Elwood Brehmer

Applications filed for major cargo projects at Anchorage airport

As of now there are proposed cargo warehouse and transfer facility developments worth nearly $600 million at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The wave of potential developments, which were made public through applications to lease land at the state-owned airport, comes after years of trumpeting Anchorage’s unique cargo transfer opportunities by airport officials and city leaders. Anchorage Economic Development Corp. CEO Bill Popp said he’s not exactly sure what caused the recent burst of interest in the airport but he’s very happy to see it. “There’s been a lot of drumbeating for Anchorage International Airport and it finally appears to be paying off,” Popp said. Specifically, 6A-XL Aviation Alaska LLC is proposing a 500,000 square-foot cargo transfer facility on the west side of the airport across the north-south runway from the passenger terminals. 6A Aviation Inc. is also proposing a 300,000 square-foot air cargo warehouse at the north end of the airport near Point Woranzof. Both of the 6A proposals are estimated as $170 million projects. Szczesniak said 6A Aviation is a contractor doing pre-development work for other companies. The company’s website does not list contact information and state business license records list an Annapolis, Md., address for the company, but little additional information. The largest proposal both in terms of size and value is from Alaska Cargo and Cold Storage LLC, which has plans for a $200 million, 700,000 square-foot climate-controlled cargo warehouse facility on a boggy, undeveloped parcel just north of the terminals. Popp noted the site will be a challenging one to develop because of the ground conditions but said he’s hopeful the company has considered those obstacles and figured out ways to overcome them. Finally, FedEx is planning a $57 million, 98,000 square-foot domestic operations center that would include the company’s administrative offices, according to the lease application. A FedEx spokeswoman wrote via email that the company doesn’t comment on business plans until they are final, but Szczesniak said the package delivery giant is likely to move it’s existing Alaska distribution operations into the new building, which would allow the company to support future growth in its international freight business at other facilities. AEDC is among several groups that for years has pitched Anchorage as a prime place for international air cargo companies to focus their business. That’s because Anchorage — already the fifth busiest air cargo hub in the world — is not bound by the same international trade restrictions as nearly every other airport in the country, or the world for that matter. Cargo options Thanks to the venerable late-Sen. Ted Stevens, since 2004 foreign cargo can be transferred from one aircraft to another without being subject to customs and other trade requirements or tariffs at the airport that now bears his name. The same options are available at the Fairbanks airport but Anchorage has more capacity to handle large aircraft. Air cargo operators have long stopped their Boeing 747s at Anchorage because of its geography. Alaska’s midpoint location between Asian manufacturing centers and North American consumer markets makes it a prime refueling stop; cargo planes can carry more freight if they refuel here as opposed to making a nonstop transcontinental journey. However, few cargo companies have regularly utilized the unusual but potentially significant transfer opportunity — particularly given Anchorage’s geographic location — that in theory could make their operations more efficient. Amazon Air began using the airport for daily stops in June. Airport officials and general Alaska trade advocates have said the open shipping options have not attracted business in part because shippers are often skeptical they’re actually allowed; in most places such cargo transfer would be cabatoge, a federal crime. Airport officials surveyed cargo carriers last fall to gauge the interest in a potential cargo transfer facility and the response was positive enough to investigate the idea further. This spring they sought expressions of interest from cargo industry players. Anchorage Airport Manager Jim Szczesniak said in an interview that the solicitations at least played a part in attracting the potential business opportunities that are now here. “You’ve got a pro-business administration coupled with the airport really driving the potential that this place has,” Szczesniak said, referring to Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s mantra that Alaska is “open for business” under his leadership. “That’s going to get a lot of traction in the business community.” The lease applications submitted in July and August do not signal sure-fire projects, but they do prove the demand certainly exists for plenty more warehouse space at the airport, he noted. “We think that these are good, solid projects, to start the transformation of the airport and really take advantage of the cargo transfer rights,” he said. “We, as the airport, are trying to do more.” What substance there is behind the proposals will likely be better known next spring when Szczesniak said he hopes the first construction will start on at least a couple of the projects. He added that cargo industry officials typically correlate 1,000 square feet of warehouse space to one-half to one full-time job. Based on that, the four projects could cumulatively generate between 700 and 1,500 new jobs in Anchorage beyond the initial construction activity. AEDC estimates the Anchorage airport already supports 10 percent of the city’s jobs. “We think that this is the first wave of projects because as of right now the tenants haven’t been announced but once that’s public, then their competitors are going to be like, ‘Hey, what are these guys doing in Anchorage; we need to be there, too,’” Szczesniak surmised. He said airport officials also recently wrapped up a request for qualifications, or RFQ, for developers interested in building a hotel on the airport. They identified an 80,000 square-foot location tucked between the south terminal and airport parking lots. Officials are evaluating the responses and intend to invite the best five respondents to participate in the final request for proposal, or RFP, step, according to an airport public notice. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Fitch downgrades Alaska again for state budget problems

