Associated Press

Task force questions proposed subsidy level for ferry system

The group tasked with reforming the Alaska Marine Highway System said a $24 million subsidy proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to run the system is insufficient. The Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group said the funding is not enough to fix the system regardless of whether ferry operation is public or private, CoastAlaska reported July 19. The nine-member task force appointed by the Republican governor in February faces a Sept. 30 deadline to complete its report. The group was asked to define essential service levels for coastal communities without road access and recommend ferry system operational and efficiency changes. Group members have studied data from a $250,000 study commissioned by the Dunleavy administration that concluded privatization of core services is not a realistic option. “None of the dozens of studies have come up with the idea that any private operator could run the system and make a profit,” Chairman Tom Barrett said at the group’s July 16 meeting. The study proposed scenarios for running the system on the $24 million subsidy Dunleavy proposed in February 2019. Work group member Wanetta Ayers said the low funding target was counterproductive and could critically injure the system, noting the food shortages and other struggles some coastal communities faced last winter when the sole mainline ferry broke down. “We’re probably just stepping over dollars to pick up dimes because it’s going to cost us so much more as a state to try and sustain these communities that we’re crippling,” Ayers said. Republican state Sen. Bert Stedman said the ferries are also part of the state’s emergency supply chain in case catastrophe hits communities away from the coast. “The marine highway becomes an essential corridor for keeping those Alaska citizens fed and watered,” Stedman said. Tony Johansen, a Fairbanks-based highways contractor appointed to represent road-connected communities, has been critical of the marine system’s expense. Johansen urged the group to consider the size of populations served in relation to the amount of money required for ferry service. Members agreed money alone would not fix the system because waste, mismanagement and poor planning cause difficulties.

Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority approves land exchange

JUNEAU (AP) — A state agency plans to swap land in southeast Alaska for federal land that can be developed for timber sales. The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority board on Jan. 3 approved a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service that will trade 18,000 acres of trust lands for 20,000 acres of federal land, the Juneau Empire reported . The trust lands are scattered throughout southeast Alaska and the exact amount to be traded must be worked out. Wyn Menefee, director of the Trust Authority Land Office, said the land exchange will be the biggest in the trust’s history. The trust was created to provide leadership in services for trust beneficiaries, including Alaskans with mental illness, developmental disabilities, chronic alcoholism and traumatic brain injuries. The trust is endowed with about 1 million acres of land. The trust hopes to earn money off its newly acquired lands with timber harvesting. The acreage could yield $40 million to $60 million over the next 20 years, according to the trust. Lands received by the U.S. Forest Service will be protected under terms of the trade, Menefee said. The overall aim is to protect “viewsheds” while logging less-sensitive lands to earn money for the trust. The trust will give up nearly 2,700 acres of land on Douglas Island that includes the Mount Bradley Trail, known locally as the Mount Jumbo Trail. The Forest Service as part of the deal will not allow logging on lands it’s receiving, Menefee said. “The Forest Service won’t be doing any timber cuts on it,” Menefee said. “It will most likely be managed for recreation.” Forest Service representatives could not be reached for comment because of the partial federal government shutdown. The amount of land received by the trust will depend on appraisals. Appraisers have not completed their work. It’s also not clear whether all the land the trust gains will be used for timber, Menefee said. If there are more lucrative uses, trust officials will consider them. “Timber harvest is one of the primary ways that the trust can monetize its assets but other potential revenue generation options will always be considered,” Menefee said by email. An initial land exchange is planned for January. A second phase, including the parcel on Douglas Island, is planned for 2020. The board’s approval was one of the last steps in a process that has taken more than a decade. The exchange required both state and federal legislation. President Donald Trump signed a federal bill into law in May 2017. Former Gov. Bill Walker signed Senate Bill 88 into law in October 2017. Both bills authorized the exchange. The federal bill states that the primary goals of the exchange are to preserve the natural beauty of Southeast while creating jobs and serving the goals of the trust. Menefee said the deal is a “win-win” for the trust and the Forest Service.

Dunleavy picks MacKinnon for transportation commissioner

Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy has named the outgoing executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska as his transportation commissioner. John MacKinnon is a former deputy commissioner and married to outgoing Republican state Sen. Anna MacKinnon of Eagle River. Dunleavy's team previously said it asked state employees who serve at the pleasure of the governor to resign and indicate if they wish to work for the incoming administration. Anchorage and Fairbanks airport managers are on the list. Dunleavy said he wants to review whether employees are a good fit for the administration and its agenda. Last week, Dunleavy named Tamika Ledbetter as his choice for Labor commissioner. Ledbetter has been an employment services manager with the state labor department. Both picks must be confirmed by the Alaska Legislature.

