudhoe Bay,” Greeley said. “Conversely, not only is there only one of them, they’re not being actively bought and sold so we don’t have that marketplace.” In most Lower 48 oil and gas basins, pipelines, reservoirs and their associated facilities change hands frequently enough to apply the well-understood market value principles, he noted. Father time has also complicated how the replacement cost of a property is calculated. When the laws outlining oil and gas property taxes were written roughly 40 years ago, replacement cost was pretty much what the facilities had just been built for. As things have aged and technology has changed, determining what it would cost to replace a facility has become largely theoretical, Greeley said. To combat those problems, the Tax Division has gone to the “use-value” standard first employed by the Alaska Superior Court and eventually the Supreme Court in litigation over TAPS. Greeley emphasized the regulations the division is considering are not for TAPS, which has a long history of value disputes. ‘Use-value’ standard In February 2014, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a 2011 Superior Court ruling that concluded the value of TAPS is primarily based on the proven reserves that will eventually flow through it. At the time, the Supreme Court set the taxable value of the iconic pipeline at $9.9 billion; the owner companies had sought an $800 million value. In March 2016, the TAPS owners, who are the three major North Slope producers, the North Slope Borough, the City of Valdez, and the state settled on an $8 billion value through 2020 to at least temporarily stop the nearly endless litigation over the issue. While not for TAPS, the valuation methodology the state uses does follow the principles laid out by the Alaska courts. At its base, the use-value standard the state now employs on all unrefined oil and gas properties uses proven reserves — arrived at via production data — to determine the value of the facilities dedicated to exploiting those reserves. Refineries are assessed at the municipal level. “The reason we look at production is production is highly correlated to be the best measurement of what the proven reserves are,” Greeley said. “In other words, when Prudhoe Bay had 10 billion barrels of proven reserves it was producing at its plateau rate, 1.6 million barrels (per day); and when Prudhoe Bay had 2.5 billion barrels of reserves in 2009 it was producing 300,000 barrels per day.” He continued to explain that production data from the prior year is entered into a regression formula and looking back one can see that a field’s reserves and production correlate nearly perfectly over time. Reserves available to feed oil and gas facilities are a good measurement for valuing the facilities on a replacement cost basis because the infrastructure is almost always built to exploit a single reserve. As the available oil and gas depletes and production declines, the size and capacity of the facilities needed to serve a given reservoir also declines — and so does the minimum cost to replace it with a facility capable of handling a smaller oil and gas pool. Therefore the facility’s value depreciates. Greeley also said actual proven reserves data is very hard to get; companies generally keep detailed figures close to the vest and if it can be obtained it is confidential taxpayer information. Thus, using it would be contrary to a primary tenant of property taxes: that the method to calculate them is transparent and taxable values can be compared against each other. Production data is readily available to anyone on multiple state agency websites. “When the field has produced all of its proven reserves and you look back at how we depreciated it you’ll have no possible other outcome other than to have perfectly depreciated it over the life of that field and that’s because we’re letting the reservoir tell us what depreciation should be over the life of that field,” Greeley said. Oil price and other factors are accounted for through production, he added; if the economics of a field worsen the economically recoverable reserves will decline and that will ultimately show up in production figures. Prior to phasing in this methodology several years ago, state oil and gas property assessors conducted deterministic production forecasts, which Greeley described as “radically error prone” because they had to predict what a reservoir would produce. “When you look back at our depreciation applications it’s just the opposite. You have no other choice than to always be wrong. You need to be able to predict oil price; you need to be able to predict development; you need to be able to predict reservoir performance; you need to be able to predict all these things and then you have to come up with this deterministic estimate,” he said. “The probability of being perfectly correct is almost nil. By telling the reservoir what it’s going to do you’re just injecting a higher error rate into the assessment.” Overall tax revenue has not changed significantly since the new use-value approach has been applied, but most importantly it has not led to a single taxpayer appeal, according to Greeley. In 2016, the state collected $111.7 million in oil and gas property taxes, but much more went to municipalities, namely the North Slope and Kenai Peninsula boroughs. While the state conducts oil and gas property tax assessments, local governments are able to apply their mill rates on the state’s assessments to collect their portion of oil and gas property taxes. Companies then use the local tax payments as credits against the state’s 20-mill oil and gas property tax rate. In July, the Revenue Department held a workshop to explain the use-value approach and obtain feedback from taxpayers before