Alaska’s financial situation got a little bit tougher Thursday afternoon when Fitch Ratings downgraded a suite of credit ratings tied to state debt. Most notably, Fitch downgraded Alaska’s general obligation, or GO bond rating from AA to AA- on $724 million worth of bonds. Another roughly $1.1 billion in state appropriation bonds was downgraded from AA- to A+ and more than $1.1 billion in Alaska Municipal Bond Bank Authority resolution bonds also went from AA- to A+. Fitch gave the ratings a stable outlook. As with other ratings downgrades from Fitch and other agencies in recent years, the downgrade is tied to the State of Alaska’s continued inability to balance its budget, according to a statement accompanying the announcement. “To date, (state budget) operating revenue remains anemic, and the administration’s commitment to funding a full Permanent Fund dividend despite projected revenue loss has contributed to the enactment of a fiscal 2020 budget that includes deep cuts to core state services,” Fitch analysts wrote. “Fitch expects this will be followed by comparable actions in fiscal 2021. Despite the expenditure reductions, appropriations from the state’s Statutory Budget Reserve Fund and Constitutional Budget Reserve Fund are required to fund the dividend payment and the capital program, reflecting the state’s ongoing structural deficit.” Department of Revenue officials have said a one-notch downgrade such as this one roughly equates to a 0.25 percent increase in the interest rate on money the state borrows often through bonds for capital projects. Local governments and school districts also piggy-back on the state’s rating and use the moral obligation of the state to secure lower interest financing for their projects. The Revenue Department is looking to sell up to $700 million in revenue bonds to pay off the state’s remaining oil and gas tax credit obligation after the refundable tax credit program was ended in 2017 due to budget constraints. However, it’s unclear exactly when, or if, that bond sale will take place as the legality of the plan has been challenged and is currently under review by the Alaska Supreme Court. State debt manager and Alaska Municipal Bond Bank Authority Executive Director Deven Mitchell said via email that he was surprised and disappointed by the downgrade because even though getting to a final 2020 budget was “a painful process” the state ended up with a budget that is pretty much balanced. “The report was based on negative ‘beliefs’ and ‘potentially expected futures’ rather than the reality of today,” Mitchell said. The state’s credit rating has been on a downward trajectory since early 2016 when oil prices dropped to less than $30 per barrel and the state’s budget deficit was more than $3 billion. Alaska had sterling AAA ratings prior to 2016. Moody’s and Investors Service currently has an Aa3 (comparable to AA-) rating for the state’s GO bonds, while Standard and Poor’s has an AA rating for the state. In February, Dunleavy proposed closing the state’s roughly $1.6 billion deficit without tax increases or reducing PFD payments by drastically cutting state services and pulling local tax revenue into state coffers. According to Fitch, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s desire to pay a full, statutorily calculated PFD “elevates the state’s fixed cost burden and reduces its ability to respond to future economic weakness as revenue growth is expected to be modest.” The agency’s analysts also believe that “substantial reductions” to the state’s health care and university budgets could have consequences for future economic growth in the state. A prolonged budget debate resulted in Dunleavy vetoing $50 million from the state’s Medicaid budget in addition to a $70 million cut instituted by the Legislature. Dunleavy agreed to a $25 million cut — part of $70 million over three years — to the state’s support of the University of Alaska. Dunleavy was upbeat in a statement issued late Thursday responding to Fitch’s criticisms of the state’s fiscal situation. “In reading this report, it’s clear this is the result of what has – or has not – occurred over the last several years,” the statement said. “My administration is determined to get our fiscal house in order. Alaska has struggled with fiscal imbalance for years and we must continue moving forward on necessary steps to put in place a stable and reliable fiscal plan. I continue to be optimistic for Alaska’s future: unemployment is at its lowest rate in nine years; GDP is on the rise; billions in new oil and gas investment are being made on our North Slope; the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport – the 2nd busiest for air cargo in the US, 5th busiest in the world – continues to expand and bring new business to Alaska. Once our fiscal house is in order, I have no doubt Alaska will once again top the rating agency charts.” Moody’s downgraded the University of Alaska’s bond ratings several notches in July following the governor’s initial $130 million, or roughly 40 percent, cut to its state budget. The agency also lowered the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s bond rating two notches — from Aa3 to A2 — in late July despite it’s generally solid financial performance because the authority is ultimately tied to the state’s budget situation, analysts wrote. AIDEA routinely finances infrastructure and real estate development projects through its roughly $1.3 billion Revolving Fund. Dunleavy proposed using a portion of the Revolving Fund to pay for other state government expenses in his original budget plan but the idea was not part of the final state budget. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Dunleavy asks federal council to fast-track Southeast rare earths prospect