Long-running Sturgeon case heard before Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court sounded skeptical of the National Park Service’s authority to prevent an Alaskan moose hunter from using his motorized rubber boat to access remote areas of the state. The justices heard arguments Nov. 5 in a case that tests the limits of the federal government’s authority in a state in which more than 60 percent of the land is federally owned. The state and moose hunter John Sturgeon are arguing that the Park Service cannot enforce a national ban on amphibious vehicles known as hovercraft on a river in Alaska for which the state claims ownership, even though it runs through a national conservation area. Sturgeon won an earlier round at the Supreme Court. The case stems from Sturgeon’s 2007 encounter with three park rangers who ordered him off the Nation River within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in northeast Alaska. The rangers told him it was illegal to operate the noisy craft that can navigate shallow water or even mud. He sued in 2011. The issue is whether a federal law enacted in 1980 to protect undisturbed land but also allow Alaska residents to maintain their way of life provides an exception to Park Service regulation of rivers that pass through national parks. “Well, but, I mean, the waters are very important to Alaskans’ way of life in the way they aren’t elsewhere,” Chief Justice John Roberts said, voicing doubt about the Trump administration’s reading of the law that gives the federal government sweeping control of the waterways. Justice Department lawyer Edwin Kneedler told the court that the 1980 law is a compromise because it allows hunting and airplane use in areas that usually are closed to those activities in national parks in other states. But Congress did not intend to allow hovercraft to be used, Kneedler said, calling them very loud and unsightly. Roberts didn’t sound persuaded by that argument. “While you may think a hovercraft is unsightly, I mean, if you’re trying to get from point A to point B, it’s pretty beautiful,” he said. That comment aligned with the argument made by Alaska assistant attorney general Ruth Botstein, who said the law protected the state’s control over rivers. “Our rivers are our only roads,” Botstein said. The session Nov. 5 also displayed the difficulty the justices were having in reconciling the precise language of the 1980 law with arguments on both sides. “I’ve burned up an awful lot of gray cells trying to put together the pieces of this statute,” said Justice Samuel Alito.

Credit bonding bill passes; Olson complaint dismissed; gov OKs education funding

JUNEAU (AP) — The Alaska House has passed legislation to allow for bonding to pay the state's remaining oil and gas tax credit obligations. Gov. Bill Walker's bill would create a new bond corporation authorized to sell up to $1 billion in bonds to pay off outstanding credits. It passed the House 23-15, and next goes to the Senate. Supporters saw it as a way to honor the state's obligation. Critics cast it as risky. There were legal questions raised with the bill, but Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said she saw no constitutional problems. “We're making good on the state’s promise to pay tax credits to independent explorers in exchange for their investment. Not only does this save the State of Alaska money, it also gives companies cash to spend now that prices are trending upward, something that will help put Alaskans to work,” Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement from his office. “I thank the members of the House Minority whose votes made this possible.” In a legal opinion, she said the Legislature retains authority to decide whether to appropriate money toward paying debt service on the bonds. Lawmakers last year voted to end the credit program geared toward small producers and developers, saying it had become unaffordable. “At a time of fiscal challenge, in a state that largely depends on oil revenue, now is the time for innovative solutions to get these credits off the books, stimulate our economy, and allow projects that generate revenue to proceed,” said Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage. “H.B. 331 accomplishes all of this, all at no additional cost to the state. I am proud to be a part of this effort, and thank the governor and his administration for developing a responsible, win-win plan forward for Alaska.” Ethics panel dismisses complaint over lawmaker moving costs JUNEAU (AP) — A legislative ethics committee has dismissed a complaint against an Alaska lawmaker over his "aggressive use" of the Legislature's moving policy. The committee found Democratic Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin did not violate ethics law because the legislative moving policy in effect at the time did not clearly prohibit him from shipping to Juneau in 2015 and 2016 items including a washer and dryer, yard tools, air compressors and a large desk. But the committee found Olson's use of state funds to move such items was contrary to the spirit of the moving policy and resulted in a "very strong appearance of impropriety." The policy has since been changed. Olson, who lives in a remote, northwest Alaska community, says he appreciates the committee's decision and will look for future savings. "I serve the largest state senate district in the nation. My family and I live in one of the most remote villages in the state. It is not road accessible,” Olson said in a statement from his office. It is approximately 1,000 miles "as the crow flies" from Juneau. In addition to myself and my wife, my family includes six children, two of which are newborns. These factors contribute to high relocation costs. "My wife and I will continue to work with the Legislative Affairs Agency to continue to be in compliance and also find ways to find cost efficiencies to save the state money." Walker signs two-year education funding bill Gov. Bill Walker signed House Bill 287 into law at Harborview Elementary School Thursday in Juneau, joined by Democrat, Republican and Independent members of the House and Senate. The bill boosts support for K-12 education by $30 million in the 2020 school year, if lawmakers approve a structured draw from the Permanent Fund earnings reserve to help pay for government. A conference committee for Senate Bill 26, which would draw on the Fund, was released Wednesday. The Governor released the following statement on the bill: “The diverse group of policymakers that threw support behind this legislation represent our values as Alaskans. We must guarantee to all students, parents, and teachers that their schools will have the resources to provide high-quality education year in and year out for Alaska’s students. This is something we can come together on. We’re going to keep working together on this, and other key issues as we near the end of the legislative session.”