formally proposing the regulatory changes. Whether or not the department will ultimately move to add methodology to state regulations hasn’t been decided, Greeley said, but the process to do so will likely be started sometime yet this year if the Revenue Department moves in that direction. That process also includes further opportunities for stakeholder input. The workshop elicited letters from the City of Valdez and three companies: BP, ConocoPhillips and small independent producer Caelus Energy. Greeley characterized the comments from BP and ConocoPhillips as primarily clarification questions, saying conversations with officials from both companies about the methodology have been favorable. He again noted the approach has not led to any appeals since it has been put into practice. Among other things, BP asked several questions regarding how equipment aging on the harsh North Slope is factored into the use-value approach and whether or not equipment that has been fully depreciated under the methodology still has an economic value even if it is idle and probably wont be used again. ConocoPhillips Alaska officials stated that the definition for replacement cost — while seemingly straightforward in that it is the estimate to construct a new property to meet current needs — could lead to differing interpretations and “provides plenty of opportunity for dispute.” They further noted that how the method is applied to facilities fed by multiple reservoirs was not addressed during the workshop and recommended the department share its plans on how potential issues arising from that will be resolved. Caelus Energy Vice President Marc Byerly had more direct criticism for Revenue officials. He wrote that the methodology is “inconsistent with both the current tax law and current tax regulation.” He contended that reproduction cost is being used instead of replacement cost, and that depreciation is not based on the economic life of proven reserves because reserves are not estimated in the calculation. Further, he stated that the methodology does not account for physical deterioration of assets and “ignores” external obsolescence, or depreciation based on factors outside the property. “We look forward to working with Caelus to deal with issues they’ve brought up and we hope the (proposed regulation) process will forward that opportunity,” Greeley said. To Valdez, he said the comments from city’s attorneys were mostly concerns based on where they’ve been with TAPS. The Tax Division believes TAPS’ value and the corresponding taxes will continue to be arrived at via settlement, according to Greeley. Local help Separate from the methodology regulations, the Tax Division is looking for help conducting oil and gas property assessments from the local governments that are home to Alaska’s oil and gas industry. It’s yet another consequence of the state’s continuing multibillion-dollar budget deficits. “Everything’s cut; we’re resource constrained so the state is looking at the provisions in (law) which allow for municipalities to assist in the assessments under MOU (memorandums of understanding),” Greeley said. “We’re looking to see if there’s any interest from municipalities to participate with the state and assist under those existing statutory provisions.” He said it’s something Tax Division and Revenue officials have been discussing with local leaders for a couple years. Personnel has been cut from the overall Tax Division, but Greeley said he still has his tax technician and staff appraiser. Where he felt the hit was in his contract budget. “I get real busy during the assessment season and historically we would spend significant amounts of money to bring in temporary assistance to get through the assessments in terms of contract staff and that has been completely wiped out. So, in other words when we need it most that assistance is no longer there,” he said. He specified the cost to usually be a couple hundred thousand dollars, noting it varied year-to-year. Valdez Mayor Ruth Knight signed an MOU, with the Revenue Department in late March to take on oil and gas property audit responsibilities inside the city under the department’s direction. That includes hiring contractors at the city’s expense, according to the MOU. The North Slope Borough agreed to help the state through MOU in 2015 and while that agreement is not active, Greeley said it remains in place so the state and borough can collaborate when need be. The MOU notes the state retains sole authority to determine taxable property values. Outgoing Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, who has reached his term limit, decided against helping the state with assessments after conversations this summer because he couldn’t ask the Assembly for $25,000 the borough would get a tangible return on, according to Navarre’s Chief of Staff Larry Persily. Persily said the mayor is certainly aware of the department’s budget situation and sympathizes with Revenue officials over it but he couldn’t see how the local government would get its money back. He also said the $25,000 figure was one floated by the department leaders in the summer meetings as the amount they hoped the borough would kick in to the state’s effort. Persily did note, though, that the new borough mayor after the Oct. 3 election might be more amicable to the idea. New Revenue Commissioner Sheldon Fisher, who took over for Randy Hoffbeck after he retired from the position in August, might also have different ideas about how the borough could help, he added. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Report recommends improvements for ferry system