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy wants federal decision makers to approve a fast-tracked permitting plan for one of Alaska’s prime metal prospects. The governor sent a letter to federal Council on Environmental Quality Chair Mary Neumayr Aug. 9 urging the council to classify the Bokan Mountain rare earth metals prospect as a High Priority Infrastructure Project. The “High Priority” designation would provide the Bokan project proponents, Nova Scotia-based Ucore Rare Metals Inc., an expedited federal environmental impact statement process aimed at ultimately accelerating development of a mine. The Bokan Mountain rare earth underground mine prospect near tidewater on southern Prince of Wales Island holds more than 4.7 million metric tons of indicated rare earth ore, according to a 2015 resource assessment by. That translates to approximately 63.5 million pounds of collective rare earth metals, which are used in a plethora of high-tech applications, from smartphones to advanced batteries and fighter jets. There are 17 minerals defined as rare earth elements, but “heavy” rare earths — such as europium, terbium, and ytterbium with a greater atomic weight — are the most sought after and are used in products that rely on high-temperature magnets. More common lighter rare earths are used in a plethora of applications including LED displays. Heavy rare earths account for roughly 40 percent of the mineralization at Bokan, according to Ucore. Dunleavy wrote in his letter to Neumayr that the state understands the country’s need for a secure supply chain of rare earths and deeming Bokan a high priority project would help to “ensure the resource is available for development in a reasonable time-frame.” “America’s dependency on a non-allied, foreign-sourced, critical metals supply chain to support national defense, green energy initiatives, and high-tech product manufacturing is an ongoing concern at both the State and Federal levels,” he wrote. In 2014, the Legislature approved the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to issue up to $145 million in bonds to help finance the Bokan project. Ucore estimated in 2013 that the mine would cost about $220 million to develop. For several years, the U.S. imported all of its rare earth elements until the Mountain Pass rare earths mine in southern California reopened last year. That’s a significant concern for many federal officials and policymakers because China is still the primary source for rare earths globally and the Chinese government — already engaged in a tense trade dispute with the U.S. — could restrict the flow of these critical metals. A drop in rare earth prices in 2015 has shifted Ucore’s attention away from the mine in recent years and towards advancing the processing technologies that would be used its refining complex. Ucore leaders thanked Dunleavy for the letter in formal statements. The company is also working to develop a facility to refine the metals it mines in Ketchikan. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a recent interview with the Journal that Defense officials told him about 90 pounds of rare earths go into each new F-35 fighter jet. He suggested China manipulates global rare earth markets to keep metal prices low enough to deter development of rare earth mines elsewhere, thus allowing the country to maintain its position as the world’s primary supplier. “A (high priority project) designation would shave significant lead time off of the development of a fully permitted project, prospectively delivering us to construction commencement in just over two years,” Ucore Chief Operations Officer Mike Schrider said. “Our fundamental objective is to establish the Bokan-Dotson Ridge resource as a shovel-ready critical mineral reserve for the rapidly expanding domestic technology and defense industry sectors that are dependent on rare earth metals.” Just four days after taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the council “to streamline and expedite” the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process for projects deemed to be a high priority for the nation. The order allows for governors or federal department executives to request the high priority status and specifically lists electric power grid projects as well as telecommunications systems, pipelines and transportation infrastructure as the primary types of projects that could receive the designation, but it does not explicitly list mines. According to the order, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Neumayr has 30 days to decide whether a request for a high priority listing should be granted. Schrider said in a brief interview that Ucore got a letter from Council on Environmental Quality officials Sept. 3 that Dunleavy’s request is being evaluated. A spokesman for the council did not respond to questions in time for this story. Schrider said the company is very appreciative of the governor’s efforts and Ucore is examining ways to move ahead with developing the mine at current metal prices. The next step towards developing Bokan is a detailed feasibility study of the project, according to Schrider. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Deputy secretary praises state energy research, pledges more partnerships

Alaska companies and communities aiming to implement new energy technologies or just improve their energy efficiency could see more resources coming their way, according to one U.S. Department of Energy leader. Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said during an Aug. 28 press briefing in Anchorage that he wants the department to expand its current footprint in the state and provide more help to Alaskans working with energy technologies. That help could come in the form of additional technical assistance for remote communities that need help complying with the state’s Power Cost Equalization program, for example; additional funding for local energy infrastructure projects; or more cooperative research between the University of Alaska and DOE’s 17 national laboratories; Brouillette said he hopes it all can happen. He spoke alongside Sen. Lisa Murkowski at Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s “Fab Lab” at the end of a five-day trip. Brouillette toured North Slope oil operations and visited Western Alaska villages working to integrate renewable energy technologies into their communities among other meetings. He said he wants to expand the department’s footprint in the state because the applied research done here has implications worldwide. “The lessons that I learn here are very practical and sometimes we lose sight of that. We spend a lot of money at the Department of Energy on some fantastic science, and it’s very important that we do so, but it’s also important that we take the time to come to places like this one to see the actual application of these scientific lessons and that’s what’s so exciting for us,” Brouillette said, adding that Alaska regularly leads the country in energy technology innovation. According to DOE budget documents, the department spent $9.7 million on Alaska programs in federal fiscal year 2018 and has a $16.2 million budget for grants, projects and other work in the state for the current, 2019 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Much of the bump in DOE funding to Alaska was for fossil energy research and development. Last winter, the Department of Energy partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey, BP and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. to drill a test well in the Prudhoe Bay oil field for natural gas hydrate research. It was the start of a multi-year endeavor with the ultimate goal of better understanding the viability of commercial gas hydrate production. The department’s funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects has increased slightly in recent years, but generally been in the $2.3 million per year range. While it’s a tiny fraction of DOE’s overall budget of more than $37 billion, Brouillette said the department’s work — combined with what other organizations do — on energy efficiency improvements in Alaska is crucial. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent arm of the Department of Energy, on May 23 approved a first-of-its-kind, 10-year operational license for a RiverGen in-river power generation system in the Southwestern Alaska village of Igiugig. “We count on that technology; we count on that research; we count on those efforts not only for Alaska, but for the rest of the country,” Brouillette said. “Our energy efficiency program at DOE is very much looking to Alaska to solve some of the problems that we face in other parts of the country.” To that end, Murkowski said she is committed to finding ways to replace $750,000 of state funding for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center that Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy vetoed from the state capital budget as a means of reducing the state’s ongoing budget deficits. Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She stressed that the benefits of the research and building designs developed at the Fairbanks-based center stretch well beyond Alaska. “The work that Cold Climate Housing has been doing is not only important to us in Alaska; this is the facility in the Arctic,” Murkowski said. “Other Arctic nations are looking to what Cold Climate Housing is doing and saying, ‘We want to share your good ideas. We want to use some of your designs because we struggle with the same issues.’” The Cold Climate Housing Research Center is widely known for developing what are believed to be the most energy efficient northern latitude homes in the world. CCHRC founder and CEO Jack Hébert said based on prior conversations with Murkowski that she is investigating whether the center could partner with the Energy Department's national laboratories partly as a means to secure funding. "She's just doing what she can do. She believes in us and we certainly appreciate her for that," he said. However, Hébert said getting federal funding is made more difficult by the fact that the state has cut off its support. He added that the center is also looking a private sources of funding, such as nonprofit foundations. "It's tough, but we'll make our way," he said. Both Murkowski and Brouillette noted that while the center’s work is focused on northern home design, the same construction methods can be used to keep the heat out in warmer climes. Murkowski also said she is working on legislation to allow Department of Energy grants to be more easily passed through quasi-state agencies, such as the Alaska Energy Authority, to local governments and Tribes for renewable energy and efficiency projects. Additionally, Murkowski has long been working to pass an omnibus national energy policy reform package. Such legislation passed both the House and Senate in 2016, but ultimately died on conference committee negotiations. Republican Senate Energy and Natural Resources spokeswoman Tonya Parish wrote in an email that the committee has held several hearings on energy reform legislation, advancing 22 bills to the Senate floor in July. The committee is expected to hold another bill markup soon, “with continued focus on energy-related matters that can be combined into a bipartisan package,” Parish wrote. The pair visited the Kuskokwim Bay communities of Kwigillingok and Kongiganak. “Kwig” and “Kong” leaders, along with officials from other nearby villages for years have been working to not only to integrate wind power into their primarily diesel-supported power grids, but also have been trying new ways to maximize the amount of wind energy they can use through hi-tech battery storage and in-home electric thermal storage units, among others. Murkowski said the work has allowed the communities to get off of diesel-generated power upwards of 30 percent of the time. “When you’re paying $6 a gallon for your home heating fuel every percent that you can get off diesel is money ahead,” she said. Brouillette commented that he was further surprised by the interest residents of Kwig have in hydrogen energy technology. “To see that interest in such a small community (with a population of about 300), again speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the Alaskan people,” he said. “If we were able to assist smaller communities like Kwig all throughout Alaska, given the amount of water resources here — that would be a tremendous opportunity. He added that while wind and solar energy projects are helping to immediately reduce energy costs in rural Alaska, the opportunities that could be afforded by economic hydrogen energy “represents a future that none of us today can even imagine.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

