Movers and Shakers for April 21

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has named Meghan Redmond, assistant principal of Chief Ivan Blunka School in New Stuyahok, as the 2019 National Assistant Principal of the Year. Redmond is in her fourth year as assistant principal at Chief Ivan Blunka School in New Stuyahok, a K–12 school consisting of 134 students who can only access the school by boat or plane. Because the remote nature of the school limits opportunities for exposure to various careers and other robust experiences, Redmond leads the school’s quarterly exploration weeks that allow students to focus on one or two courses that help them explore careers and interests — with some exploration weeks leading to industry-based certifications. Redmond also started the Small Schools Matter group to draw attention to the needs of remote schools and recently brought students to the state capital of Juneau to advocate for funding. Driven to provide a culturally relevant education for the nearly 100 percent Yup’ik Eskimo Alaska Native population, Redmond incorporates the native language into the school. The school’s administrative team focuses on valuing teacher talent in order to retain it, evidenced by a 100 percent staff retention rate for the current school year. Redmond holds a bachelor’s degree in middle childhood and early adolescence education from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She also serves on the executive board for the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals. Northrim Bank announced the promotion of a variety of employees throughout the Bank: Mark Edwards, EVP-chief credit officer and bank economist; Kari Skinner, SVP-marketing and communications director; Marc Guevarra, VP-commercial loan officer; Tammy Kosa, VP-regional market manager; Gerlie Monta-Guevarra, VP-branch manager; Aili Peyton-Jalbert, VP-commercial cash management officer; Josie Thayer, VP-commercial cash management officer; Bill Simpson, VP-collections supervisor; Katie Bender, AVP-community and public relations manager. Edwards has been with Northrim Bank since 2007. Prior to that, he was the director of the Office of Economic Development for the State of Alaska and economist for the Department of Revenue. Edwards has an MBA from Alaska Pacific University and a master’s degree from Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management. He received Northrim Bank’s President’s award in 2010. Skinner joined Northrim in 2017 with more than 15 years of sales and marketing experience, most recently with Simon Property Group as a director of Marketing and Business Development. She holds an MBA from the University of Utah. Guevarra has worked in banking since 2001. He joined Alaska Pacific Bank in 2007 and has been with Northrim since the merger in 2014. He holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Kosa has been with Northrim for 15 years. She is a graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has been awarded the Northrim Way Award, Customer First Service Award, and President’s Award. Monta-Guevarra started her career in banking in 2000. She has started at Alaska Pacific Bank in 2005 and has been with Northrim since the merger in 2014. Peyton-Jalbert joined Northrim Bank in 2018 with eight years of banking experience. She holds a master’s degree in communication from the University of Hawaii. Thayer has been with Northrim for more than 13 years and has 20 years of cash management experience. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international business from the University of Alaska. Simpson joined Northrim in 2007 as part of the bank’s acquisition of Alaska First Bank & Trust. He has more than 30 years of experience in banking. Simpson holds a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in finance from Boise State University. Bender has been with Northrim since 2013 and has more than 15 years of experience in communications and public relations. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Ahtna Inc. announced several new hires and achievements within its subsidiaries. Vivian Tokar, program manager with Ahtna Environmental Inc., has earned the designation of Project Management Professional. This certification, through the Project Management Institute, requires 4,500 hours of leading and directing projects, a four-year degree, 35 hours of project management education, as well as passing a rigorous exam. Tokar has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and has managed environmental remediation projects across Alaska since joining Ahtna in 2015. Ahtna Engineering Services LLC promoted Valeriya Brand, MBA, CPCM, to the position of business manager. Brand has more than 12 years of experience providing financial and contract management including financial tracking and budget management. Brand earned a Certified Professional Contracts Management credential from the National Contract Management Association in 2016 and has an MBA; and bachelor’s degrees in accounting and management. Prior to her promotion, Brand served as the firm’s contracts manager. AEI has recently hired Acery “Ace” Garcia, as one of its safety and QA/QC managers. Garcia has more than 25 years of experience working with the government, 15 years overseas. His focus primarily involves Military Munitions Response Program and environmental projects with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Garcia holds an associate’s degree in occupational safety and health technology and is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree. AEI’s Anchorage office hired Toni Endsley as project controls manager. Endsley has more than 15 years of experience in federal contracting performing project/program, operations, and contract management; financial analysis and budgeting; safety and hazardous material handling and transportation compliance; and marketing/business development. She holds numerous certifications including USACE CQM, HAZWOPER, and multiple various OSHA certifications. Endsley has an associate’s degree with coursework tailored towards business and finance. AES also welcomed Autumn Gould as a geologist working from the firm’s Anchorage office. Gould has more than four years of experience as a geologist in the oil and gas industry in addition to environmental remediation. She has worked on environmental projects throughout Alaska including strategic project implementation plans, preliminary assessments, site inspections, remedial investigations, feasibility studies, site characterizations, and remedial action projects. Gould has a bachelor’s degree in geology. Alaska Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy accepted the resignation of Public Defender Quinlan Steiner effective immediately and named Beth Goldstein of Anchorage as Acting Public Defender. Goldstein has more than 25 years of business management and legal experience. Goldstein’s public service consists of eight years as an assistant federal public defender in the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Ohio, and most recently 13 years in the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy as an assistant public advocate, deputy director, and supervisor. She received her bachelor’s degree in genetic engineering, biology, chemistry, and political science at Cedar Crest College and her juris doctorate from University of New Hampshire School of Law. With experience in both the private and public sector, her background includes regulations, administrative law, contract negotiations, fraud investigations, and legal management. Saltchuk has named David Karp as senior vice president, managing director for Alaska. Over the years Saltchuk’s family of independently operated companies in Alaska has grown to include Northern Air Cargo, Northern Air Maintenance Services, Cook Inlet Tug & Barge, TOTE Maritime Alaska, Delta Western Petroleum, Inlet Energy, Northern Oilfield Services and Carlile. Karp has been in his new role since Jan. 1. Karp previously served, for the past 11 years, as the president and CEO of Northern Aviation Services, Saltchuk’s Air Cargo line of business, which in Alaska includes Northern Air Cargo and Northern Air Maintenance Services. University of Alaska Anchorage’s Department of Journalism and Public Communication has announced that Larry Persily will serve as the new Atwood Chair of Journalism. Persily brings almost 50 years of journalism and public policy experience to his new position as the Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage for the 2019-20 school year. His journalism career began in 1969 as a college newspaper reporter and continued for the next 30 years. Although he took leave from the profession periodically during the past two decades to work on public policy in federal, state and municipal government, he has returned of late to journalism to help out at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, the Nome Nugget, Peninsula Clarion in Kenai, and writing for the Alaska Journal of Commerce on topics of critical concern to Alaskans. He also will take over as owner/publisher of The Skagway News on April 1 as he looks to help Alaska’s smaller newspapers. Deadline for Movers & Shakers is each Monday at noon. Announcements are published in the order received on a space-available basis. For information, contact Andrew Jensen at (907) 257-4271 or by e-mail at [email protected]

Alaska Railroad income beats expectations in 2018

The Alaska Railroad Corp. managed to turn an $18 million profit in 2018 despite a one-third decrease in activity in its primary business line, according to its annual report released this month. The $18 million net income is down from a $22.4 million profit in 2017 but an improvement over other recent years. Operating revenue fell $1.7 million year-over-year in 2018 to $163.4 million, while operating income fell further — from $6.4 million in 2017 to $1.5 million last year — on slightly higher expenses. As has been the case in recent years, the state-owned railroad’s profit was largely built on its real estate business, which generated a $13 million profit for the year. The railroad is a significant landowner with title to about 37,000 acres across the state, roughly half of which is on revenue-generating properties. While a state-owned corporation, the Alaska Railroad does not receive state funding as part of its normal business operations. The $18 million profit also was better than expected. Railroad leaders had forecasted a $13.5 million profit for 2018 early in the year and the annual report lists a $21.7 million profit forecast for 2019, which would jive with a general expectation for an improving state economy this year. The railroad ended 2018 with a net position of $356.6 million in 2018, according to the report. A longer-term drop in the railroad’s freight resumed in 2018, as it’s overall freight tonnage fell sharply from nearly 4.8 million tons in 2017 to 3.2 million tons last year. Freight business historically has accounted for 40 percent or more of the railroad’s operating income. Spokesman Tim Sullivan said the drop in freight volumes was mostly due to a decline in gravel demand after a series of large road construction projects in 2017. “When there are big construction projects going on we’re moving gravel and we’re a pretty steady representation of what’s going on there,” Sullivan said, noting that 2017 was an anomaly to an overall trend of declining freight volumes. The Alaska Railroad’s annual freight tonnage has gradually declined from 6.3 million tons in 2010. The railroad has also seen increased competition from trucking for fuel transports between Anchorage and Fairbanks, according to Sullivan. However, the revenue generated from moving 3.2 million tons of freight last year very nearly matched what was made off of moving 4.8 million tons of building materials and equipment in 2017. In fact, revenue from the nearly $72 million freight business line decreased just $354,000 in 2018. That’s because the railroad saw an 8 percent increase in its high-value rail-barge business, primarily from additional North Slope oil exploration and development activity last year. The rail-barge link allows railcars loaded in the Lower 48 to be barged to Whittier where they are added to Alaska Railroad trains. The railroad also hauled U.S. Army supplies and equipment for deployment and training at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, according to the report. Activity in the passenger segment of the railroad’s business continues to increase. Employment at the railroad stayed steady at about 550 year-round workers in 2018 after several rounds of layoffs and organization restructuring in prior years that were necessitated by declining business, according to railroad officials. The railroad also hires up to about 140 seasonal workers each year to match summer passenger train demand. The strong Lower 48 economy has helped to consistently grow Alaska’s tourism industry over the past five-plus years and railroad ridership has followed suit. Ridership increased about 5 percent to nearly 532,000 passengers in 2018 and the report notes that “offseason” ridership has more than doubled over the past five years as well. Train ridership bottomed out at 405,000 passengers in 2010 following the Great Recession. Sullivan said the number of winter passengers has gone from roughly 5,500 to more than 11,000 passengers per season as the railroad has added more trains between Southcentral and the Interior. “We’ve seen quite an increase in locals traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks as well as big increases in Asian winter tourism and they take advantage of those extra trains as well,” he said. Fairbanks-area tourism businesses have also expanded their offerings in recent years, particularly to attract Asian visitors seeking out prime aurora-viewing opportunities. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Your 401(k) just got more valuable