Trump requests fourth missile defense field for Fort Greely

FAIRBANKS (AP) — President Donald Trump’s administration has asked Congress to fund a fourth missile defense silo field at Fort Greely in Alaska. Trump wrote a letter to Congress on Nov. 6 requesting $200 million to build the silo field, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. Fort Greely is home to most of the United States’ ground-based midcourse missile interceptors, which are designed to protect the United States by intercepting long-range missiles as they fly outside the atmosphere. “This request supports additional efforts to detect, defeat and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies or partners,” Trump wrote. Fort Greely has three silo fields with a capacity of 40 interceptors. The United States has four more silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Trump’s request is part of the $5.9 billion Trump wants added to this year’s budget, $4 billion of which was requested for missile defense and North Korea-related military spending. Alaska’s three-member Congressional delegation praised Trump’s proposed missile defense increase. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said he believes Congress will add the additional defense funding to its budget. “Missile defense has now become a very bipartisan issue,” Sullivan said. “You look at the history of it and it’s pretty much been a partisan issue, the Reagan ‘Star Wars,’ and even some of the missile defense capabilities we had in Alaska under George W. Bush.” The budget amendment request also asks Congress for $1.2 billion to give the Pentagon capacity to deploy an additional 3,500 troops in the war in Afghanistan and $700 million to repair the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald. The ships were damaged in collisions with civilian ships during the summer.

Alaska lawmakers preparing for 4th special session this year

Alaska lawmakers are preparing for what will be their fourth special session this year. The House majority coalition said Gov. Bill Walker plans to convene a special session starting Oct. 23 that will focus on revenue. The coalition said the revenue measure or measures that will be discussed have yet to be disclosed. A Walker spokesman did not immediately return messages seeking comment Thursday. Previous special sessions this year were focused on passing a budget and addressing oil and gas tax credits that political leaders agreed were no longer affordable. The state remains mired in a budget deficit amid continued low oil prices.