BP sale has impacts for ANWR, AK LNG

Hilcorp Energy’s pending $5.6 billion acquisition of BP’s Alaska assets has implications well beyond what happens to the oil remaining in the Prudhoe Bay field. That’s because the London-based oil major’s reach in the state isn’t limited to operations at the legendary oil field, which BP holds a 26 percent stake in. ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil each hold a 36 percent share of Prudhoe Bay and Chevron has the remaining 1.1 percent interest. BP also holds a one-third share of the $4 billion Point Thomson gas field on the North Slope, which is operated by ExxonMobil and is a lynchpin to the proposed roughly $40 billion Alaska LNG Project. A spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips Alaska said company officials heard the same rumors leading up to the deal that everyone else in the industry did, but they have not seen the details of the transaction and could not comment on it. Additionally, BP is one of two companies — Chevron is the other — that knows the results of the only oil well drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. After 60 years in Alaska, BP had also become one of the largest charitable givers in the state. It contributed more than $4 million last year to education causes and nonprofits in Alaska. Houston-based Hilcorp donated $315,000 to charitable causes in the state last year, according to the companies. BP has long been a primary proponent of the Alaska LNG Project; the company was part of the consortium that started work on the plan to export North Slope natural gas in 2013 through a partnership with the state. Then, when the companies decided in February 2016 to step away from Alaska LNG amid collapsed oil and global LNG prices and let the state continue the work, BP was the first producer to formally reengage the project when it agreed to provide technical assistance to the state-owned Alaska Gasline Development Corp. starting in December of that year. That assistance preceded BP becoming the first company to sign a binding gas sales precedent agreement with AGDC in May 2018. The terms of the confidential agreement, which is still in effect, according to AGDC, include gas price and volume figures. ExxonMobil later signed a similar confidential deal with AGDC last September. Finally, in late May BP committed up to $10 million to help AGDC fund the remainder of the Alaska LNG Project environmental impact statement being analyzed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. ExxonMobil also put up $10 million to finish the Alaska LNG EIS. Scheduled for completion in mid-2020, a favorable decision from FERC on the EIS is seen by most industry experts as a major step towards de-risking the project and one that could help attract investors. Under Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy AGDC leaders have said they plan to finish the FERC EIS process and pitch the project to private sector investors and operators they hope would take it over. It all appears to counter the decision to sell the company’s share of North Slope gas — estimated to be about one-fourth of the roughly 35 trillion cubic feet of available gas resources — which BP Alaska leaders regularly touted as the largest undeveloped gas resource in its broad global portfolio and one they hoped to monetize. It’s worth noting that the BP-Hilcorp transaction is subject to several state and federal approvals and isn’t expected to close until sometime next year. Economist Ed King, who worked on Alaska LNG in its early stages under former Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration, said in an interview that BP’s willingness to exit the state and sell the gas resources as part of that suggests the company didn’t have faith that Alaska LNG would be built anytime soon. “We’ve all known for a long time that it’s an economically challenging project,” King said. In the midst of the transition to state leadership of Alaska LNG in mid-2016, the international energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie forecast that an oil company-led project would not meet the return thresholds typically required by oil companies to make it economically attractive. However, the tax exempt status a state-sponsored LNG project would enjoy along with other factors could make it viable, Wood Mackenzie representatives said to legislators at the time. BP Alaska spokeswoman Meg Baldino wrote via email that the company plans to honor the $10 million commitment. She also noted that BP would still have the opportunity to participate in Alaska LNG if it’s built, potentially as a purchaser of the project’s LNG. As for Hilcorp, AGDC spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick said the company had not engaged in recent discussions about the gasline project with the agency. AGDC officials speaking on background said Hilcorp had a positive view of the project in its early stages several years ago but also said Hilcorp had not discussed the project with them of late. Spokespersons for Hilcorp did not respond to multiple questions and requests for comment for this story. While Hilcorp’s official view of North Slope gas sales is unclear, the company should also be getting a leg up in the quest for the untapped oil many believe is below the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. According to BP’s Baldino, Hilcorp will get all of BP Alaska’s lease holdings within the boundaries of ANWR and the associated data, which includes the results of the KIC-1 well — the only oil well drilled in the refuge — in 1986. The longstanding leases jointly held by Chevron and BP are over much of the 92,000 acres of ANWR in-holdings that are owned by Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp., or KIC, that surround the Native village of Kaktovik on the northern edge of the 19 million-acre refuge. Arctic Slope Regional Corp. owns the subsurface rights to the acreage. The companies teamed up to drill the well about 15 miles from the village and have managed to keep the well data, and whether or not it hit oil, under wraps. Interior and Bureau of Land Management officials in Alaska have consistently said they intend to hold a lease sale for the roughly 1.5 million-acre coastal plain this year after the environmental impact statement evaluating oil and gas development in the area is complete. Congress also mandated a second lease sale in the 2017 tax overhaul legislation that carried the ANWR rider. When it comes to oil, King said he will be watching how many of the roughly 1,600 BP Alaska employees Hilcorp retains to operate Prudhoe Bay and the company’s nearby fields and prospects, which it also purchased from BP in 2014. Hilcorp is known for boosting production or at least holding it steady in mature oil and gas fields, which is partly why the company’s acquisition of BP’s Prudhoe assets was not a surprise to many industry observers. However, King noted doing so profitably usually means a smaller workforce. He surmised that the number of personnel in the field likely won’t change much and Hilcorp’s smaller corporate structure is also a way the company keeps downward pressure on overhead. “I’m really curious if they’re taking a look at some of the projects that have been on the shelf,” King said of Hilcorp’s plans for the Prudhoe field, adding that some marginally economic infield oil projects have been dismissed while BP has been the operator. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Hilcorp’s swift growth in Alaska capped by Prudhoe purchase