If your tax refund this year was disappointing, you may be able to do something about it: Contribute more to a retirement fund. Tax-deductible contributions to 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement accounts are among the few remaining ways to reduce taxable income if you don’t itemize deductions. And few of us do these days: Only about 1 in 10 taxpayers is expected to itemize now that Congress has nearly doubled the standard deduction, tax experts say. That’s down from about 1 in 3 before the law changed. Fewer ways to trim tax bills As a result, many of the traditional tips and tricks for reducing tax bills either no longer work or are of limited help. Deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions and medical expenses, for example, can be taken only if you itemize. In addition to increasing standard deductions, the tax law enacted in December 2017 also did away with personal exemptions and curbed or eliminated many other common deductions: • Unreimbursed work expenses, tax prep fees and job search costs are no longer deductible. • Moving expenses aren’t deductible unless you’re active-duty military. • Casualty and theft losses are deductible only in a federally declared disaster area. • State and local tax deductions are capped at $10,000. • Home equity loan interest is deductible only if the money was used to substantially improve your home. Student loan interest is still deductible if you don’t itemize, as are certain self-employment expenses. You can reduce taxable income by contributing to workplace flexible spending accounts and the health savings accounts that are paired with high-deductible health insurance plans. Retirement plan contributions offer multiple benefits Not everyone can take advantage of those deductions, but the vast majority of working people can contribute to retirement plans, says Michael Eisenberg, a CPA personal finance specialist with the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. If you don’t have a workplace plan such as a 401(k), you can make tax-deductible contributions to an IRA as long as you’re under 70½ and have earned income, typically from salary, wages or self-employment income, that’s at least equal to your contribution. People can put up to $6,000 into an IRA in 2019, or $7,000 if they’re 50 or older. (If you or your spouse has a workplace plan, you can still contribute to an IRA, but how much you can deduct depends on your income. Check the IRS site for details.) Contribution limits are higher for workplace plans such as 401(k)s: $19,000 for 2019, or $25,000 if you’re 50 or older. If you have a workplace plan, your company also likely offers matching funds, says Jarod Taylor, a financial counselor in Westerville, Ohio. “Let’s say you put in 4 percent (of your pay), and your employer matches that up to 4 percent,” Taylor says. “You just gave yourself a 4 percent bonus.” Lower-income taxpayers may receive an additional benefit: a tax credit of up to $2,000 for single people or $4,000 for married couples filing jointly that can further reduce the cost of contributions. Tax credits are even more valuable than deductions, and it’s rare to get both at the same time. Credits of 50 percent, 20 percent or 10 percent of retirement contributions are available for singles with adjusted gross income up to $32,000 or $64,000 f or a married couple filing jointly. How to find the money For many people, tax refunds aren’t “extra” money. Every dollar may be needed to catch up on overdue bills or pay for health care. If that’s not the case, though, you could put a chunk of this year’s refund into a retirement account. You can do that directly, by opening or contributing to an IRA. Or you can boost your 401(k) contribution and use the refund to help replace money deducted from your paycheck. If you don’t mind a smaller refund and just want to pay less taxes, another possibility is reducing your withholding and channeling the additional money into your retirement fund, Taylor says. Taylor also advises clients to look for small expenses to trim, such as negotiating a cheaper cable package and avoiding bank fees. “You’ve already been living without that money, so just funnel that off to saving for retirement,” Taylor says. Even small amounts can add up. As traditional pensions become rarer, it’s important for most people to save if they want a comfortable retirement. “You don’t want to work for many, many years and wind up, if you can help it, living on Social Security alone,” Eisenberg says. This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.

FISH FACTOR: Salmon harvest projection takes big leap from 2018

Alaska fishermen could catch 85 percent more salmon this year (nearly a hundred million more) if state forecasts hold true. That’s good news for fishermen in many Gulf of Alaska regions who in 2018 suffered some of the worst catches in 50 years. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting a total salmon catch of 213.2 million fish for 2019, compared to about 116 million salmon last year. The increase comes from expectations of another big haul of sockeyes, increases in pinks and a possible record catch of chum salmon. The harvest breakdown calls for 112,000 chinook salmon in areas outside of Southeast Alaska. The catch for the Southeast troll fleet, which is determined by a treaty with Canada, will be 101,300 kings, or an increase of 5,600 fish. For sockeyes, a catch of just less than 42 million is projected, about 9 million fewer than last year. A harvest of nearly 138 million pink salmon would be 97 million more that last summer, and a coho harvest of 4.6 million would be an increase of 900,000 over 2018. Chums could set a record with a projected catch of 29 million, a boost of nine million and well above the 25 million chum catch record set in 2017. Some highlights and lookbacks: Copper River’s commercial sockeye salmon catch for 2019 is pegged at 756,000 million and 31,000 for chinook (all fisheries). Managers said the forecast should “be interpreted with caution as poor runs of many Gulf sockeye stocks in 2018 suggest there is considerable likelihood of overforecasting.” Last year the Copper River drift gillnet catch of 47,000 reds was the second-fewest in 100 years. Southeast Alaska’s pink salmon run is predicted to be weak this summer with a catch of 18 million, half of the 10-year average. That follows on a catch of just more than 8 million pinks in 2018, which ranks 51st in harvests since 1962. Biologists said a big source of uncertainty is abnormally warm Gulf sea surface waters “may have a negative impact on the survival of pink salmon.” At Kodiak, the predicted 27-million pink salmon harvest is in the “excellent” category and compares to a catch of just 6 million pinks in 2018. The total salmon take last year at Kodiak of just nine million salmon compares to a 10-year average of more than 21 million. Upper Cook Inlet could see a slightly improved sockeye harvest of three million. The 2018 catch at UCI of 1.3 million sockeyes was 61 percent less than the 10-year average and the smallest harvest since 1975. At Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula where an astonishing 128 sockeye salmon were caught last year, a hopeful harvest of about 965,000 reds is projected this year. At Bristol Bay, a sockeye harvest of about 27 million compares to a catch of 41.3 million in 2018. That stemmed from a run of more than 62 million reds, the largest on record. It was the fourth consecutive year that the Bay’s sockeye runs topped 50 million. State salmon managers don’t produce formal forecasts for most salmon runs in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim, or AYK, region, but they predict continued good returns to Norton Sound, Kotzebue and a half-million chum catch at the Lower Yukon. Salmon fishermen near Nome set records for coho and chum catches last year, and a 4,000 sockeye take was the second-most ever. Pink salmon runs also were stronger than expected but met with little interest from the one buyer. Fishermen at Kotzebue Sound caught a record 695,153 chum salmon in 2018 and managers said a 700,000-chum harvest would be possible if there was a market for the fish. The lack of a buyer will beach Kuskokwim salmon fishermen for the fourth year, although it’s not due to a lack of fish. For example, the weir on the 75-mile Kanektok River did not operate in 2018 due to a lack of funding, but aerial surveys showed the second-largest escapement of sockeye salmon on record. A fish plant at Platinum that bought salmon, herring and halibut starting in 2009 closed abruptly in 2015. According to owner Coastal Villages Region Fund, a group created to provide economic benefit for its 20 member communities, the plant “never became sustainable” and was a big money loser. CVRF has instead invested in five vessels, the largest at 341 feet, that fish for pollock, crab and cod in the Bering Sea, Three of the boats are homeported in Seattle. CVRF claims it “has grown to be the largest seafood owner/operator headquartered in Alaska.” Herring on hold Herring at Sitka Sound is still a waiting game in a fishery that’s usually come and gone by late March. Many seiners and tenders left on March 28, reported KCAW, along with the state research vessel Kestrel that does fish sampling. Most of the herring, which are valued only for their eggs or roe, have so far been too immature for an opener. By April 3, more than 21 miles of herring spawn had been mapped, usually signaling the beginning of the end for a fishery. But spotters were still flying and biologist Eric Coonradt at ADFG in Sitka said some seiners and processors were sticking around. “I feel like there’s still time left. Some years the larger versus smaller fish kind of split up. It’s just kind of a wait and see game,” he said. Seiners were hoping to haul in nearly 13,000 tons of roe herring after a total bust last year that produced just 2,800 tons. Sitka Sound’s latest herring fishery was April 15 in 2002. The last time there was no commercial fishery there was in 1977. Meanwhile, Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay is expecting a big run and an earlier start as soon as mid-April. ADFG area manager Tim Sands told KDLG in Dillingham that unusually warm waters are making it tough to predict run timing. “This year there’s no ice anywhere near Bristol Bay and sea surface temperatures are much warmer. We have different models that worked relatively well when conditions were normal. But we’re so far from normal this year, we don’t have a lot of faith in our predictive ability,” Sands said. Budget cuts and a lack of aerial surveys for three years also have also contributed to the uncertainty and caused a more conservative approach to the Togiak herring fishery. “We retroactively introduced this idea of reducing the exploitation rate by 2 percent a year for years of poor data,” he explained. Togiak has a 2019 herring catch quota of 26,930 tons, up slightly from last year. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Court ruling scuttles Chamber plans for insurance association