Pence casts tiebreaking vote to open Obamacare repeal debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — With Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie, the Senate voted by a hair Tuesday to start debating Republican legislation to tear down much of the Obama health care law. The vote gives President Donald Trump and GOP leaders a crucial initial victory but launches a weeklong debate promising an uncertain final outcome. The 51-50 vote kept alive hopes of delivering on promises that countless Republican candidates have campaigned on for years — repealing President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul. It also averted what would have been a blistering defeat for a party divided between fervent conservatives demanding the evisceration of Obama’s statute and centrists intent on not pulling coverage away from millions of Americans. Pence presided over the Senate during the vote, which began after dozens of protesters shouted “Kill the bill” and “Shame” from the chamber’s visitors’ gallery. Enhancing the day’s theatrics, one pivotal “yes” vote was cast by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who flew to the Capitol just days after revealing he’d been diagnosed with brain cancer and was home considering the next steps in his treatment. With Republicans wielding a narrow 52-48 majority, the 80-year-old’s appearance let Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lose two GOP senators and still prevail — wiggle room that would have shrunk to just one in McCain’s absence. McCain entered the chamber 29 minutes into the roll call to a standing ovation from members of both parties and visitors watching from above. Smiling, he exchanged embraces with McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and others, then cast his “yes” vote with two thumbs up. Before the vote, McConnell declared, “We can’t let this moment slip by,” essentially lecturing GOP lawmakers to give their party’s high-profile legislation a chance to move forward. “We can’t let it slip by. We’ve been talking about it too long.” Moderate Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, were the only Republicans to defect from their party’s quest. Their complaints about the legislation had included its cuts in Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, the disabled and nursing home residents. Not a single Democrat backed the effort to overthrow Obama’s signature domestic legislative achievement. In an unusual move, most of them sat in their states during the climactic roll call, eyeing Republicans as they cast their votes. Technically, Tuesday’s vote meant the Senate would consider a measure the House approved in May eliminating much of Obama’s statute. Like legislation McConnell crafted mostly behind closed doors — and has since revised — it would eliminate Obama’s tax penalties on people not buying policies, cut Medicaid, erase many of the law’s tax boosts and provide less generous health care subsidies for consumers. But now, the Senate faces 20 hours of debate and a long parade of amendments, and if a measure eventually emerges it is likely to look quite different. Because the chamber’s moderates and conservatives are so riven over how to replace Obama’s overhaul, leaders have discussed passing a narrow bill repealing only some unpopular parts of that law — like its penalties on individuals who eschew coverage — with the ultimate goal being to negotiate a final package with the House. In the moments before the vote, most GOP critics of the legislation fell into line to allow debate to begin. They included conservative Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, plus moderates Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Paul said he was voting yes after McConnell told him the Senate would debate his proposal to scuttle much of Obama’s law and give Congress two years to enact a replacement — an amendment that seemed certain to lose. Trump kept up the pressure on GOP lawmakers, tweeting that “After 7 years of talking, we will soon see whether or not Republicans are willing to step up to the plate!” He added: “ObamaCare is torturing the American People. The Democrats have fooled the people long enough. Repeal or Repeal & Replace! I have pen in hand.” McConnell’s bill would abolish much of Obama’s law, eliminating its tax penalties on people not buying policies, cutting Medicaid, eliminating its tax boosts on medical companies and providing less generous health care subsidies for consumers. But at least a dozen GOP senators have openly said they oppose or criticized the measure, which McConnell has revised as he’s hunted Republican support. Besides allowing an early vote on Paul’s repeal plan, moderates were seeking additional money for states that would be hurt by cuts in Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, the disabled and nursing home patients. Conservatives wanted a vote on a proposal by Ted Cruz, R-Texas, letting insurers offer bare-bones policies with low premiums, which would be illegal under Obama’s law. With leaders still struggling to line up enough votes to approve a wide-ranging overhaul of Obama’s law, there was talk of eventually trying to pass a narrow bill — details still unclear — so House-Senate bargainers could craft a compromise. That, too, was encountering problems. “This idea that we’re going to vote on something just to get in conference and then figure it out later is nuts,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters. Had Tuesday’s vote failed, it would have been an unalloyed embarrassment for a party that finally gained control of the White House, Senate and House in January but still fell flat on its promise to uproot Obamacare. Republicans could try returning to the bill later this year if they somehow round up more support. Obama’s law was enacted in 2010 over unanimous Republican opposition. Since then, its expansion of Medicaid and creation of federal insurance marketplaces has produced 20 million fewer uninsured people. It’s also provided protections that require insurers to provide robust coverage to all, cap consumers’ annual and lifetime expenditures and ensure that people with serious medical conditions pay the same premiums as the healthy. The law has been unpopular with GOP voters and the party has launched numerous attempts to dismantle the statute. All until this year were mere aspirations because Obama vetoed every major one that reached him. Ever since 2010, Republicans have been largely united on scuttling the statute but divided over how to replace it. Those divides sharpened with Trump willing to sign legislation and estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that several GOP bills would cause more than 20 million people to become uninsured by 2026. Polls showing growing popularity for Obama’s law and abysmal approval ratings for the GOP effort haven’t helped. ——— Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

Eni gets approval for Arctic exploration

Federal regulators have conditionally approved exploratory drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea by a subsidiary of an Italian multinational oil and gas company. Eni US Operating Co. Inc., part of Eni S.p.A., plans to drill four exploration wells from Spy Island, an artificial gravel island in state waters, starting in December. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced conditional approval of the exploratory drilling plan late Wednesday. The conditions include obtaining permits to drill from Alaska and other federal agencies. Environmental groups object to Arctic offshore drilling and say potential spills put polar bears, bowhead whales and other marine mammals at risk. Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity says Eni’s plan calls for extended-reach wells that could stretch more than 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) into federal waters.

Groups sue over Trump drilling order

Less than a week after President Donald Trump took steps to put U.S. Arctic and Atlantic waters back in play for offshore drilling, 10 environmental and Alaska Native groups sued May 3 to maintain the ban on oil and gas exploration. The ban was a key part of former President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy, aimed at protecting polar bears, walrus, ice seals and Native villages that depend on them from industrialization and oil spills. Waters of the Atlantic continental shelf also support whales, swordfish, bluefin tuna, sea turtles and businesses heavily dependent on the health of the ocean ecosystem, according to the lawsuit. In an executive order April 28, Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the withdrawal with the goal of expanded drilling. The federal lawsuit filed in Anchorage claims Trump exceeded his constitutional authority and violated federal law. No president before Trump has tried to undo or reverse a permanent halt to drilling in outer continental shelf areas, said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “With one careless stroke of his pen, Trump ignored the law and put our oceans at new risk of a devastating oil spill,” Monsell said. The White House did not immediately respond to an email request for comment on the lawsuit. Trump on April 28 said the executive order started the process of opening offshore areas to job-creating energy exploration. “It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban and directs Secretary Zinke to allow responsible development of offshore areas that will bring revenue to our treasury and jobs to our workers,” he said. The lawsuit claims Trump’s order violates the U.S. Constitution and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Congress has the power to regulate federal land under the Constitution. Lawmakers have authorized the president to halt drilling in unleased lands of the outer continental shelf but did not allow him to reopen areas, according the lawsuit. Likewise, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act itself does not authorize a president to cancel permanent bans, said Erik Grafe, an attorney for Earthjustice in Anchorage. “It says nothing about the authority to undo those withdrawals,” Grafe said. “No president has reversed a withdrawal in the past except for ones that have express end dates. President Obama’s withdrawals were permanent.” Obama halted oil and gas leasing in most of the U.S. waters in the Arctic and key parts of the Atlantic in response to strong national opposition, Monsell said. “The Arctic Ocean is not a rational place to drill for oil,” Grafe said. “It’s far too risky.”