Hilcorp Alaska’s $5.6 billion acquisition of BP’s assets in Alaska, announced Aug. 27, marks a “crowning achievement” for a Houston, Texas, company that has rapidly risen to become a major player in Alaska’s oil patch, after establishing a foothold in Cook Inlet seven years ago, observers say. The privately held company, founded by billionaire Jeffery Hildebrand in 1989, is known for squeezing more oil out of aging fields, a pattern seen in Cook Inlet after it began buying assets in 2012. There, the company soon became the dominant oil and natural gas producer in the Southcentral Alaska region, where it now runs a collection of offshore platforms and recently spent $90 million to upgrade oil delivery. The company’s Cook Inlet purchases attracted little attention compared to the company’s bold move in 2014, when it acquired two fields from BP, and parts of two other fields, in a $1.25 billion deal. “In Alaska, we’ve seen them double and double again, because they seized the opportunity,” said John Hendrix, former chief oil and gas adviser to former Gov. Bill Walker. “My hat’s off to them.” Hendrix said Hilcorp has strong buy-in from employees — stoked by incentives such as Hilcorp’s $100,000 bonus to all employees in 2015. “They won’t take risks,” but they also won’t burden their business with unnecessary bureaucratic delays, he said. Joe Balash, now an assistant U.S. Interior Secretary, was deputy commissioner for the state Department of Natural Resources when Hilcorp was originally hunting for deals in Cook Inlet. He said the company had bigger plans for Alaska even then. “In our very first conversations we had with Jeffery Hildebrand in Houston, when they were looking at the acquisitions in Cook Inlet, he had his eye on the North Slope,” Balash said. In 2014, Hilcorp proved itself an effective operator in the Arctic Alaska region, continuing to partner with BP on fields where both companies held stakes, he said. “They impressed BP management to the point they were obviously able to develop a relationship necessary to make a transaction like this possible,” Balash said. Hilcorp’s reputation in Alaska took a hit in 2017, after state regulators highlighted a long list of operating infractions, and a subsea pipeline in Cook Inlet leaked natural gas for months, with icy, cold water complicating repairs. But the company has taken steps to improve its operations in the state, regulators have said. The company employed more than 400 people in Alaska last year, and produced more than 75,000 barrels daily of gross oil and gas equivalent. The acquisition announced Aug. 27 cement’s Hilcorp’s position in Alaska, and will make it the second largest producer in the state when the deal is finalized, observers said. “For Hilcorp, buying BPs assets, including assuming operatorship of Prudhoe Bay, is a crowning achievement to the Alaska business they have built since 2012 to become the largest private operator in the state,” said an emailed statement from Enverus, an oilfield data services firm in Texas. How Hilcorp Alaska will integrate BP’s workforce of 1,600 employees is unknown. That workforce is vital to operating Prudhoe and conducting other work, according to an email from Hilcorp spokesman Justin Furnace. “Our plans for that workforce will develop as we determine how we will integrate the acquisition into Hilcorp’s existing operations and we receive a list of eligible employees from BP so we can begin the interview process,” Furnace said. Hilcorp’s next big move in Alaska could be at its offshore Liberty field, another North Slope acquisition from BP, in the Beaufort Sea. Hilcorp has moved rapidly in its efforts to develop the field. It hopes to launch oil production in the coming years. The field could produce up to 70,000 barrels of oil daily.