The Alaska Chamber was just a few weeks away from opening enrollment to new health insurance options for small employers in the state when a D.C. District Court ruling changed those plans. Alaska Chamber Vice President Albert Fogle said the business group had pegged May 1 to start enrolling small businesses and nonprofits in its association health plan. That was before D.C. District Judge John D. Bates on March 28 struck down a 2018 federal Labor Department rule that expanded the ability for small employers to band together to purchase health insurance for their workers. “We were real close and if we were still a ‘go’ today I would be doing our first road show presentation and I would’ve been on the road all the month of April and into May going to all the local chambers and giving speeches about the Alaska Chamber health plan,” Fogle said during an April 8 interview. Association health plan advocates see pooling small employers into large groups as a way to take control over the health insurance plans offered to workers at organizations with less than 50 employees, provide more insurance options and possibly reduce costs in the typically higher-cost small group and individual insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act. However, Judge Bates threw out the rule because it greatly exaggerated the definitions of “employer” and “employee” under the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, and the ACA, according to his 43-page decision. Labor Department officials generated the rule, which was finalized in August 2018, in response to an October 2017 executive order from President Donald Trump directing the agency to expand options for developing such association health insurance plans. The executive order nearly immediately led to the development of about 35 such association health plans, many of which were sponsored by chambers of commerce or similar business groups, according to an Alaska Chamber statement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates more than 300,000 individuals would have enrolled in association plans nationwide if not for the court ruling. Eleven states and the District of Columbia quickly joined together to sue the Labor Department over the rule, contending it is another attempt by the Republican administration to undermine the ACA and its consumer protections. The Labor Department association health plan rule allows nearly any group of disparate employers to qualify for a single health plan under the ERISA, which reversed the department’s decades-long precedent of requiring such associations to have members with “close economic and representational ties” to qualify as employers under the law, according to Bates. The ERISA is the key in the case because it is the primary federal law covering employee benefit plans. Bates concluded that the Labor rule, which allows sole proprietors to join together and form an association plan, goes far beyond Congress’ definitions of “employer” and “employee” under ERISA. He wrote that under the rule 51 sole proprietors could form an association that would actually have 52 employers — counting the association as one employer — and 51 employees. “This logic is clever but ultimately not persuasive,” Bates wrote, further explaining the rather convoluted counting. “When one counts the employees employed by two self-employed persons without employees, the sum is zero. (Labor’s) feat of prestidigitation transforms two individuals, neither of whom works for the other, into a total of three employers and two employees. This interpretation strains the ERISA definition of ‘employee,’ which contemplates an individual ‘employed by’ another.” Before Bates handed down his decision, which remanded the rule back to the Labor Department for analysis and possible revision, the Alaska Chamber was getting loads of interest from small employers in Alaska, according to Fogle. “We all have been receiving daily inquiries from multiple employers asking when this is coming online; when they’re going to be able to see plans,” he said. “People were looking for a different option because the plans that are in the small group market are what they are.” Chamber leaders had been working with a consultant on the association plan since 2017 and the Labor rule just made the process easier, he added. The Alaska Chamber had an internal goal of signing up 1,000 individuals in the first year of the plan, as that would give the plan a large enough pool to be independently rated by insurers. The expected benefits of the Chamber’s association plan went beyond cost for many prospective members, according to Fogle. He said a comparison of the plan against existing small group insurance offerings in Alaska found that the Chamber’s plan would have kept premiums flat or lowered them for about 60 percent of participants. He stressed, however, that it would have had benefit enhancements offered at lower cost shares for employees. The Chamber’s plan offered a traditional range of low, medium and high deductible insurance plans, but also included, among other benefits, vision and “COBRA” coverage, which allows workers to continue receiving health insurance for a period after they are no longer employed. The COBRA benefit was particularly appealing to employers with less than 20 employees, Fogle said, adding that the insurance plan was fully compliant with the ACA. “To me, those are the benefits that go all the way down to the individual employee level, where families and individuals are having a lower out-of-pocket,” he said. The Alaska Chamber is now working to put together a revised association plan that is compliant with Bates’ decision. “We certainly have encouraged the Department of Justice to file the appeal and ask for a stay in the decision by the judge who issued the ruling until there’s finality on this decision but other than that, my main focus has been to find a way that we can do this under the current ruling and find a path forward,” said Fogle, who was about to go into a meeting on that topic. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

GUEST COMMENTARY: Record reflects Trump far tougher on Russia than Obama

Now that the Mueller investigation is over, we can put to bed the persistent and erroneous allegations that President Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians to get him elected. Likewise, we should also put to bed another persistent and pernicious narrative: that the president and his administration have been “soft” on Russia. This narrative has been continuously promulgated by a host of former Obama administration officials (see, for example, the recent Washington Post op-ed by a former U.S. ambassador to Russia) — and disseminated by a headline-chasing national media — who have attempted to disassociate the Trump administration’s Russia policies and actions from the president himself. They have done this by disparaging the president for his words but not crediting him for his administration’s actions. I agree that the president’s rhetoric regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin should be tougher, but as his critics surely know, it is actions backed by power and force that ultimately matter in the world of international politics, not Obama-style soaring rhetoric. This is particularly true when it comes to Putin. And the record thus far clearly shows that the Trump administration, working with Republicans in Congress, has been far tougher on Russia than the Obama administration ever was. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Ukrainian leaders desperately requested from President Barack Obama defensive anti-tank weapons systems that could fend off the invading Russian T-72 tanks in eastern Ukraine. In 2015, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Democrats and Republicans — encouraged Obama to grant this request to help Ukraine defend itself. Obama refused. Soon after coming into office, Trump changed course, and the Ukrainians now have Javelin anti-tank weapons systems from the United States. Russian tank drivers have a lot more to worry about today. The Trump administration has also replaced Obama’s reticence regarding U.S. troop deployments near Russia with a full embrace of the European Deterrence Initiative, or EDI. In just more than two years in office, Trump has requested more than $17 billion for EDI compared with just $5 billion requested in Obama’s final three years in office. As a result, thousands of U.S. troops, along with other NATO allies, have deployed to Poland, the Baltics and Norway to deter further Russian expansion. In the Middle East, Obama’s passive actions and policies — including a now-infamous unenforced “red line” — led to the rise of the Islamic State and left an open door for Russian ground and air forces. Russian troops and their proxies, aligned with Iranian and Syrian forces, now occupy large swaths of territory in Syria. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has unleashed the United States’ military might in Syria, leading the efforts to destroy the Islamic State territorial caliphate and militarily punishing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons. When Russian-backed proxies and possibly Russian military forces got too close to our Special Operations forces in Syria and failed to back off as warned, they were systematically destroyed by the U.S. military. And while much has been made of the president’s announcement of withdrawing troops from Syria, he has since pulled back to keep U.S. and NATO troops in the country. More broadly, under Obama, the Pentagon’s budget was slashed by 25 percent from 2010 to 2016. Our military’s readiness, unsurprisingly, plummeted. This certainly emboldened Putin. By the end of Obama’s tenure, the Air Force was the smallest and oldest (in terms of aircraft age) it has ever been, and only a small fraction of the Army was combat-ready. The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have reversed this hollowing out of our military by dramatically increasing funding. Readiness is returning. Trump’s national defense strategy clearly prioritizes Russia and China as rising great powers to which our military and nation must respond. Finally, Trump has taken decisive action to unleash an instrument of American power that Putin fears the most: U.S. energy. I’ll never forget a meeting I attended with Sen. John McCain and a prominent Russian dissident, who told us that the No. 1 thing the United States could do to undermine Putin was to “produce more American energy.” Crude oil production may have risen during the Obama administration, but that was only despite Democrats’ systematic efforts — which continue to this day — to undermine U.S. energy production on state and federal lands. As Alaska’s attorney general and the commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources, I fought the Obama administration’s consistent policies to delay and shut down hydrocarbon production in my state. Fortunately, the Trump administration has reversed most of Obama’s harmful anti-energy policies. The United States is once again the world’s energy superpower — producing more renewables, oil and natural gas than any other country on Earth, including Russia and Saudi Arabia. And with Trump administration policies, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for responsible energy production, U.S. energy dominance is likely to endure for decades. So yes, Trump and his administration clearly have been tough on Russia — more so than his predecessor. Facts are stubborn things, and when it comes to Russia and Vladimir Putin, actions speak louder than words. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate. He is a member of the Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Readiness.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Choices on Medicaid will have consequences