An oil well leaking natural gas on Alaska’s North Slope was successfully plugged by pumping saltwater into the well, according to private and government responders. The state Department on Environmental Conservation on April 17 said the well operated by BP Exploration Alaska Inc., a subsidiary of BP, was “killed” at 3:35 a.m. The well is five miles from the airport at Deadhorse. Employees on the morning of April 14 discovered uncontrolled natural gas flowing from the top of a well house, a metal structure that looks like a large box over a well. About 45 minutes later, they determined that the well was spraying a mist of crude oil into the air. BP reported the leak and set up a joint response team with state, federal and municipal responders. A weekend statement from the “unified command” said two leaks were detected. Oil was spraying from a leak near the top of the well. Workers contained that leak by activating a safety valve. Oil droplets likely were contained to 1.5 acres of the drill pad, responders said. They were waiting for the well to be plugged to determine if oil reached nearby snow-covered tundra. Responders determined the well had risen up to four feet, causing a pressure gauge to break off and preventing responders from pumping material into the well to kill it. Responders on April 15 were able to enter the well house and connect hoses to valves. That allowed the bleeding off of gas from space around the well’s below-ground piping and a reduction in gas pressure. Responders from Boot and Coots Services, a well-control contractor, entered the well house and placed a plug in the above-ground piping. That allowed responders to pump in a solution of methanol and saltwater, killing the well. The nearest village, Nuiqsut, is 50 miles away.

Workers get well leak under control

The Latest on a natural gas leak at a well on Alaska’s North Slope (all times local): 9:30 a.m. Officials say a leak of natural gas at an oil well on Alaska’s North Slope has been plugged. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Candice Bressler says the well operated by BP Exploration Alaska Inc., a subsidiary of BP, was successfully controlled overnight. BP employees discovered an uncontrolled natural gas leak Friday at a well five miles from the Deadhorse airport. Within an hour, they detected that the well also was spraying a mist of crude oil. BP set up a unified command with state and federal regulators to address the leaking gas and oil. By Sunday responders had managed to close a valve that stopped the spray of oil. Officials say oil likely spilled only on the well pad and not nearby tundra. 12:01 a.m. Oil field workers have reduced the pressure in an oil well that is leaking natural gas on Alaska’s frozen North Slope. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says workers Saturday night were able to connect hoses to valves that allow pressure in the well to be reduced. Pressure in the well was monitored all night and excess pressure released from the well. Leaks were first detected Friday in the well operated by BP Exploration Alaska Inc., a subsidiary of BP. A crack in the BP wellhead near Deadhorse sent up spray of crude oil Friday. Closure of a safety valve stopped the spray of crude oil. An unknown about of oil reached the well pad. Responders say they don’t believe it reached tundra off the pad but they can’t confirm that until the well is plugged and it’s safe for most workers to return to the drilling pad.