BLM issues first review of Ambler Road project

Bureau of Land Management officials have released the draft review of a proposal by the State of Alaska to build a road that would open a large swath of Interior Alaska to mineral development. The state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading the permitting and possibly eventually the financing of the long-sought Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, which has drawn opposition from environmental groups and some local stakeholders. Commonly referred to as the Ambler road, the 211-mile gravel road would link the remote Ambler mining district in the Upper Kobuk River drainage to the Dalton Highway near the base of the Brooks Range and the rest of Alaska’s road system. BLM identified AIDEA’s plan for the Ambler road as it’s preferred alternative for the project in the draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, released Aug. 23, but the exact route through or around Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is still undecided. AIDEA applied with BLM to start the Ambler road EIS in March 2017. The one other Ambler road route considered in the draft EIS would start just north of the Yukon River bridge, near milepost 60 of the Dalton. The road would generally angle northwest for 332 miles before terminating near the Ambler River. Fairbanks would be 456 miles from the end of the road using AIDEA’s route and 476 miles from the end of the Ambler road under the alternative route. BLM dismissed the longer route because it would be nearly 60 percent longer than AIDEA’s plan and would have correspondingly more impacts to the environment and be “considerably more costly to construct,” the EIS states. Using a toll road concept, AIDEA would finance the basic gravel road — with an estimated construction cost between $280 million and $380 million — via revenue bonds that would be repaid by the mining companies that would use it to develop the multiple metal prospects in the 75-mile long mining district near the end of the road. According to AIDEA, construction and maintenance costs for the road would total between $475 million and $616 million over 30 years. The authority would return between $988 million and $1.1 billion over that time in tolls, according to its analysis, if the mines are developed. Critics have pointed to the cost of the project, and the fact that there is no guaranteed repayment method, as reasons to scrap the plan. The Wilderness Society contends the current estimate for the road does not consider some of the costs inherent to building in remote northern Alaska, such as constructing a road over permafrost. The group suggests the road could end up costing $1 billion or more as a result. The proposed mines have also drawn scrutiny for potential impacts to salmon and whitefish runs in the Kobuk River drainage and many residents of the area villages are concerned about impacts to caribou in the region that are an important subsistence food source. Numerous village and Tribal governments in the area of the proposed road have issued formal statements of opposition to the project. AIDEA officials insist access to the road will be restricted to mining activity because it would ultimately be paid for through tolls under the plan; there would be no public access to currently isolated hunting areas, which has been another concern of area residents worried about increased activity. The state has spent approximately $26 million of public General Fund money on predevelopment studies for the Ambler road over the years. Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, CEO of Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals, called the road “crucial to unlocking the incredible mineral wealth” in the Ambler mining district in an Aug. 23 statement. “The development of the Ambler district will lead to generation of thousands of high-paying jobs for the residents of Alaska,” Van Nieuwenhuyse said. “I want to commend the BLM and all cooperating agencies for getting the draft EIS done and look forward to completing the permit for the road.” Trilogy Metals is exploring two multi-metal deposits in the district and Van Nieuwenhuyse has repeatedly stressed that without road access the prospects cannot be economically developed. Trilogy is preparing to start the federal permitting process for the Arctic copper, zinc and precious metal deposit shortly after permitting the road is complete, he has said. Arctic would be an open-pit mine and its expected many of the other prospects in the area would be as well if they are developed. Public comment meetings on the draft Ambler road EIS are scheduled for more than 20 communities during a 45-day comment period. “I realize the importance of this project to the State of Alaska and for the state’s ability to develop its resources and as such, I am committed to ensuring a thorough and comprehensive analysis,” BLM Alaska Director Chad Padgett said in a statement. “This can’t be done without substantive input from stakeholders.” The public comment period is scheduled to start Aug. 30 and run through Oct. 15. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Draft report on Willow released; 130k b/d possible

Alaskans got a sense of what developing one of the state’s largest oil prospects in decades would look like Aug. 23 when the federal Bureau of Land Management released the draft environmental impact statement for ConocoPhillips’ Willow project. The $4 billion to $6 billion proposed oil field is expected to produce up to 130,000 barrels per day at its peak if it is developed as currently envisioned. Willow is expected to cumulatively produce upwards of 590 million barrels of oil over approximately 30 years. It would also be another major step into the mostly undeveloped National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska where ConocoPhillips has been exploring for years. Last October, oil started flowing from the company’s smaller Greater Mooses Tooth-1 project, which marked the first oil production from federal leases within the NPR-A. ConocoPhillips is also in the midst of constructing the $1 billion-plus Greater Mooses Tooth-2 oil project to the east of the Willow development area. All of the aforementioned projects are in the northeastern portion of the NPR-A. ConocoPhillips announced the discovery of the primarily Nanushuk oil formation-sourced Willow prospect in January 2017 and has subsequently drilled multiple appraisal wells in the area. If developed, Willow would be the westernmost oilfield on the North Slope and would be linked to existing infrastructure via a road to GMT-2 based on ConocoPhillips’ current plan. In totality, ConocoPhillips hopes to build 38 miles of new gravel roads to connect five drill sites and a processing facility within the project to GMT-2. Each drill site is designed to accommodate at least 50 production and injection wells. Willow would also have a large operations center with an airstrip for a total gravel footprint of 442 acres, according to the draft EIS. Additionally, the company is proposing to build a temporary gravel island at Atigaru Point in near shore state waters of the Beaufort Sea north of the project for offloading and storing modules. The facility segments would be barged up in summer months and transported via ice roads to the project area in winter, according to the EIS. The 12.8-acre gravel island would be stripped of all manmade materials after several years of use. “It is anticipated the top of the island would drop below the water surface in 10 to 20 years following abandonment as it is reshaped by ice and waves,” the document states. The Atigaru Point island would be the shortest delivery route without needing to dredge marine waters or have additional impacts to the marine environment, according to BLM officials. The island would require 117 miles of ice roads to build and use. The agency selected the company’s plan as its preferred alternative, but BLM Alaska spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters noted that identifying a preferred plan in the draft stage of the environmental review does not preclude BLM from changing course based on comments it receives on the draft document. If BLM ultimately selects the ConocoPhillips development plan, first oil is expected in late 2024. Development without a field access road would push first oil to early 2026, according to the EIS. The company expects full development to take between seven and nine years. Two other development options considered in the EIS would cut out several infield roads to reduce potential impacts to caribou movements and lessen the number of stream crossings, but those changes would require another airstrip and ultimately lead to slightly more gravel fill. A transfer island farther north and west at Point Lonely is also considered to utilize existing Department of Defense infrastructure there and move the island away from areas frequently used by residents of the nearby village of Nuiqsut for subsistence harvests. Utilizing the Point Lonely site for offloading barges would mean building nearly 230 miles of ice roads for developing the facility and transporting equipment. Developing either island would require crossing part of the Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Habitat Area identified in the 2013 NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan with ice roads. BLM Alaska officials are in the midst of developing a new land-use plan for the NPR-A. Department of Interior leaders have said it will likely have more areas available to oil and gas leasing and possibly smaller areas with special wildlife habitat protections, particularly in the northeastern part of the reserve, which is believed to have more potential for oil and gas finds. Public comment meetings are planned for the northern Alaska communities of Anaktuvuk Pass, Atqasuk, Nuiqsut and Utqiagvik, as well as Anchorage and Fairbanks in mid and late September. Public comments on the Willow draft EIS can be submitted to BLM through Oct. 15. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