Insulating the state ferry system from annual political battles is one of the biggest things lawmakers can do to improve its operating efficiencies, according to a draft report released Sept. 13. The Alaska Marine Highway System Reform Initiative draft report highlights the potential benefits the system could obtain from being converted into a public corporation as well as being forward funded by the state Legislature. In May 2016, Gov. Bill Walker signed a memorandum of understanding with the Southeast Conference to have the Southeast Alaska nonprofit economic development group lead an examination of what reforms the state can take to improve the system’s operations over the long-term. In recent years, as the State of Alaska has tried to reconcile annual and ongoing multibillion-dollar budget deficits, the AMHS has been caught in the middle of tense political battles. Conservative legislators from Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna region have often criticized the ferry system, which operates at a significant annual loss, as a bloated government agency that needs to be scaled back greatly. Coastal legislators contend robust ferry service is vital for their communities and is often the only feasible way for residents in small communities to travel and ship vehicles, boats and all sorts of other goods. The draft report compiled by the Alaska research firm McDowell Group in concert with marine engineering consultant Elliott Bay Design Group of Seattle acknowledges the AMHS will never be a money-making operation. “Given the small markets served, long distances between ports, and often extreme weather operating environment, AMHS will always be dependent on public support to provide safe and reliable transportation,” the report concludes. McDowell and Elliott Bay studied other ferry systems worldwide for their report. The national firm KPFF Consulting Engineers was also contracted to draft a strategic business plan for the AMHS as part of the larger reform effort. During the 2016 state fiscal year, the ferry system collected $47.2 million in operating revenues on $145.2 million in operating expenses. The revenue gap is filled mostly with state general funds. Currently, the AMHS fleet consists of 11 ferries. State Transportation Department officials have been trying to sell the M/V Taku, one of the oldest mainliner ferries, and other vessels have been laid up due to budget cuts. After the state dropped the minimum bid several times, a group of Portland investors secured the purchase at a sale price of $300,000 to turn the Taku into a floating hotel and restaurant on the Willamette River. Bids were unveiled Sept. 15, and the state Transportation Department announced Sept. 19 that it was accepting the bid. Jonathan Cohen of Portland, Ore.,was the high bidder when the Alaska Department of Transportation opened three bidding envelopes for the 352-foot Taku. Cohen, who represents a group of Portland investors, bid $300,000 — almost six times the amount of the No. 2 bid — and said by phone on Sept. 18 that he intends to transform the Taku into a waterfront hotel and restaurant that will occasionally sail into the Columbia and Willamette rivers. “Our hope is to bring it to Portland, Oregon, where we’re based and to use it as a way to give this very historic vessel a second life,” he said. At the same time, two new smaller “day boat” ferries destined for service on the popular Lynn Canal routes out of Juneau are under construction in Ketchikan. Construction of those vessels, built with about $110 million of state money, was approved shortly before the state’s budget fell apart when oil prices collapsed in late 2014. The Department of Transportation is also working to replace the M/V Tustumena, which serves Homer, Kodiak and the Aleutian communities, but that replacement vessel will be paid for primarily with federal dollars. While the AMHS will probably never be self-sufficient, the aforementioned recommendations could help it maximize its strengths, according to the report. As it stands, the AMHS is a state agency managed as a public transportation service. Shifting it to a public corporation similar to the Alaska Railroad Corp. with its own board of directors would better allow for long-term operational and financial strategies to be implemented without the fear of them being changed or scrapped by political forces, according to the report. A public state corporation would also still be able to receive federal highway funds, which the system relies on heavily for vessel maintenance and replacement. As a public corporation the AMHS would be best suited to optimize operations if it were able to draw on the state AMHS Fund comprised of the revenue the system generates without approval from the Legislature, the report states. Allowing system leaders to manage the fund would provide a predictable revenue base. Funding the system’s remaining needs ahead of the next year would also allow it to maximize efficiencies and “is essential for the system to take full advantage of its revenue opportunities.” “Forward funding, which allows developing operating schedules up to 18 to 24 months in advance, would enhance revenue generation, especially in the nonresident tourism market where there is significant potential for growth,” the study authors wrote. “This growth would bring economic benefits to the many Alaskan communities that depend on the visitor industry.” Roughly 40 percent of ferry riders are non-resident, according to the AMHS. The system is often marketed as an alternative to traditional cruise ships, particularly in Southeast Alaska. However, seasonal ferry schedules are finalized just a few months prior to implementation because the system budget is not known each year until the overall state budget is approved. Cruise operators, on the other hand, set sailing schedules several years in advance to allow prospective