Legislation filed to require commissioner consensus on Pebble

JUNEAU — A measure intended to add roadblocks for Pebble mine got its first hearing Jan. 31 in the Legislature. House Bill 14, proposed by Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, would require the Legislature to approve any permitting documents or authorizations for mines within the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. Pebble Mine, proposed for the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, is within the reserve. Speaking to the House Special Committee on Fisheries, Josephson said his goal was to strengthen a ballot initiative passed by voters in 2014. Ballot Measure 4, approved by two-thirds of voters, gives the Legislature the final say on Pebble Mine and any other “large-scale metallic sulfide mines” considered for the fisheries reserve. Josephson’s bill would require the Legislature to approve each step of the permitting process, not just sign off at the end. “This takes the intent of the initiative and makes it stronger. I’m confident it does that,” Josephson said. Last year, Pebble Mine appeared to be dead. It had been abandoned by Rio Tinto and Anglo American, two of the world’s largest mining companies, and was fiercely opposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and fishing groups across Alaska. The mine’s fortunes changed with the election of President Donald Trump, who is proposing to appoint an EPA director who favors “regulatory rollback.” On Jan. 31, Josephson said that if the EPA is no longer willing to be a watchdog, that duty will fall to Alaskans. “Now, we can be the bulwark,” Josephson said. The EPA’s preliminary reports about the mine, drafted during the administration of President Barack Obama, found that the mine’s construction would have significant effects on the Bristol Bay salmon run, the world’s largest wild run. “It’s going to rest upon our shoulders, not the federal government’s, to protect this fishery,” Josephson said. Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, asked whether it made sense for the Legislature, an organization with limited mine permitting experience, to judge projects. “This is the most important environmental fisheries decision in Alaska’s history, in my opinion. If there’s a little bit more effort involved in that, I’m OK with that,” Josephson said. Speaking against the bill was Deantha Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association. She cautioned that the 2014 ballot measure — and by extension Josephson’s bill —might be illegal because they could act as a legislative veto of a permitting decision made by the executive branch, which is led by the governor. That could run afoul of the Alaska Constitution’s separation-of-powers provisions. Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, agreed with Crockett’s assessment as he spoke to the committee by phone. The bill was held in committee, and no additional hearings have yet been scheduled. House Bill 14, would also require that before the Legislature weighs in, the commissioners of Natural Resources, Environmental Conservation and Fish and Game each determine that mine backers have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that their operations will not be a danger to the fishery, fish or wildlife in the region. The bill doesn’t mention Pebble by name, and Josephson said there are a number of large claims in the area. But he said the bill has a lot to do with Pebble, a massive copper and gold prospect that’s been closely watched, and debated, for years. Critics of Josephson’s proposal raised concerns about politicizing the permitting process. During a legislative hearing Jan. 31, questions were raised, too, about the constitutionality of the initiative. Heatwole also testified that the bill would add more levels of bureaucracy to the permitting process. “This really is an unprecedented level of scrutiny for any project,” he said. Josephson points to the Bristol Bay region as a special area. “At some point, the state might just very well permit this stuff. And I don’t have confidence that the state has the manpower or the expertise to monitor a dam for, you know, 1,000 years,” he said in an interview. It’s not clear what traction Josephson’s bill might get. Before voters passed the initiative, legislative proposals to place restrictions on large-scale mines in the Bristol Bay area or to require legislative approval prior to permitting went nowhere.

Consultant raises concerns with state leading AK LNG Project

JUNEAU (AP) — A legislative consultant has raised red flags about Alaska taking the lead on a major proposed liquefied natural gas project, even as Gov. Bill Walker has said he is comfortable with it. In a recent report to lawmakers, consultant Nikos Tsafos outlined challenges threatening the project’s potential for success. They include a competitive market and a laundry list of tasks the state will need to achieve, such as finding buyers, insulating itself from cost overruns and buying gas at commercially reasonable prices from its former project partners, the North Slope’s major energy companies. The state has offered little evidence to show why this approach might succeed, he wrote. Any effort to commercialize North Slope gas will require “serendipity,” an aligning of numerous elements, he said. Legislators were scheduled to hear a project update Monday. Rosetta Alcantra, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., said Tsafos’ company didn’t contact the corporation in compiling the review. The state-sponsored corporation has become the project lead. “It doesn’t help us, I’ll just say that, but it doesn’t deter from our motivation as Alaskans to demonstrate that, yes, we can do this,” she said of the report. It’s the latest iteration of a long-hoped-for gas project taking shape after a market shift, an inability to get the costs down enough and hesitance among the North Slope companies to move to the next phase, Tsafos wrote. The governor said in his State of the State speech last week that Alaska is proceeding with an eye toward projected gas prices for 2023 to 2025, seeing that as a window of opportunity. The state opened an office in Tokyo to help promote trade and advance a natural gas pipeline project. “We have no other project that will revitalize our economy the way the gas line will,” Walker said to applause. He vowed the project only will be pursued if it has long-term customers and not “at all costs.” The Senate State Affairs Committee plans to hear legislation Tuesday that would restore the portion of Alaska residents’ yearly oil wealth checks that Walker vetoed last year. Public testimony is scheduled for Saturday. The House Finance Committee plans Thursday to hear a bill that failed last year that would provide survivor benefits to the families of peace officers and firefighters. The bill, from Minority Leader Charisse Millett, has support in the House majority. ——— Online:

Critics say polar bear recovery plan lacks teeth

ANCHORAGE(AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its plan Monday for the recovery of threatened polar bears, acknowledging it will take no direct action for addressing the primary threat — greenhouse gases that contribute to the decline of sea ice habitat. Polar bears, the first species to be declared threatened or endangered because of climate change, rely on sea ice for hunting seals and raising their young. Climate models project that rising temperatures will continue to diminish sea ice throughout the century. The plan calls for reduced greenhouse-gas emissions but focuses agency actions only on other conservation strategies, such as preventing contamination from spills, protecting dens or reducing conflicts with people. Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the petition to list polar bears in 2005, called the recovery plan toothless. She said it acknowledges that polar bears will not survive without cuts in large-scale greenhouse-gas pollution and shows the need to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius. But the agency’s job was to call out the steps needed for polar bears to survive, Wolf said. “It acknowledges the problem but fails to put the solution in the core strategy for the bear,” she said. The agency said in its plan that addressing increased greenhouse gases that result in Arctic warming will require global action. Until that happens, the focus of recovery will be on efforts by U.S. wildlife management that contribute to polar bear survival in the interim “so that they are in a position to recover once Arctic warming has been abated,” the plan said. Dirk Kempthorne, who was secretary of the U.S. Interior Department under President George W. Bush, announced in 2008 that polar bears would be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But he said that law would not be used to set climate policy or limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

Warren latest to push for cannabis banking

BOSTON (AP) — As marijuana shops sprout in states that have legalized the drug, they face a critical stumbling block — lack of access to the kind of routine banking services other businesses take for granted. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, is leading an effort to make sure vendors working with legal marijuana businesses, from chemists who test marijuana for harmful substances to firms that provide security, don’t have their banking services taken away. It’s part of a wider effort by Warren and others to bring the burgeoning $7 billion marijuana industry in from a fiscal limbo she said forces many shops to rely solely on cash, making them tempting targets for criminals. After voters in Warren’s home state approved a November ballot question to legalize the recreational use of pot, she joined nine other senators in sending a letter to a key federal regulator, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, calling on it to issue additional guidance to help banks provide services to marijuana shop vendors. Twenty-eight states have legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational use. Warren, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, said there are benefits to letting marijuana-based businesses move away from a cash-only model. “You make sure that people are really paying their taxes. You know that the money is not being diverted to some kind of criminal enterprise,” Warren said recently. “And it’s just a plain old safety issue. You don’t want people walking in with guns and masks and saying, ‘Give me all your cash.’” A spokesman for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said the agency is reviewing the letter. There has been some movement to accommodate the banking needs of marijuana businesses. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of the Treasury gave banks permission to do business with legal marijuana entities under some conditions. Since then, the number of banks and credit unions willing to handle pot money rose from 51 in 2014 to 301 in 2016. Warren, however, said fewer than 3 percent of the nation’s 11,954 federally regulated banks and credit unions are serving the cannabis industry. Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade organization for 1,100 marijuana businesses nationwide, said access to banking remains a top concern. “What the industry needs is a sustainable solution that services the entire industry instead of tinkering around the edges,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to be fully in favor of legalized marijuana to know that it helps no one to force these businesses outside the banking system.” Sam Kamin, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who studies marijuana regulation, said there’s only so much states can do on their own. “The stumbling block over and over again is the federal illegality,” he said. The federal government lumps marijuana into the same class of drugs as heroin, LSD and peyote. Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration has essentially turned a blind eye to state laws legalizing the drug, and supporters of legalizing marijuana hope Republican President-elect Donald Trump will follow suit. Trump officials did not respond to a request for comment. During the presidential campaign, Trump said states should be allowed to legalize marijuana and has expressed support for medicinal use. But he also has sounded more skeptical about recreational use, and his pick for attorney general, Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, is a stern critic. Some people in the marijuana industry say the banking challenges are merely growing pains for an industry evolving from mom-and-pop outlets. Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, one of the nation’s largest providers of medical marijuana products, said it’s up to marijuana businesses to make sure their financial house is in order. “It’s not just as simple as asking the banks to open their doors,” Vita said. “The industry also needs to develop a set of standards that are acceptable to the banks.”

British Columbia to clean up mine near Juneau

JUNEAU — Canadian officials say they will take action to prevent polluted water from a decades-old mine from entering the Taku River, a key source of salmon caught in southeast Alaska. British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett told CoastAlaska News experts will explore different options, including plugging leaking tunnels from the defunct Tulsequah Chief Mine. The acidic water has been carrying pollutants into the Tulsequah River, which is a tributary of the Taku near Juneau. The mine hasn’t operated since 1957, and the two companies that tried to reopen it in the last 20 years have been unsuccessful. Canadian officials had ordered the site’s most recent developer, Chieftain Meals, to clean up the site, but the company went bankrupt last fall. “They were not able before freeze-up to do anything about the settling pond that exists beside the river that captures the runoff from the hill that the old mine was built into,” Bennett said. A government contractor took care of improperly stored chemicals and petroleum products. “Even though the water that’s been tested by both Alaska and British Columbia has shown no negative impacts on aquatic organisms, it’s still against our rules for that water to be flowing into the Tulsequah River. So, one way or the other, we have to stop it,” Bennett said. Chris Zimmer, Alaska campaign director for the group Rivers Without Borders, has been calling for a cleanup of the site for years. “In the past, B.C. was simply saying we’re going to let the mining companies come in, develop the mine and clean it up. I think now Minister Bennett realizes that after two bankruptcies that this mine isn’t one that will be developed and B.C.’s now going to have to responsibility for the cleanup,” Zimmer said. But Bennett acknowledges that a new company could take over the Tulsequah mine, which is owned by a Canadian firm. Any new developer would have to adhere to higher standards for the site, Bennett said. “We would need an ironclad commitment from any new buyer that they were going to do what’s necessary immediately. And if we can’t get that, then the government would act on the closure and remediation plan and just simply close the site down,” Bennett said.  