End of an era as Hilcorp buys out BP for $5.6B

Alaska is going to have a new “big three.” BP is selling all of its Alaska assets to Hilcorp Energy in a $5.6 billion deal announced Tuesday morning. For years, BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil have dominated North Slope oil production. Houston-based Hilcorp will now be taking BP’s place in that group. The sale means the iconic Prudhoe Bay oil field will have a new operator. Hilcorp will also assume BP’s 49 percent stake in the Trans-Alaska-Pipeline System through its pipeline subsidiary Harvest Alaska, according to statements from the companies. Hilcorp will additionally take BP’s 50 percent interests in the North Slope Milne Point and Liberty projects, which Hilcorp currently operates in partnerships with BP, as well as its 32 percent stake in the Point Thomson gas field operated by ExxonMobil. BP CEO Bob Dudley said the sale out of Alaska is a big part of the company’s broader objective to divest approximately $10 billion of assets worldwide this year and next. “Alaska has been instrumental in BP’s growth and success for well over half a century and our work there has helped shape the careers of many throughout the company,” Dudley said in a formal statement. “We are extraordinarily proud of the world-class business we have built, working alongside our partners and the State of Alaska, and the significant contributions it has made to Alaska’s economy and America’s energy security.” Hilcorp executives highlighted the company’s work to revitalize mature oil and gas fields in the state — it’s the primary operator in the Cook Inlet basin — and its workforce in the state, in prepared statements.  “With several years of operational experience in Alaska and an Alaska workforce made up of nearly 90 percent Alaskan residents we understand the importance of this asset to the state,” Hilcorp CEO Greg Lalicker said. “We’re excited about the opportunity ahead and are fully committed to the safe and responsible development of natural resources in such a special place. This commitment is a top priority as we work to ensure a seamless transition process.” The deal includes about $4 billion in near-term payments and $1.6 billion in longer-term payments. It is pending both state and federal approvals and is expected to close next year, according to BP. As a privately held company, Hilcorp has largely tried to avoid the spotlight while in Alaska and kept the details of its financial situation private.  Hilcorp was founded in 1989 by Jeffrey Hildebrand and operates in nine states, including Alaska. The company produced approximately 325,000 barrels per day of oil and gas equivalent in 2018, according to a presentation on its website. In Alaska, Hilcorp currently has more than 500 employees and produced more than 75,000 barrels per day of oil and gas equivalent last year. Company-wide, Hilcorp has more than 2,300 full-time employees, according to a company statement. It has invested roughly $4 billion in Alaska over the past seven years, according to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Hilcorp spokesman Justin Furnace wrote via email that BP’s current Alaska workforce of approximately 1,600 employees is vital to operating Prudhoe and conducting other work. “Our plans for that workforce will develop as we determine how we will integrate the acquisition into Hilcorp’s existing operations and we receive a list of eligible employees from BP so we can begin the interview process,” Furnace said in response to questions about how current BP employees will be handled. Hilcorp will assume the lease for BP’s midtown Anchorage office building, according to BP Alaska spokeswoman Meg Baldino. Hilcorp came to Alaska in early 2012 when it bought the Cook Inlet assets of Chevron and Marathon Oil. In 2014 it moved north to the Slope with a $1.25 billion purchase of BP’s offshore Northstar and Endicott oil fields. That deal also gave Hilcorp its 50 percent operator roles in Liberty and Milne Point, which had been solely owned by BP. Hilcorp has been lauded for stabilizing Cook Inlet natural gas production — which supplies Southcentral Alaska with heat and electricity — but also had a prolonged gas leak in late winter 2017 from an old pipeline on the Inlet seafloor. That incident drew widespread criticism for how the company handles the often aging assets it buys, but did not result in significant regulatory action. The existing relationship between BP and Hilcorp helped fuel rumors about a potential sale of Prudhoe Bay, so the announcement does not come as a shock to those within the industry, despite BP Alaska leaders’ recent emphasis on “40 more years at Prudhoe,” a reference to the 40th anniversary of startup at Prudhoe in 2017. Baldino said the deal is in line with that message because Hilcorp specializes in revitalizing declining assets. Oil production at Prudhoe peaked way back in 1988 at just more than 1.6 million barrels per day. Production from Prudhoe and associated satellite fields steadily declined for nearly three decades until stabilizing at about 280,000 barrels per day for the past few years. BP’s ability to stem the production decline is something the company has touted of late.  Cumulatively, more than 13 billion barrels of oil have been pulled out of Prudhoe, making it the most prolific oilfield in the country’s history, according to BP. Last winter BP conducted the first 3-D seismic shoot of the entire Prudhoe Bay field, which was seen by some industry observers as a sort of sales pitch to potential buyers. “This really is about 40 more at Prudhoe. This is what Hilcorp does in investing in mature fields,” Baldino said. She said it’s a tough day for BP employees, but added that they are proud of the work they’ve done in Alaska. “You have an energetic buyer and a valuable asset,” Baldino said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Banks see positives in economy amid budget debate