My good friend and former state Sen. Gretchen Guess often reminds me that life is about choices. In public policy, our choices can enhance or destroy people’s lives, so we have a moral obligation to understand their consequences. Good choices involve a decision-making process. What problem am I trying to solve? What are my options? What information or data do I have to evaluate these options? What stakeholders might have information I missed? In his rush to craft a state budget, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy and his team missed most of these decision-making steps, jeopardizing our economy and health. Case in point is the governor’s Medicaid cuts, which the governor’s administration says will not reduce Medicaid eligibility or services and thus won’t impact the lives of Alaskans. In fact, many of these decisions were made with virtually no analysis or consultation with stakeholders and could have a dramatic impact on the health care system, people who rely on it and small Alaska communities. As the governor makes these choices, Alaskans should understand the consequences. One of the most damaging budget proposals is to reduce Medicaid rates for nursing homes. These facilities, which house the medically vulnerable, are 75 percent to 100 percent Medicaid-funded. Medicaid pays what it costs to provide services, so cutting rates means that some nursing homes will be paid less than cost. You can see that this won’t work for long in a vulnerable facility that relies 100 percent on Medicaid. The consequences of the governor’s decision for some nursing homes will be reducing the quality of care for elders or closing and sending medically fragile Alaskans out of state. The governor’s administration continues to falsely claim that the budget won’t hurt small hospitals. In fact, most small hospitals are co-located with a nursing home, sharing costs and staff. The nursing home revenue is often greater than the hospital revenue and helps keep the facility afloat. Cutting nursing home rates is more damaging to small hospitals than cutting hospital rates. The consequences of the governor’s choice? Dramatically reducing access to health care in some small communities or closing small independent hospitals. In addition to making cuts that directly affect people’s lives, the governor proposes to drastically alter how larger hospitals and all nursing homes are paid, with no analysis of the impact of these changes. Consultants know a lengthy process and significant analysis is required to make informed changes of this magnitude without adverse impacts, but the governor wants to make them by Jan. 1. It is impossible to quantify the impacts without analysis, but the governor is pushing cuts without that information. Some of Alaska’s larger hospitals are not financially strong. How will this affect hospitals in Fairbanks and Juneau? How will it impact small nursing homes? We simply don’t know, but we can’t assume they will be fine. The governor’s team also claims that budget cuts will not affect children, when in fact there is no data upon which to make this assertion. It is true that eligibility for Denali KidCare, the Medicaid program for children, is not impacted. However, access to health care has two parts, having a way to pay for it (insurance coverage) and having providers willing to see you. The Department is cutting physician reimbursement rates an additional 5 percent, on top of recent rate cuts. While pediatricians are exempt from this rate cut, other pediatric providers are not. How will this cut affect the small number of pediatric specialists serving kids in our state? How will it affect physical therapists, speech therapists, psychologists and other providers of health care for children? We simply don’t know, because no analysis has been completed. Life is about choices, and as the governor makes choices, Alaskans deserve to understand their impacts. We can have reasonable conversations based on full information, even if we disagree, but masking or ignoring the impacts of choices does Alaskans a disservice. Alaska’s hospitals and nursing homes want to collaborate with the administration to improve health care and reduce cost growth, but that must be done in an environment of full transparency about actions and their consequences. Becky Hultberg is the president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Defend the PFD and Fund – or lose them both

Alaska is at a crossroads. Voters need to know our government is redefining the purpose of the Permanent Fund and the Permanent Fund dividend. The government wants us to believe that the Fund and PFD belong to the government to spend as it wishes. This is wrong. The government is spending our dividend that is Alaskans’ rightful share of our public oil wealth. Misunderstanding and false information about the Permanent Fund system are widespread. The truth is, Alaska’s founders and the people of Alaska set up the Permanent Fund as a trust fund that belongs to all Alaskans which is funded from the wealth of our commonly-owned oil and mineral resources. We the people amended the Alaska Constitution, allowing for 75 percent of these royalties to go for government spending, and a small 25 percent slice of the royalties to go to the Fund. The Fund is a way to save our one-time, non-renewable oil and mineral wealth for current and future generations. As Elmer Rasmuson, a former chairman of the Permanent Fund Corp. said, “The Fund is a constitutional right, not a gift bestowed by a generous government.” The Permanent Fund dividend comes from the investments of the Permanent Fund, not from taxes. The Fund and the PFD belong to the people. The government would have you believe that the PFD is a welfare program. It isn’t. It’s our share of our savings. My father, former Gov. Walter Hickel, was not an advocate for the PFD at first but later accepted it. He said, “You, as a resident of Alaska, share in the ownership of 103 million acres of land, all navigable waters and the natural resources our land and water contain. It is your oil, your natural gas, your minerals, your timber, your fish…. A portion of your oil royalties are also set aside in the Permanent Fund from which you, as an owner, earn dividends.” If the oil belongs to the people, then so do both the Permanent Fund and the dividend belong to the people, which is the wealth derived from the oil. An important purpose of the dividend is to protect the Fund wealth from mismanagement by government. Former Gov. Jay Hammond and other leaders with vision established the PFD program. These leaders knew that sharing some of the saved wealth in the Permanent Fund via a dividend each year was the best way to keep the Permanent Fund protected from looting down the trail by greedy politicians interested in spending the Fund. Dave Rose, the initial director of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., said the greatest threat to the Permanent Fund is the “intense temptations of powerful people (and) …the strongest defense of all is the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.” Has the dividend protected the Fund? Yes, until three years ago when politicians started cutting the PFD almost in half, ignoring the PFD law enacted in 1981. Now the whole Permanent Fund system is under attack by raiding politicians. Why is this attack happening? Oil revenues declined and our politicians are hooked on spending. Legislators in both parties continue to spend savings without efforts to use other options for a sustainable budget. They already spent 75 percent of our oil wealth royalties. But that wasn’t enough, so they have nearly depleted the budget reserves by spending more than $15 billion from these accounts. That still wasn’t enough, so they withheld more than $1 billion for inflation proofing the Permanent Fund, which effectively decreases the Fund’s value. That wasn’t enough either. So they cut your PFD by nearly half, ignoring the law for the past three years. Then in 2018, for the first time the legislature passed a law, Senate Bill 26, to access the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve Account for additional government spending. But this new law has no formula for yearly PFD payments and that makes paying the PFD optional. These raids on the PFD and Permanent Fund are ongoing and threaten the security and growth of Alaskans’ savings. Apparently our politicians think the dividend is a slush fund to be spent by the government for the government and not by the people. Cutting the PFD is a regressive tax, hurting the state’s most disadvantaged people the hardest while barely affecting the wealthy. Research shows that cutting the PFD is the worst kind of tax and is the most “adverse of all revenue measures.” The PFD has been a huge benefit to our state for more than 35 years. Our elected officials are ignoring the fact that the PFD encourages private sector development, is the best way to fight a recession, and elevates up to 25,000 people out of poverty. I am proud that every Alaskan with limited financial means, especially those in the rural areas where cash jobs are limited, has an equal share of cash generated from our public resources. I support the reinstitution of the historical PFD law that has paid a full PFD and worked well for residents, the economy and Fund protection. And, I see an extremely urgent need to secure the PFD in the Alaska Constitution to guard it from the grasping hands of politicians. I oppose balancing the budget with Alaskans’ PFD; it’s wrong. It’s time to have an open discussion about appropriate budget cuts and revenue raising options. If we do not, we will lose the PFD and destroy the Permanent Fund. Now is the time for every Alaskan to ask, “What direction should we take?” Will we allow these threats to ruin the Fund and the PFD that are admired globally as a great example of resource wealth management and equitable benefit for residents? Or will we choose to defend and strengthen our successful Permanent Fund and Permanent Fund dividend to benefit current and all future generations? Will politicians choose the right path? It’s up to you, Alaska voters, to make sure they do. Jack Hickel is a family physician with the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage and vice president for Permanent Fund Defenders.