customers ample time to plan vacations. The report contends that increasing passenger fares significantly would impact ridership to a point that it would negate the sought revenue benefits. Conversely, lowering fares would not attract enough new riders to offset the lost per-passenger revenue. It does suggest the AMHS employ demand management strategies as a way to grow freight revenue, which is currently about $2 million per year. “AMHS should look for opportunities to partner with private freight carriers to maximize revenue and community service,” the report states. Standardization of the ferry fleet to the extent possible and replacing the most expensive to operate ferries will in the long run significantly save money, according to the report; and utilizing modern automated ferries could reduce on-vessel labor by up to 10 percent. The McDowell-Elliott Bay team also determined that continuing the system’s service to Bellingham, Wash., is critical because it accounts for 44 percent of total operating revenues. The long-haul service through the Inside Passage is a popular way for people moving to and from Alaska, and to travel. Taku sale In July, Cohen outlined a plan to put a floating hotel at a pier in northwest Portland. According to the application, and as first reported by the Oregonian, the pier would be converted “into a terminal for river-related activities: floating hotel, watersports, seaplane terminal, spa, park, farmers’ market, and/or other amenities beneficial to adjacent condos and apartment buildings.” Cohen said by phone that the result would be similar to the Queen Mary, an ocean liner converted into a hotel and destination in Long Beach, Calif. “We’re not strangers to new and challenging projects. This is a different type of project, and it will come with its own challenges,” he said. Cohen said the Taku wouldn’t be a high-end hotel; it’d be similar to the Society Hotel, which offers hostel-style accommodations as well as individual rooms. “We’re not looking to offer high-end hotel rooms. We’re actually looking to make these the least-expensive hotel rooms in town,” he said. The Taku’s open car deck might be converted into a space for a farmers’ market or small businesses, he said. The lounges could become spaces for “digital nomads” who need working room. “Everyone has just been so positive about this boat, and I think it just has such a wonderful energy about it, and we want to keep that going,” he said. Refitting the Taku is likely to be an expensive proposition, something that deterred other bidders. The state extended the bidding deadline four times, and that came after two other offerings received no takers. According to information provided to bidders, the Taku needs several Coast Guard certifications and some significant maintenance work. Built in 1963, it is showing its age, and the cost of repairs was one of the reasons the ship was taken out of service in 2015. All three bids for the Taku were below the state’s reserve price of $350,000. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected] James Brooks of the Juneau Empire contributed to this report.

DNR starts work on North Slope road network

The Department of Natural Resources is trying to take advantage of what it sees as a convergence of fortuitous events to build a network of roads across the western Arctic. The Arctic Strategic Transportation and Resources, or ASTAR, project hatched out of a series of conversations Gov. Bill Walker had with North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. late last year about ways the state could support North Slope villages, DNR Commissioner Andy Mack said in a Sept. 12 interview. Mack noted that the talks between Walker and Brower were similar to those Alaska governors have had for decades with local leaders about the need for basic infrastructure in rural parts of the state. “In rural Alaska these infrastructure pieces sometimes take on a life of their own and can really improve the quality of life,” he said. However, it wasn’t until a remarkable victory last November — not the Chicago Cubs — that the administration really saw a chance to make a move. “Then the election happened last fall and President Trump was elected and very quickly we realized some of the things we’d been talking about — a lot had changed in the policy arena and there were some new opportunities to take the North Slope Borough up on what we’d been talking about and that was really to focus on community needs and whittling down the cost of living in those communities,” Mack continued. As a result, DNR began to put together the concept of a network of basic gravel roads to connect communities across the North Slope, primarily in the federal National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. A map on the department’s ASTAR page shows potential road corridors connecting Anaktuvuk Pass and Umiat to the south to Point Hope, Point Lay and Wainwright to the west and Nuiqsut and Point Thomson to the east, among others. The administration then made a late addition to its capital budget request and in May, Mack and Brower sent letters to the House Finance Committee requesting funding to start planning for and prioritizing which parts of the large concept could move forward. The Legislature ultimately approved $7.3 million for ASTAR; money reappropriated from the Department of Transportation, DNR and leftover funds from the Alaska Railroad’s Tanana River bridge project southeast of Fairbanks. Mack said now is the time to investigate ASTAR despite the state’s serious budget problems because the Department of the Interior is reassessing its view of oil and gas potential in the NPR-A. Recent Nanushuk formation oil discoveries inside the reserve and on state lands near it by ConocoPhillips