Demolition begins on shuttered North Pole refinery

The company that owns the shuttered North Pole refinery has begun its demolition. The decision by Flint Hills Resources to tear down refining facilities ends modest hope that a buyer could resume operations, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. Flint Hills spokesman Jeff Cook in a prepared statement Wednesday said no buyer was found. "With no parties interested in purchasing and operating the refinery, the prudent step is to demolish the refinery to best protect the site and repurpose the site for productive future use," he said. The refinery opened in 1977. Flint Hills in 2014 ended refining operations but continued using the property as a storage facility. Flint Hills cited an increasingly difficult market and environmental cleanup costs from a chemical spill under a previous owner for shuttering the plant. The refinery was mothballed so a prospective buyer could resume production. The demolition is sad but "kind of inevitable," said North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward. The reduced property value of the plant will have revenue consequences for the city, Ward said. The tax value already had been reduced more than half after refining ended. Until 2014, the plant was producing jet fuel, diesel, gasoline, asphalt and specialty fuels from North Slope oil transported through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. More than 100 people worked at the refinery. Storage operations will continue, Cook said. Dismantling the site is an unhappy development, said Jim Dodson, executive director of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp., even though the refinery already was dormant. "It's unfortunate. It's a loss to Alaska and a loss to Fairbanks," Dodson said. "We try to assure that value is added to a raw material before it leaves Alaska, which would create jobs here." North Pole City Councilman Doug Isaacson, a former mayor and a state legislator, remained hopeful. "It still is zoned for refining," Isaacson said. "Just because they are taking out old equipment doesn't mean that someone couldn't put in new equipment somewhere down the road if the economy called for it."

SEC probing Exxon response to cheaper oil

NEW YORK (AP) — Securities regulators are investigating why Exxon Mobil Corp. hasn't written down the value of assets during the plunge in oil prices that started in mid-2014, according to a published report. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the Securities and Exchange Commission is also looking into Exxon's calculations for asset values in an atmosphere of tougher climate-change regulations. The newspaper cited people familiar with the matter. Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp. said, "We are fully complying with the SEC request for information and are confident our financial reporting meets all legal and accounting requirements." The SEC declined to comment. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been investigating similar issues at Exxon Mobil. Schneiderman has suggested that the company deceived investors by downplaying the company's vulnerability to tougher climate-change rules. The Journal said that the SEC has been receiving documents that Exxon provided to the New York attorney general and that the SEC asked in August for documents from Exxon and its auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. Exxon has long had a policy of not writing down the value of oil and gas reserves when prices fall. The company says that it values the reserves conservatively, making it unnecessary to take write-downs when prices fall. Other oil companies including Chevron Corp. have taken billions in write-downs in the past two years. The SEC also wants to know what numbers Exxon uses in calculating the costs it could face to comply with regulations to limit greenhouse gases, the Journal said. Environmentalists including activist Exxon shareholders have charged the company with failing to recognize that the response to climate change will reduce the value of oil and gas holdings in the future.

Alaska Legislature passes operating budget

JUNEAU (AP) — The Latest on action by the Alaska Legislature during the special session (all times local): 4:10 p.m. The Alaska Legislature has approved a compromise state operating budget, the timing of which was aimed at preventing layoff warnings from being sent to state employees Wednesday. House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise late Monday that addresses a number of issues that were important to minority House Democrats. Support from the minority was needed in the House to access a reserve fund to cover costs not covered by revenue. Both the House and Senate approved the compromise Tuesday. When asked if the governor would accept a budget funded with money from the constitutional budget reserve, Walker spokeswoman Grace Jang said he typically doesn't comment on pending legislation until it reaches his desk. Several measures proposed by Walker to help address the state's budget deficit were still pending. 4 p.m. The Alaska Legislature has approved a pared-down state infrastructure budget. It was one of two budget packages that were being considered by state lawmakers on Tuesday. Lawmakers also took up the state operating budget. Funding for both would come from the constitutional budget reserve, a state savings account. Gov. Bill Walker has proposed tax increases, a personal state income tax and structured annual draws from Alaska Permanent Fund earnings as part of a long-term fiscal plan. Those pieces were still pending in the special session  


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