State Labor Dept. teamed with Apple for coding skills workshops

The state government is trying to give Alaskans a leg up into tech industry work — specifically, coding. Coding describes a broad array of jobs, ranging from back-end web development to network engineering. Though coders are generally thought of in the context of technology companies like Apple or Microsoft, many industries now have jobs for people with coding skill sets. In March, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development hosted a set of workshops in Wasilla, Juneau and Anchorage titled “Every Alaskan Can Code” to introduce anyone to the basics. One of the things they learned was how accessible coding can be, said Department of Labor Deputy Commissioner Cathy Muñoz. “When you think of coding you think of a skill that’s complicated,” she said. “What we saw is that coding is accessible and that … coding affects all aspects of the economy. That was one of the main takeaways of this workshop—anybody can code.” The three workshops were co-hosted by Apple, which provide the personnel, Muñoz said. The Department of Labor approached multiple technology companies in search of a partnership to open up coding opportunities, and Apple showed “the most enthusiasm,” she said. Each workshop attracted around 40 to 50 people, with the largest turnout in Wasilla. The department intentionally scheduled them during spring break in Alaska’s school districts in an attempt to attract young people, but participants of all ages came, Muñoz said. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy touted the workshops during his recent budget roadshow as an opportunity for economic growth. “Computer coding will help to diversify our economy and provide good-paying jobs for Alaskans anywhere there is an Internet connection,” Dunleavy said in a recorded video. While Alaska is not home to any major tech firms, proponents hope to attract employees who work remotely to live in the state while providing services elsewhere. That’s already the case in some of Alaska’s cities, like Juneau, where a number of remote workers share an office space downtown while working on their own various projects. Called Juneau Coworking, the space is an iteration of a well-established trend in the Lower 48 for online and remote workers who want to share a space with other professionals instead of working from home. Conroy Whitney, one of the founders of Juneau Coworking, said that was his own interest when he started the organization in Juneau. A remote technology worker himself, he relocated to the state in 2016 and spent a winter working alone at home near Talkeetna before trying out a coworking office space in Anchorage called The Boardroom. “I got plugged into the startup and entrepreneurship community,” he said in an email. “And most importantly, I was insanely productive! My freelancing career took off! That black and white contrast between that first winter working from home, and the subsequent summer working out of a coworking space, was what convinced me that coworking is really a game-changer.” After relocating to Juneau because of its geography, outdoor recreation opportunities and high-speed fiber internet connection, he worked on starting a similar coworking space in Juneau. April 5 marked Juneau Coworking’s six-month anniversary, with about 100 people coming to use the space from intermittently to regularly during that time. Though many of them are remote tech workers like Whitney, others are life or health coaches, he said. He noted that remote tech workers import paychecks to the state from elsewhere, as opposed to local jobs that circulate paychecks. “If I work with people in LA, Austin, and NYC, I’m exporting my time and experience, and taking money from those huge hubs and spending it at my local grocery store, restaurants, and theatre,” he said. “The fact that Alaska is naturally so spread out only works to our advantage: the same skills we use to communicate intrastate can be used to communicate globally.” Opportunity in remote areas is a huge issue for Alaska. Many Alaskans are spread out over a vast geographic region off the road system, with few local economic opportunities besides resource extraction, commercial fishing or government jobs. Muñoz said providing opportunity in rural Alaska is a major motivation for the Department of Labor’s coding trainings. Tech companies often end up turning to hiring foreign workers for positions that require coding experience because of the lack of the same skill sets and levels in the U.S. The Department of Labor wants to seize that opportunity, she said. “We see this as an opportunity to engage the public in a range of flexible work opportunities that can be done anywhere there is a high-speed internet,” she said. “There’s just a huge opportunity in this country.” High-speed internet is an issue for many areas of Alaska, as are energy costs. The places where high-speed internet is available and the cost of energy is lower tend to be the urbanized areas, such as Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula. However, GCI has been building out internet infrastructure across Western Alaska as part of its TERRA network since 2011, and a new fiber optic cable system laid along the coast of the North Slope promises high-speed internet to communities from Nome to Prudhoe Bay. Muñoz added that the Department of Labor is feeling out interest among technology companies to host two-week coding academies in the future, and advised Alaskans to watch out for announcements of further opportunities in more communities. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Interior utility scraps Siemens talks

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Siemens Government Technologies.) A third would-be private partner has gone by the wayside in the state-sponsored effort to get more natural gas to Fairbanks. The Interior Gas Utility Board of Directors voted 5-2 to terminate its working agreement with Siemens Government Technologies Inc. during an April 9 special meeting. The board signed a memorandum of understanding with the multinational industrial technology firm last October to investigate Siemens’ proposal to bring new supplies of Cook Inlet-sourced LNG to the Fairbanks area by rail. Board members who voted in favor of ending the courtship reiterated themes that were heard throughout the fledgling business relationship: that Siemens representatives were still unable to substantiate key portions of their pitch after roughly five months of negotiations. The vote came following a recommendation by IGU’s management and negotiating team to end the agreement. “I think we turned over every stone we could turn over,” utility attorney Zane Wilson said in reference to negotiations with Siemens. Board member Patrice Lee voted against terminating the MOU and instead suggested a 30-day pause independent review of Siemens’ plan. Lee said she believes Siemens and IGU representatives have very different views of the progress of their negotiations. Other board members who supported the recommendation said the company had not lived up to its end of the agreement. Some had been skeptical of the proposal from the outset and said Siemens still had not answered fundamental questions from utility leaders. Last August, representatives from Virginia-based Siemens Government Technologies presented a proposal to IGU officials for a 20-year “turnkey” project that would have relieved IGU from much of the work it would have to do for the Interior Energy Project; all the utility leaders would have to do is sign a liquefaction services agreement, or LSA, and wait for the Alaska Railroad to deliver LNG to the utility’s storage tank now nearly completed in South Fairbanks. Specifically, the plan called for Siemens to install two of its modular “LNGo” gas liquefaction units at a proposed industrial park on Knikatnu land near Alaska Railroad Corp. tracks in Houston. Knikatnu is an Alaska Native village corporation. The fuel would travel by rail to IGU facilities in Fairbanks for regasification and distribution to residents and businesses. Once gas demand grew to where more than four of the LNGo units were needed, the company would look at installing a single, larger LNG facility, according to Siemens officials. The acknowledged at the time that the company hopes to parlay work with IGU into more gas supply projects in the state, notably at Interior military bases. Siemens representatives also consistently stated a belief they could get feedstock gas for $5 per thousand cubic feet, or mcf, or less, which would be significantly cheaper than pricing much larger Southcentral utilities have been able to secure in recent years on much higher volume supply contracts. The Siemens-led group also said it would investigate the prospect of developing potential gas reserves in the Houston area, which would bring the feedstock price down to $4 per mcf, according to the company’s project documents. Some IGU board members were skeptical of the gas supply claims from the outset and that skepticism did not wane. Board member Jack Wilbur said Siemens eventually backed away from the position it could supply gas and handle the transportation contract with the Alaska Railroad. “In the end the only thing they were willing to do was toll gas,” Wilbur said, referring to Siemens’ alleged desire to just run the LNG portion of the complex supply chain. A Siemens spokesman said via an email that the company has been working with the utility for more than a year on options for delivering more natural gas to the Interior. "We respect the IGU Board of Directors' decision to exit the current memorandum of understanding in order to consider new options. With a long-standing commitment to Alaska and ongoing projects in the state, we look forward to next steps, and, the opportunity to evaluate a new approach as LNG procurement plans are finalized and communicated by IGU," the Siemens statement said. Knikatnu CEO Tom Harris said in an interview that he was “saddened to hear IGU chose to walk away,” noting that reviews of geologic and well data from old exploration wells in the Houston area indicate large potential gas resources. However, Harris said there are no immediate plans to drill new exploration wells in the area. “We’re concerned that (IGU’s) decision will mean more LNG trucks on the road,” Harris said. IGU currently has a gas supply contract with Hilcorp Energy for $7.72 per mcf of gas that runs through 2021 for its base of nearly 1,000 Fairbanks customers. Where exactly IGU goes with the Interior Energy Project from here is unclear, but utility officials are also in the process of designing and evaluating an estimated $75 million expansion to the small Titan LNG plant in the Mat-Su Borough that supplies its existing customer base. A final investment decision on the Titan expansion is planned for later this year. IGU is also close to completing a 5.25-million gallon LNG storage tank in South Fairbanks. In late 2014 the Colorado-based engineering firm MWH Global Inc. parted ways with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority after plans to source gas from the North Slope and truck LNG south to Fairbanks fell through. Cost estimates for final, delivered gas in that proposal came in roughly 35 percent higher than expected and challenges securing a gas supply also scuttled the plan. AIDEA was tasked with the Interior Energy Project by the Legislature in 2013 when lawmakers and former Gov. Sean Parnell approved a $330 million bond-loan-grant financing package to support getting additional supplies of natural gas to the Interior where high energy costs and poor winter air quality have been ongoing issues. Then in November 2016 AIDEA ended its relationship with Salix Inc., a subsidiary of the Washington-based utility company Avista Corp., which it had first partnered with to develop a Cook Inlet-sourced LNG supply chain for the Interior. However, challenges getting a gas supply at desired prices for a fledging market with an uncertain demand profile killed those prospects as well. AIDEA then turned the project over to IGU in a December 2017 deal that included the utility purchasing Fairbanks Natural Gas Co. and its sister LNG supply chain companies to IGU for $54 million. However, some IGU leaders contended at the time that the state-owned authority had inflated the price of FNG in the deal. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Senators push for personal-use priority after board turned it down