and Armstrong Energy and strong interest in NPR-A leases in the fall 2016 federal oil and gas lease sale give every indication the assessment will show increased oil potential and industry wants more access into the area. There has also been a push from resource development proponents in the state to reopen the NPR-A management plan and the Trump administration has hinted that it is interested in opening more areas in the 23 million-acre reserve. Mack acknowledged $7.3 million doesn’t build much on the Slope and said that money will be used to plan projects and hopefully devise a payment structure for what might actually be built, which he also said almost certainly won’t come close to the entire network. “We know we’re getting into some major (National Environmental Policy Act) planning. We think there ought to be good results for the communities on rights of ways so that we have clear plans for community development and if there’s a secondary benefit for industry, we’re happy, we’re extremely happy,” Mack said. Most of that planning will be done over the next year to 18 months, he added. DNR is currently advertising a long-term but temporary position to travel to the Slope communities, gather input and manage those planning efforts. Those secondary benefits for industry — accessing otherwise isolated prospects — could help pay for ASTAR infrastructure through fees or simply expedited projects leading to more state taxes and royalties, according to Mack. “Even if there is a minor uptick in production in one unit or field or it comes online a little sooner because a company might be able to pay tolls to get to that prospect it possibly has the ability to pay for itself,” he said. “Part of the project is to understand and examine the financial opportunities and one of the opportunities may be a tolling structure and how that might work.” He said further that companies have noticed the ice road season being consistently squeezed on both ends. Leaders of the small independent producer Caelus Energy have consistently noted that a road to their 6 billion-barrel Smith Bay oil prospect about 125 miles northwest of existing Slope infrastructure would bring down development costs immensely and likely get the project into production quicker. While the state is moving quickly on ASTAR, Mack emphasized, “We’re not backing away from our commitment to protect the area and the subsistence culture but we certainly see new information that should be considered.” He also said the roads could be used as utility corridors to bring lower cost energy and broadband to the region, but all that is a long ways off. “We don’t have any particular project in mind and it will probably start out with an effort to identify what one or two roads in the NPR-A looks like, maybe a marine facility or two and what they would look like,” Mack said. “We’ll kind of chew it bite sizes.” ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Slope producers doing more with less

Alaska’s oil workforce has been hit hard by low prices, yet the companies in the state have managed to buck a longstanding trend and increase production for the last two years. So what gives? For state Labor Department Economist Neal Fried, the curiosity in the numbers goes back further than when oil prices started tumbling from the $100-plus per barrel plateau in August 2014. “The whole trend in oil production and employment has been very interesting just because in 2015 we reached a record number of employees in oil and gas in the state’s history, which is pretty amazing given the fact that we were producing significantly less than our peak in 1988 or for many years before that,” Fried noted. He said that the decade-long run-up in oil and gas sector jobs exceeded the generally accepted notion that oil fields — the three primary North Slope fields are 17 to 40 years old — require more investment as they age. In 2006, Alaska had an average of 9,600 oil industry workers, according to the state Labor Department. That year Trans-Alaska Pipeline System throughput averaged just more than 759,000 barrels per day. By the peak of industry employment in 2015, just before price-induced layoffs started taking their toll, oil accounted for about 14,200 jobs while TAPS carried just 508,000 barrels per day, the lowest annual production level in the history of the North Slope. Fried attributes the employment boom to the peak oil price years of 2011 to 2014. “Without that magical price I don’t expect that it would’ve ever happened but it still was surprising,” he said of the workforce expansion. “It kind of humbled anyone that makes any kind of long-term forecast on any industry.” However, the script has flipped in less than two years. So far this year Alaska has averaged 10,600 oil industry jobs, the fewest since 2006, while TAPS throughput is at nearly 523,000 barrels per day, according to the pipeline owner Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. The last month Alaska North Slope crude averaged more than $60 per barrel was June 2015. North Slope oil production has generally declined at about 5 percent per year with few exceptions since peaking in 1988 at just more than 2 million barrels per day. With the regular North Slope winter production ramp-up still on the horizon for the end of the year, 2017 is already on pace to surpass the 517,000 barrels per day of 2016. If that holds true, it would mark the first two consecutive calendar years and only the third year overall of year-over-year increased North Slope production since 1988. The only other year prior to 2016 to see a production increase on the Slope was 2002 when the Alpine field came online. New technologies could be starting to displace some traditional manpower, Fried surmised, but quantifying that