Four senators have introduced a bill to set an allocation priority for personal-use fisheries in the state during emergency restrictions or closures. Senate Bill 99, introduced by Sens. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer, David Wilson, R-Wasilla, Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, and Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, amends the statutes governing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to require the Board of Fisheries to “place restrictions on all other fisheries before restricting personal use fisheries” when the department has enacted restrictions to meet a management goal. There are personal-use fisheries all over the state, ranging from spearfishing for whitefish in the Chatanika River to tanner crab fishing in Homer. The main sources of conflict, though, are the popular personal-use dipnet fisheries in Southcentral Alaska for salmon. Alaskans fished more than 20,000 angler days in the Kenai River dipnet fishery alone in 2018. Only Alaska residents qualify for the fisheries. SB 99, introduced March 25, is similar to a proposal struck down by the Board of Fisheries less than two weeks before. The group of senators had been working on the bill for some time before the board took up the proposal at its statewide meeting, but waited to introduce it until after the board members decided, Kawasaki said. Kawasaki said he’s been working on the issue of setting a priority for personal-use fisheries for several years, beginning when he served in the House of Representatives. “I was personally waiting for some kind of action by the board,” he said. “We waited for the board to turn down the proposal (before introducing it).” Despite living far inland, many Fairbanks residents drive the 6 to 7 hours south to fish at the Chitina personal-use fishery for sockeye on the Copper River. It’s a tradition for Kawasaki’s family, too, he said. But the unpredictability of fish availability and possible closures, makes it difficult for families to plan for that trip. If passed, the bill would not mandate fishery regulation, but would require that ADFG close personal-use fisheries last during times of conservative management. The board turned down the proposal 2-5, with the opposing members saying they felt it was unnecessary and would tie managers’ hands. Large numbers of commercial fishermen, particularly in Cook Inlet, testified to the board that pushing up the personal-use fishery would promote conflict among user groups rather than defusing allocation fights. This isn’t the first time the Legislature has debated the topic, either. Former Sen. Bill Stoltze and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Wasilla, introduced a bill in 2015 that would have required the department to restrict sportfisheries and commercial fisheries before personal-use fisheries. The opposition then was similar, with concerns from the commercial fishermen and processors about the impacts to their industry as the demand for personal-use fisheries grows. There is no set allocation for personal-use fisheries, nor any permit cap. The group of co-sponsors on the current iteration of the bill all represent areas with a stake in increasing personal-use fishing opportunities. Wielechowski represents part of Anchorage, where many residents drive south to either the Kenai Peninsula fisheries or Chitina to participate. Hughes and Wilson both represent the Mat-Su Valley, where many of the residents drive to the Kenai River to participate. There is a personal-use fishery at Fish Creek, but the fishery is muddy and is not open every year, and dipnetters stand a greater chance at catching their limit on the more productive Kenai River, so many choose to go south. Wilson said he had been participating in the discussions with the other senators for some time before the board proposal came up. It’s important to his constituents, the majority of whom are “regular Alaskans,” he said. “We’re talking in times of emergencies and closures,” he said. “The greater impact is done by the commercial fishery. All we’re asking for is we want a priority for (personal use) fishermen. Please take a look at the smallest group possible that’s not making a real dent on the fishery.” The sponsors include two members of the Republican-led Senate Majority and two members of the Democrat-led minority. Kawasaki said the bipartisanship showed that fishing does not necessarily adhere to the same political lines as other issues. While the board is not subject to the same political structure as the elected members of the Legislature, it’s still a politically appointed and confirmed body and notoriously rife with politics. “It’s clear the Legislature is a political body, but the Board of Fisheries is a political body as well. The appointments to the board are some of the most controversial appointments we have,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican if you like fishing and your constituents like fishing.” Wilson and Kawasaki both said they hoped the bill could move through the Legislature despite the budget taking up the majority of the Legislature’s time. Wilson said he thought it would likely be next year before it could earn approval, though Kawasaki said he hoped it could get a hearing this year. So far, it has been referred to the Senate Resources committee but has not been scheduled for a hearing. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Spending for US LNG approaches $80B by year-end

Spending commitments since 2012 for liquefied natural gas export projects on the U.S. Gulf and East coasts could total more than $80 billion by the end of this year, with an additional $30 billion or more possible in the next year. When the construction dust settles by the mid-2020s, the United States could be No. 1 or No. 2 in the world in LNG export capacity, depending whether Qatar completes its expansion before then. The $80 billion will buy close to 100 million tonnes a year of U.S. liquefaction capacity, about five times the volume of the proposed Alaska LNG Project. It’s been a busy early spring for U.S. LNG project developers: Calcasieu Pass Construction work has started on Louisiana’s third LNG export terminal. Venture Global’s co-CEO announced April 4 that work had started on the Calcasieu Pass project, at 10 million tonnes of annual capacity. It’s only the second U.S. Gulf or East Coast LNG export project not built at the site of an unused or underused gas import facility. Golden Pass The partners in Texas’ third export terminal made a final investment decision in February to proceed. ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum’s $10 billion Golden Pass LNG export project will have almost 16 million tonnes of annual capacity. Start-up is planned for 2024. Magnolia The Louisiana hopeful has cut its price for liquefaction services to attract customers. Australia’s LNG Ltd. is offering liquefaction contracts for as little as $2.35 per million Btu, about 20 percent below the prevailing rate as it works to sign the first long-term contract for its $6 billion Magnolia LNG project, CEO Greg Vesey said April 2 in an interview of the LNG2019 conference in China. At the current U.S. price for feed gas, that would put Magnolia’s output at $5.74, plus shipping. “It’s very tough right now on the commercial front,” Vesey told S&P Global Platts. Driftwood The developer signed up French major Total for a $700 million investment as it tries to put together financing for its LNG project in Louisiana. Total invested $500 million in the parent company, Driftwood Holdings, and bought $200 million of stock in Tellurian, developer of the $30 billion LNG terminal. Total also signed a non-binding agreement to take 2.5 million tonnes a year from Driftwood LNG for 15 years. The gas will be priced off the Japan-Korea Marker for Asian LNG, a fast-developing spot-market benchmark and the first use of the price index for a U.S. project. Tellurian has said it plans to make a final investment decision this year, with phased completion between 2023 and 2026. Rio Grande This developer became the first to sell U.S. LNG pegged to global oil prices instead of Gulf Coast natural gas prices. Developer NextDecade said April 2 it had signed a 20-year deal to supply Shell with 2 million tonnes of LNG per year from the proposed $17 billion Rio Grande LNG export project in Brownsville, Texas. Three-quarters of the LNG will be indexed to Brent crude oil prices, and the rest will be indexed to domestic U.S. gas price markers. Houston-based NextDecade was founded in 2010 and now has 36 employees. It has no operations and is funded by investors. The company has not announced a final investment decision for Rio Grande LNG. With multiple LNG projects in the United States and elsewhere vying for financing amid a crowded market, developers are competing to offer flexible pricing options to potential offtakers. With most Asian LNG contracts priced off oil, U.S. projects that can offer a diversity of price indexation beyond U.S. gas prices may be able to capture more market, Saul Kavonic, an analyst with Credit Suisse, was quoted by Reuters on April 1. However, Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne said he doesn’t understand the logic of linking U.S. LNG to oil prices. “Continuing to price gas linked to oil is somewhat old world,” Pouyanne told Bloomberg News. “I was most surprised to see new contracts linked to Brent, especially from the U.S. Someone will have to explain this to me.” One more project in Louisiana and another in Texas report that they, too, are moving toward final investment decisions, though both are still working on signing up enough customers for a go-ahead. That includes Sempra Energy’s proposal in Port Arthur, Texas, which would be the company’s second Gulf Coast project. Its Cameron LNG terminal in Hackberry, La., is scheduled to start shipping before June. 30. Outside the United States — in a move away from LNG contracts linked to global oil prices or natural gas prices — Japan’s Tokyo Gas said April 5 it had signed a 10-year deal for LNG supplied from Shell’s global supply portfolio, partly using a coal-linked pricing formula. It’s believed to be the first time a Japanese buyer is using a coal-based pricing index in an LNG contract, industry observers said. “Coal remains the largest competitor to gas in the power sector in Asia. If the index is competitive, this could be an important step for enabling LNG and utilities to better compete with coal,” Nicholas Browne, a Wood Mackenzie analyst, was quoted by Reuters. “Coal indexation in LNG contracts will be particularly relevant for Japanese buyers, not least because coal is an integral part of Japan’s power-generation mix,” said Abhishek Kumar, head of analytics at Interfax Energy in London. It’s “a risk management strategy for somebody who is competing with coal-fired generation,” said Christopher Goncalves, chair of the energy practice at Berkeley Research Group. And while developers are trying different pricing structures to attract buyers and reach their investment decisions, one area of agreement is that banks are largely unwilling to finance new U.S. LNG capacity without developers having commercial deals in place. “My favorite model is the one where I take the least amount of risk and get the highest rate of return,” Roberto Simon, a managing director at French investment bank Societe Generale, told S&P Global Platts on April 4. ^ Larry Persily is a former Alaska journalist, state and federal official who has long tracked oil and gas markets and projects worldwide.

BP names Teachers of the Year

BP announced the winners of the 2019 Alaska Teachers of Excellence on April 8, an award that for more than two decades has recognized the state’s top educators. This year, the group is comprised of 21 teachers that were selected from schools across Alaska. “These teachers represent the best of Alaska education, and it’s an honor to recognize them with this award,” said BP Alaska President Janet Weiss. “At BP, we’re proud to play a part in supporting their continued success and showing our ongoing commitment to the state and to creating the leaders of tomorrow.” For 24 years, the BP Teachers of Excellence program has honored K-12 teachers from public and private school districts statewide. This year, BP received hundreds of nominations for the Teachers of Excellence award and for the newly added BP Educational Allies award. The BP Educational Allies award recognizes unsung heroes in Alaska’s schools such as counselors, teacher assistants and custodians. Since the program’s inception in 1995, BP has recognized more than 750 Alaska teachers. Winning teachers receive a $500 gift card and a $500 matching grant to their school. Teachers also receive a trip to Prudhoe Bay to learn about BP’s operations and paid admission for the Alaska Resource Education’s teacher course. All teachers and educational allies will be honored at an award ceremony in late April, where the statewide BP Teacher of the Year will be announced. The 2019 BP Teachers of Excellence winners are: Anchorage School District Natasha Bergt, Huffman Elementary School Antara Brewer, AJ Dimond High School Kelly Corrigan, Robert Service High School Karen Gordon, Northwood ABC Elementary School Trena Rose, Bayshore Elementary School Fairbanks School District Jeannette Fortune, Ladd Elementary School Tanya Mendelowitz, North Pole Elementary School Rebecca Missler, North Pole High School Carolyn Soderlund, Austin E. Lathrop High School Rebecca Zaverl, Denali Elementary School Kenai Peninsula Julie Doepken, William H. Seward Elementary School Jennifer Hornung, Nikiski Middle/High School Wendy Todd, Paul Banks Elementary School Mat-Su Valley Kimberly Flinn, Goose Bay Elementary School Sara Lamont, Ron Larson Elementary School Stacy Molina, Academy Charter School Sarah Shepard, Colony High School Other Alaska School Districts Danielle Huerta, St. Mary’s School, Kodiak Candace Mudge, Denali Borough School District, Healy Jody Smothers-Marcello, Sitka High School, Sitka Gretchen Striker, Tri-Valley School, Healy

Movers and Shakers for April 14

Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced the addition of Amber Ebarb to her Washington, D.C., office as the new legislative assistant for Alaska Native, Rural, and Indian Affairs. In addition, Murkowski announced the establishment of her new healthcare team: new staff member Angela Ramponi and current staff member Annie Dietderich. Ramponi and Dietderich will cover the healthcare portfolio as legislative aides. Kennita Williams is joining Murkowski’s Fairbanks office as a regional staff assistant, and will work with Trina Bailey, who continues to serve as the Fairbanks regional special assistant. Ebarb was born and raised in Anchorage and is Tlingit (L’eeneidí clan). She has worked for the National Congress of American Indians for more than 15 years, most recently serving as the NCAI Budget and Policy Analyst. Ebarb received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Whitman College and her master’s degree in public policy from George Washington University. Ramponi is from Soldotna and previously acted as the legislative liaison and policy analyst for the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development in Juneau. She graduated magna cum laude from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree public health and biology. Dietderich was born in Anchorage, and previously served as a staff assistant in Murkowski’s office, most recently serving as a legislative correspondent. Dietderich graduated from St. Lawrence University with a bachelor’s degree in government and rhetoric communication. Williams, currently living in North Pole, came to Alaska with her family in 2014 when her husband was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base. She was the discharge specialist and victim liaison for the Eielson Air Force Base legal office from 2014 until joining Murkowski’s office. Williams brings more than 20 years of experience in the administrative and human resources field and, in 2017, was awarded the Eielson Air Force Base Spouse of the Year and Base Civilian Volunteer of the Year award. Bering Straits Native Corp. announced the promotion of Karla Grumman to chief human resources officer/associate vice president. Grumman formerly served as senior director of human resources. Grumman joined BSNC in 2017 after serving in senior HR roles at other Alaska Native corporations and commercial companies. Grumman has 27 years of broad HR experience and will lead the overall HR strategy and administration of services for the company and its subsidiaries. Alaska Deputy Attorney General Robert Henderson has resigned to taking a job with the University of Alaska, effective May 15. Upon Henderson’s departure, John Skidmore will take over as Deputy Attorney General and Paul Miovas will take over as the Criminal Division Director. Skidmore has served as the Criminal Division Director since 2011 and has been with the department for more than 20 years. Miovas is currently the Chief Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Special Prosecutions and has been a prosecutor for more than 16 years including 11 with the Department of Law. Brena, Bell &Clarkson announced that former Gov. Bill Walker will join the firm. Walker will continue his previous work providing municipal and resource and economic development assistance to Alaskans. Walker, a lifelong Alaskan, earned a business degree from Lewis and Clark College in Portland Oregon and a juris doctorate degree from Seattle University School of Law. With Attorney General Designee Kevin Clarkson leaving the firm to go into public service and Walker joining the firm, the firm’s name will be changed to Brena, Bell &Walker. Alaska Communications announced William H. Bishop, senior vice president, customer and revenue management, is being promoted to senior vice president and chief operations officer as of April 9. In the newly created role reporting to President and CEO Anand Vadapalli, Bishop will assume responsibility for business operations including revenue across all market segments, customer service, network and IT. Bishop joined Alaska Communications in 2004 and has served in several leadership roles in consumer and business sales and operations, including director of retail operations, director of business and wholesale, vice president of business and wholesale, and senior vice president of customer and revenue management. He brings more than 25 years of telecom and business leadership experience to this role, including positions at AT&T, McCaw Communications, and a federal government logistic contracting company.

Reducing costs still a priority at Alaska Energy Authority

Reducing the cost of energy across Alaska remains a priority, so the Alaska Energy Authority’s core mission is not changing according to new Executive Director Curtis Thayer.. AEA’s goal of making energy more affordable across Alaska is intact, but Thayer said on April 5 that Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy has also tasked the quasi-government agency with seeing what it can do to promote economic development in the state. “The biggest thing the governor, in my conversations with him, said is it’s not only lowering the cost (of energy) but it’s creating the capacity to attract new businesses here — so what does that look like?” he said, adding that Dunleavy is relying on AEA for guidance on state energy policy. Thayer spoke to a gathering of the Alaska policy think tank Commonwealth North about AEA’s direction under the Dunleavy administration, which has proposed eliminating, consolidating or overhauling numerous programs and agencies to close the state’s projected $1.6 billion budget deficit in the 2020 fiscal year that starts July 1. He took over at AEA in early February after being asked to apply for the position. He previously led the Alaska Chamber and served as state commissioner of Administration and deputy commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, which oversees AEA. Thayer assuaged the worries of many who have been concerned about Dunleavy’s proposal to dissolve the $1.05 billion Power Cost Equalization Fund into the state’s General Fund. While the administration proposed ending the PCE Fund, which acts as an endowment and generates investment returns that help offset the high cost of electricity for residents in 194 rural communities, the governor’s operating budget still includes a $32.3 million PCE appropriation for fiscal year 2020. Office of Management and Budget officials said when the governor’s budget plan was released in February that the PCE and other designated state funds should be moved into the General Fund so all constituencies can compete on a level playing field for state support. The PCE Fund is managed by the Department of Revenue and generated $76.6 million in income in fiscal year 2018, according to Revenue financial reports. The PCE program paid out about $26.1 million of that to communities over the year, according to AEA, which manages the distributions. The power subsidy to each individual community is based on the average cost of consumer power in a given rural community — often 60 to 70 cents per kilowatt-hour — compared to the average cost of power in urban Alaska, which averages slightly less than 20 cents per kWh. The PCE program was established in 1985 as a way to provide more equitable financial assistance to rural communities that don’t directly benefit from state power infrastructure investments, primarily in the Railbelt region that encompasses Fairbanks, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. Thayer noted that despite the administration’s stated goal of sweeping the PCE Fund into the General Fund, the legislation needed to make that happen hasn’t been introduced. He added that not many lawmakers appear interested in the change, either. “A lot of members of the Legislature have PCE communities in their districts,” Thayer said. Internally, AEA addressed the state’s budget challenges by not making a capital budget request for 2020. The agency received $16 million in combined general funds for its rural Bulk Fuel Upgrades and Rural Power System Upgrades programs in the current-year capital budget. As is often the case, that state money was matched by nearly $23 million in other funding, much of which typically comes from the federal Denali Commission. According to Thayer, about 30 percent of the Denali Commission’s grant funding flows through AEA. The Bulk Fuel and Rural Power programs help fund larger diesel storage tanks allowing for more economical fuel purchases and more efficient powerhouses in small rural communities. AEA has completed Bulk Fuel projects in 118 communities since 2000 at an average current cost of $4 million to $5 million apiece, according to Thayer. “We’re not necessarily out of funding, we’re prioritizing funding for the next two years,” he said. The authority’s prioritized project list for fiscal 2020 includes approximately $7 million for five Rural Power Systems projects and $5.2 million for six Bulk Fuel projects in varying stages of design and construction, Thayer wrote via email. As for the big picture items to increase power generation capacity in the state, Thayer said AEA leaders are looking at the possibility of revisiting the Susitna-Watana Hydro project that was one of six large, early-stage projects shuttered by former Gov. Bill Walker through an administrative order in December 2014 to limit state spending. While some other projects were eventually allowed to proceed, the stop order stayed on the large dam until Dunleavy rescinded it Feb. 22. Proponents of the 459-megawatt, 705-foot dam estimated to cost $5.6 billion in 2014 contend it is the only viable way the state can meet its goal of generating half of its energy from renewable sources by 2025 at relatively low and stable prices. However, dam opponents argue the resulting alterations to Susitna River water flows would endanger salmon stocks. They also question the economics of the massive project at a time when regional power utilities have invested heavily in new natural gas-fired power plants and long-term forecasts indicate little growth in power demand. AEA has not been formally tasked with restarting Susitna-Watana, according to Thayer. “Since putting the project into abeyance, AEA continues to field and answer questions from all interested parties regarding processes and costs associated with receiving a (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) license in the event the project is someday restarted,” he wrote. Thayer said it’s generally believed it would take about four years and $100 million to get a FERC construction license for the project. Other long-term possibilities for providing substantial quantities of new power in the state could include a high voltage direct current, or HVDC, power line coming off the North Slope, Thayer conceptualized. The HVDC idea has long been discussed as a way to utilize the state’s large North Slope gas reserves without building a pipeline and exporting LNG. It would have a large gas-fired power plant on the North Slope feeding the HVDC line, which would be an artery to transmit power to the rest of the state. Finally, Thayer said AEA hopes to disperse about $7.2 million of the $8.1 million Alaska received from the Volkswagen diesel emissions court settlement this year. AEA was tasked with managing the money — that must be spent on local renewable energy or energy efficiency projects — and solicited grant requests last year. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