for Alaska in the complex and extremely proprietary oil and gas industry is very difficult. “You just have all this other noise going on,” he said. On a high level, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates productivity in the oil and gas sector increased 5.4 percent nationwide in 2016 on a production per hours worked basis. The industry saw production output decrease over the year, but less than hours worked did, as oil prices down to less than $30 per barrel to start 2016 discouraged investment. Just because there are fewer people doesn’t mean there is less quality work going on, Alaska Division of Oil and Gas Deputy Director Jim Beckham said. He described it as producers “refining their techniques and their abilities to make efficiencies all the time.” “They will pick and choose, high-grade, so to speak, the work that they’re going to do targeting the projects that they’ll get the most benefit from,” Beckham said. He surmised a significant number of the jobs lost in the recent downturn could’ve come from Anchorage offices, allowing the Slope workers to continue the actual work of extracting oil. The oil and gas sector in the city is down about 700 jobs from mid-2016 to now, according to the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. Beckham said the production increase has been driven primarily by more oil from the Prudhoe Bay and Alpine fields. BP, which operates Prudhoe, outpaced its own estimates for oil and natural gas liquids production from the Prudhoe Bay field in 2016, with production averaging 197,900 barrels per day for the year. The company had expected reduced drilling activity brought on by low oil prices would result in average daily production to be flat or down as much as 40,000 barrels from 2015, when 196,400 barrels per day were pumped from Prudhoe. “In the Prudhoe Bay Unit they’re still reaping some of the benefits of their drilling and workover program that they had over the last couple of years,” Beckham said. BP is only down about 50 jobs since 2015, with 1,700 Alaska employees, according to spokeswoman Dawn Patience. The company has two drilling rigs working at Prudhoe this year. “We are pursuing well work which can be done less costly and more efficiently by non-rig equipment such as coil tubing,” Patience wrote in an email. “In today’s low oil price environment, Prudhoe Bay’s working interest owners must look closely at every investment decision.” Beckham added that BP has achieved “remarkable results for a field that’s that age and size” with its well workover and maintenance programs over the past couple years. At Alpine, in the Colville River Unit, ConocoPhillips started up its CD-5 oil project in October 2015. The company approved adding 18 new wells to CD-5 in April 2016 — bringing the total to 33 — and since then production from the Colville River satellite has approached 20,000 barrels per day, or about 25 percent above the company’s stated goal of 16,000 barrels daily. At the same time, ConocoPhillips Alaska is down about 240 positions since January 2015, spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said, adding a majority of the employees affected by layoffs worked in Anchorage. Overall, ConocoPhillips has managed to reduce its operating cost by about 20 percent since 2014, Lowman noted. “We have found ways to streamline processes both in the office and on the Slope,” she said. “We are a stronger, leaner company than before the oil price crash.” Beckham also noted ExxonMobil brought the Point Thomson natural gas field, which pumps liquid gas condensates into TAPS, online in April 2016. While technical problems have hampered Exxon’s ability to average its 10,000 barrels per day target, the field has pumped about 3,000 barrels per day into the pipeline. “You start to add those up and you get an 11,000-12,000 barrels per day increase,” Beckham said. It should be noted the new production must offset continuing decline in other fields before contributing to increased production Slope-wide. If the majority of job losses have not come from the largest companies operating on the Slope, there is only one other place to turn: their contractors. Alaska Support Industry Alliance General Manager Rebecca Logan said the issue of job losses amongst Slope contractors is a touchy subject, but acknowledged a majority of the positions cut from Slope oil work came from contractor companies. Best known simply as the Alliance, Logan’s trade association represents more than 500 companies with upwards of 50,000 employees working in the state’s oil and gas and mining sectors. Contractors are often the first place the operators turn for cost savings in the form of less expensive work, she said. “People are doing more with less and the less means fewer people,” Logan said. She added that when oil prices were at $100 per barrel, the operating companies were likely not looking as hard for efficiencies in day-to-day work. Additionally, Logan said the transition from the majors with large capital budgets dominating the Slope to smaller companies operating more fields likely means leaner contracts for her members. “I think that our contractors have known, especially the ones that have been around for a long time — who built the pipeline and have been here through all the ups and downs — to be working for companies like a Hilcorp, which comes in and does things differently than a global company like a BP, right?” she said. Hilcorp purchased operating interests in several of BP’s producing Slope fields and prospects in 2014 for $1.25 billion. Houston-based independent Hilcorp Energy is known for reviving aging oil and gas fields that larger companies no longer deem worthy of investment. Logan said she hopes the continued low prices and state policy decisions don’t deter future investment in Slope fields that could lead to a sharp decline in production in the coming years. Beckham said the state is very excited about a few massive Slope oil discoveries that have been announced but are yet to be developed that could add several hundred thousand barrels per day of new oil into TAPS. However, even the most advanced of those prospects, Armstrong Energy’s estimated 120,000 barrels per day Nanushuk project, is several years off. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Hilcorp advances plan for cross-Inlet oil pipeline