BP reports $916 million Alaska profit in ‘18

BP saw improved results in 2018 as increasing oil prices helped boost the producer’s bottom line both in Alaska and worldwide. In Alaska, the London-based major netted $916 million last year from its North Slope operations, according to the company’s 2018 annual report. Those profits came on the back of more than $4.3 billion in total revenue. Comparatively, BP generated an $830 million profit from $3.3 billion in revenue in 2017. Worldwide the company netted nearly $9.4 billion in profits in 2018 versus nearly $3.4 billion the year prior. “Our teams have delivered strong results across the business and we are well positioned to continue to deliver value as we play our part in the dual challenge of delivering more energy with fewer emissions,” BP Chairman Helge Lund said regarding the 2018 results in a letter to shareholders. Company officials in Alaska said higher oil prices were a primary driver for the improved margins. BP’s Brent indexed crude — which Alaska North Slope oil follows closely — sold for an average of $71.31 per barrel last year, roughly a 25 percent increase versus the 2017 average price of $54.19 per barrel. BP Exploration Inc., the company’s upstream Alaska business, paid $804 million in production, property and corporate taxes and royalties to the State of Alaska last year, BP Alaska controller David Knapp said. The company also invested $370 million in capital projects in Alaska in 2018, according to Knapp. BP operates the mature, iconic Prudhoe Bay oil field and has interests in the producing Milne Point and Point Thomson units on the North Slope as well. The company is required to report its upstream Alaska business in its annual report and accompanying “20-F” financial report. BP Alaska officials have touted their ability to generally hold oil production from Prudhoe and its satellite fields steady at roughly 280,000 barrels per day since 2016 despite cost reductions. The company is also conducting a 3-D seismic data shoot over the entire Prudhoe field this spring. While BP made $916 million on the Slope last year, the company’s Alaska leaders insist a $531 million profit figure is more accurate, as it captures the costs for all of its operations in the state, which include the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and marine oil transport from the Valdez oil terminal. They note the $531 million Alaska profit figure is more representative of BP’s total Alaska business because it also accounts for the property taxes paid on the midstream infrastructure. However, those costs of getting the oil to market are also deductible from the state’s production tax. BP owns 48.4 percent of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, the largest single share of the oil transport network. The company also has oil tankers dedicated to its Alaska operations and has supported the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. with predevelopment work on the $43 billion Alaska LNG Project. BP pulled the Alaska-class tanker Frontier from service in September, according to the annual report, leaving it with three oil tankers dedicated to operations in the state. “With the reduction in volume over time, as well as new efficiencies identified in the shipping programme, Frontier has been removed from service and its carrying value impaired accordingly,” the report states. In 2018, BP also sold its 39 percent stake in the large Kuparuk oil field ConocoPhillips as part of a neutral value swap with the Houston-based producer that included BP acquiring an additional 16 percent interest in the Clair field in the North Sea. BP spent approximately $1.7 billion related to acquiring the Clair field interests in the deal, according to the report. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Hilcorp delays Cook Inlet seismic work

Hilcorp will delay a planned seismic survey in Lower Cook Inlet this summer until after the peak of the summer season. The Houston-based company had planned to conduct a 3-D seismic survey in federal waters off Homer, where it holds leases on 14 federal oil and gas lease tracts. The seismic survey would have covered eight of the lease blocks, according to a survey plan the company submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. However, a number of snags held up the process. The company says the delay is in part due to holdups during the lengthy partial federal government shutdown, which spanned the New Year and lasted more than a month. Hilcorp also says it will delay its planned work until after the height of the fishing and tourist season. Those two industries are primary drivers of the economy in Homer and the surrounding area. Homer attracts tourists from all over the world each summer, many of whom come to fish for the region’s famously abundant Pacific halibut. A large commercial fleet based in Homer and the surrounding communities also fishes for halibut between March and November and for Pacific salmon during the summer season. Hilcorp external affairs manager Lori Nelson did not give a precise date when the company plans to take up the seismic work again, but that the company understands that “the waters of Lower Cook Inlet are a shared resource.” “We are actively engaged in discussions with our contractor to delay the survey,” she said in an email. “Our commitment to keep the community’s interests and concerns at the forefront will continue as we work to revise our schedule and work plan.” Hilcorp Senior Vice President Dave Wilkins said in a January presentation that the company expects the seismic survey to take between 30–45 days and would survey about 175 square miles. Unlike the upper part of Cook Inlet, Lower Cook Inlet has seen little to no oil and gas exploration in the last few decades. When Hilcorp bought its 14 lease tracts for approximately $3.03 million in 2017, it was the first time a federal oil and gas lease sale had attracted industry interest in the area since 2008. According to the survey plan submitted to BOEM, Hilcorp planned to contract with United Arab Emirates-based Polarcus and survey 24 hours per day with three- to five-hour data acquisition periods and 1.5-hour turning periods before performing another pass. The survey would be shot parallel with Cook Inlet shorelines in a north-south orientation with a total of 14 airguns. In addition to concerns about fisheries, Lower Cook Inlet is also home to a large population of northern sea otters and an endangered population of beluga whales, among other marine mammals and fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently collecting comments for a permit for incidental take of northern sea otters over a five-year period. The company applied for the permit in May 2018, according to the federal register, though the notice was not published until nearly a year later on March 19. The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments until April 18. Cook Inlet beluga whales mostly spend their summer in Upper Cook Inlet, away from the proposed seismic survey area, according to Hilcorp’s survey plan. National Marine Fisheries Service surveys have shown that most of the whales spend their time near the Kenai River and further north in the summer. During an Apache seismic test in Redoubt Bay in 2011, 33 beluga whales were sighted during the work, according to the plan. In its initial plan, the company noted that the survey would be finished before the Lower Cook Inlet commercial salmon gillnet season opened in early June and that any effects would likely be temporary. “It is likely that commercial fisheries, charters and individual sport fishers would be able to use alternative fishing grounds,” the plan states. “Overall, impacts to fish harvests are expected to be minor, and limited to the immediate area of the surveys and to the hours of survey operations.” Hilcorp was scheduled to hold a public meeting in Homer last week but cancelled it. Bob Shavelson, a longtime environmental activist and the advocacy director for environmental nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper, said the company has not been very open with the community. “They’ve been very poor with their communications, especially with the commercial fishing fleet in Cook Inlet,” he said. “This is the first foray in probably 40 years in Lower Cook Inlet. If they hit reserves … you’re talking about the industrialization of Lower Cook Inlet.” Shavelson said Cook Inletkeeper may become increasingly involved with the proposed seismic survey in the future, as Hilcorp works to reschedule it.   Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]  

Pages

Subscribe to Alaska Journal RSS