Hilcorp Energy is moving ahead with its $75 million plan to ship oil across Cook Inlet. Harvest Alaska, Hilcorp’s pipeline subsidiary, filed applications with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska Sept. 8 requesting approval to expand the Inlet’s pipeline network and ultimately pipe oil from west Inlet facilities to the Andeavor refinery in Nikiski. The project includes constructing new subsea and onshore pipelines as well as repurposing a cross-Inlet gas pipeline into an oil line to feed the refinery at Nikiski. “The Cross-Inlet Expansion Project will bring a higher level of safety and reliability for shipping oil across Cook Inlet. We think it’s the right thing to do,” Harvest President Sean Kolassa said in a company release. Repurposing the existing cross-Inlet gasline will mean installing a new gasline from the Tyonek platform to tie into the large Beluga gas transmission line on the west side of the Inlet. Also, oil flow that now goes from Granite Point south to the Trading Bay processing facility and on to the Drift River storage and tanker loading terminal will be reversed. The Drift River tank farm, with capacity in excess of 1 million barrels of oil, feeds the offshore Christy Lee tanker loading platform via pipeline. Its location in the shadows of Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, has long made it an environmental concern. The Drift River facility was partially flooded by a snowmelt-ash sludge in April 2009 after Redoubt erupted. Then operated by Chevron, the tank farm was shut down as a precautionary measure. Hilcorp restarted the then-40-year-old terminal in late 2012. Hilcorp has been investigating the prospect of a subsea oil transmission line — a lower spill risk option than tanker traffic — for some time, Hilcorp Senior Vice President Dave Wilkins said in a prior interview with the Journal. Its purchase of the Tyonek platform and associated pipelines last year from ConocoPhillips gave the company what it needed to make the project economic, according to Wilkins. The company has already ordered U.S. steel in preparation for next year’s construction season and hopes to have the project complete by the end of 2018, according to the release. Hilcorp took significant heat starting in February when a natural gas leak was discovered in one of its subsea Inlet pipelines and the company was unable to fix it for roughly two months as heavy ice flows made it unsafe for dive crews to reach the pipeline. Executive Director of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council Mike Munger said in the Hilcorp release that the nonprofit tasked with oversight of Inlet oil and gas operations is pleased that the company is progressing an oil pipeline as a safer alternative to tanker shipments. “The council has advocated for a crude oil subsea pipeline since the reopening of the terminal after the 2009 Mt. Redoubt eruption,” Munger said. “We support Hilcorp’s project and we look forward to working closely with them through this process to ensure it’s done responsibly.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Ahtna apologizes to state regulators after $380K fine

Ahtna Inc. leaders admitted the Native corporation’s drilling subsidiary repeatedly failed to comply with state regulators’ demands over several months, but at the same time asked the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to lessen the resulting $380,000 in fines that the corporate officials feel are excessive. Ahtna CEO Tom Maloney said during a Sept. 12 AOGCC appeal hearing that the company has the “deepest sorrow” for the internal communications failures that led the commission to levy the fines. He stressed the communications problems were fixed as soon as possible after he was notified. “We are committed that it will never happen again,” Maloney said. The commission issued the fines to Tolsona Oil and Gas Exploration LLC, a wholly-owned Ahtna subsidiary of which Maloney is also CEO, because the company, among other things, time and again did not provide data on the natural gas exploration well it drilled last fall and was not responsive to efforts by commission officials to contact the company, according to a May 24 AOGCC order. The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is a technical state regulatory body responsible for oversight of subsurface oil and gas activity. The fine order in May followed an April 11 Notice of Proposed Enforcement Action that claimed Tolsona failed to hold up its end of a deal after the commission granted the company’s request to suspend the well it had challenges drilling. Maloney and Ahtna attorneys did not dispute the general conclusion that the company dropped the ball by having poor internal communications policies. He said he was made aware of the order on May 25 by an individual in the oil and gas industry but outside the Ahtna family of companies. “I was shocked and dismayed when I read the order,” Maloney testified to the commission. “We’re deeply sorry that this has occurred. It’s been a black eye for all of us in the corporation.” Late last September, the wholly owned Ahtna Inc. subsidiary spudded the Tolsona-1 gas exploration well on state land about 11 miles west of Glennallen. An Ahtna press release announcing the start of the drilling work said the well’s target depth was about 4,000 feet. The company statement also noted previous exploration wells in the region — Ahtna was a partner on one — hit high pressure water zones that hampered drilling. According to the AOGCC, the Tolsona-1 well reached its total depth on Nov. 22, after 54 days of drilling. Ahtna originally expected the drilling to take 26 days. A Jan. 6 Ahtna release stated the well was ultimately drilled to 5,500 feet on Dec. 5 to overcome challenges from unexpected complexities in the area’s geology. At that time Ahtna was preparing for detailed analysis of the well data, the company said. According to the commission, the well was evaluated until Dec. 14, when the company applied to the commission to suspend the well. That application was approved the same day. A day later, the company reported that pressure was building in the well casing annulus — the area between the inner tubing and outer casing — to nearly 900 pounds per square inch. The pressure again built back to approximately 1,110 pounds per square inch after Tolsona bled it to zero, according to AOGCC documents. As a result, the commission approved continued suspension of well operations and the installment of a second mechanical tubing plug. The commission additionally wanted Tolsona to monitor the well pressure and provide weekly reports until Jan. 20. On Jan. 12, the commission approved Tolsona’s request to further install a back pressure valve in the well tubing at the end of the pressure reporting period. As a stipulation of installing the back pressure valve, Tolsona was required to provide monthly pressure reports to the AOGCC and give commission inspectors three days notice so they could witness the pressure readings. Shortly thereafter the problems began. A March 6 AOGCC Notice of Violation issued to Tolsona Oil and Gas stated the company failed to report the well pressure on Jan. 20, but after a Jan. 23 follow-up by the commission, “Tolsona provided the data the same day with ‘apologies, we will not be late again.’” However, according to the March 6 notice, after not receiving the Feb. 20 pressure report, the commission did not hear back from Tolsona via email after Feb. 28 and March 2 phone calls were not returned. The commission subsequently sent an inspector to the drill pad March 3. The notice states that once on site, the inspector discovered that the well pressures had not been recorded over the past month; a Tolsona representative that met with the inspector did not know if the back pressure valve had been installed; and the Tolsona employee had not been trained to properly record the wellhead pressures. The April 11 AOGCC enforcement notice states that “Tolsona remains non-responsive and has failed to provide the required monthly well pressures for March 2017. Further, it alleges the company violated state regulations by not installing another pressure gauge on an outer well casing. Ahtna attorney Nicholas Ostrovsky said during the hearing that his subsequent review of company communications found a “choke point” in communications within Tolsona without redundancy measures to assure management was made aware of issues such as the AOGCC’s demands. That choke point came down to the company’s operations and development manager, according to the Ahtna officials. The commission’s directives simply did not make it to Maloney or any other senior leaders, they said, despite the fact that everyone involved works in the same office complex. Maloney said he talked with the individual responsible almost daily but the situation was never brought up. A clearly perturbed Commissioner Cathy Foerster asked a series of technical questions the Ahtna officials were unable to answer; the attorneys and Maloney said they understood the hearing was to focus on the timeline of events and not issues with the well. As a result, the commission gave the company 30 days to respond to the questions. Ahtna counsel Brewster Jamieson said the company sympathizes with what the commission initially thought was the case, that Tolsona was “simply blowing the commission off,” but said that was absolutely not the case because management did know what was going on. Therefore, he said the company believes the fines for not following the commission’s orders are excessive and not in line with similar previous cases. Foerster also asked why it should matter to the commission whether or not management was notified. “The AOGCC did everything in its power to get a hold of us and we simply failed to respond,” Ostrovsky said. The April 11 notice details the $380,000 proposed fine as $10,000 for failing to install the pressure gauge and another $10,000 for failing to submit the March 20 well pressure report. On top of that, the commission levied another $5,000 per day for each of the 50 days the gauge was not installed, from Feb. 20 to April 11, and $5,000 per day for each day the March 20 pressure report was past due. Jamieson contended the commission issued the $260,000 in fines for not installing the pressure gauge based on inapplicable regulations. He said the commission referenced production well regulations in issuing the fines, but the exploration well has never reached production so it couldn’t violate those regulations. The regulation application issues were not discussed further. AOGCC Chair Hollis French said the commission noted Ahtna’s contrition on the matter and left the hearing record open until Oct. 26 to allow for the company to respond to Foerster’s technical questions. No ruling was made on the fines as a result. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]


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