Alaska banks are seeing positives in the state economy despite uncertainties caused by the state’s budget situation. The largest in-state banks, First National Bank Alaska and Northrim Bank each had solid results in the second quarter, although Northrim couldn’t match a particularly strong 2018. Northrim netted a $4.2 million profit during the quarter, a 26 percent year-over-year drop largely due to the fact that the second quarter 2018 was a very good period for the bank and higher interest rates helped generate a $5.8 million net income, Chief Financial Officer Jed Ballard said. This year Northrim has felt the impact of an inverted yield curve — when interest rates on short-term debt are higher than long-term debt — according to Ballard, who noted that about two-thirds of the bank’s loan portfolio is in variable-rate loans. “We had some pretty decent loan growth in Q2 that helped offset lower interest rates,” he said. Northrim increased its total lending 5.5 percent year-over-year to a $1.05 billion portfolio, according to records filed with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. First National Bank Alaska grew its second quarter net income 3.7 percent year-over-year to more than $13.1 million, according to results posted on the bank’s website. FNBA also eclipsed the $2 billion threshold in total loans in the second quarter with 4.7 percent year-over-year portfolio growth. Both banks increased their total assets as well; Northrim grew 5.6 percent year-over-year to more than $1.55 billion and FNBA ended the second quarter with more than $3.76 billion in holdings, a 3.1 percent increase from 2018. Northrim Chief Credit Officer and Bank Economist Mark Edwards said the positives he is seeing in North Slope oil investments as well as the ever-growing tourism sector have largely been “drowned out” in the noise caused by the state budget debates. Northrim had a 1.12 percent return on its assets in the quarter, while FNBA returned 1.43 percent. Some economists in the state have estimated Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s one-time group of budget vetoes totaling more than $400 million would have cost Alaska more than 4,000 jobs across numerous sectors; however, much of that fear has been tamped down as Dunleavy has agreed in recent days to restore significant amounts of funding, most notably to the University of Alaska’s budget. Edwards said he did not think the vetoes would be as damaging to the economy as some did, but added that the compromise the governor has agreed to is preferable to steep immediate cuts. Wells Fargo Alaska Commercial Banking Market Executive Joe Everhart had similar sentiments about the Alaska economy, also noting that commercial fisherman across the state’s many fisheries have generally received good prices for their catch this year. “The budget and legislative issues clearly dampened some of the economic optimism after 40-plus months of being in a recession, but there are a lot of positive steps that are happening on the Slope with Oil Search and (ConocoPhillips) as examples; the state budget conversations did throw a little bit of cold water on better economic indicators,” Everhart said. Wells Fargo held just more than 50 percent of total bank deposits in the state last year, according to FDIC data. Updated figures have not yet been published. Everhart said, “Generally things were positive” for Wells Fargo in Alaska as well, but he did not want to discuss specifics until the numbers were officially public. Some sectors, such as health care and nonprofits, saw a particular lack of investment through the spring, as the state budget remained undecided into July. Dunleavy vetoed $50 million from the state’s Medicaid budget; a cut that came on top of the Legislature’s $70 million reduction to Medicaid. “People didn’t necessarily want to ramp up, buy additional inventory, hire staff if they didn’t have confidence in what was happening in the State of Alaska,” Everhart said Aug. 14. “Fast-forward a couple of days, it does appear there’s been a meeting of the minds to put this conversation to rest so everybody can plan for the future.” Edwards and Everhart also both pointed to low foreclosure and loan delinquency rates in the state as evidence that the underlying support of the Alaska economy is generally strong. Northrim held its loan loss allowance in the second quarter nearly steady at $20.5 million, an increase of 2 percent year-over-year, while FNBA’s increased 8.8 percent to $19.5 million. Northrim had $18 million of loans in nonaccrual in the second quarter and FNBA had $7.3 million of loans in similar status. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska sets another first in unmanned aircraft testing

Alaska continues to be at the forefront of an aviation revolution. This time, pilots and scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration conducted the first official beyond-visual-line-of-sight unmanned aircraft flight in the country approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. The roughly 30-minute flight on July 31 was conducted over a nearly four-mile section of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in a sparsely populated area north of Fairbanks. About half of the flight was flown under true beyond-visual-line-of-sight conditions, according to ACUASI Director Cathy Cahill. “Needless to say we were all very excited and we were leading the country. That was the first (flight) where we didn’t have to have a human observer with their eyes on the aircraft,” Cahill said in an interview. “We couldn’t see the aircraft but we knew everything about the aircraft and the airspace around it.” The unmanned aircraft center, often referred to as ACAUSI, is an arm of UAF’s Geophysical Institute, where scientists conduct high-end research on everything from the aurora to Arctic climate conditions, earthquakes, volcanoes and the remote sensing technologies used in unmanned flights, among other fields. Short-range commercial flights with small unmanned aircraft have been authorized for roughly three years now, but it was tests in Alaska that helped FAA officials draft the detailed regulations needed for general commercial unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, flights in the national airspace. Prior to 2016, any UAS flights with a business purpose needed special, case-by-case approval from the FAA. In 2013, ConocoPhillips conducted the first FAA-approved commercial UAS flights in the country when the company flew unmanned survey operations over its offshore oil and gas lease holdings in the Chukchi Sea. Less than a year later, in June 2014, a UAS team working for BP flew the country’s first UAS commercial flight over land to survey Prudhoe Bay oilfield infrastructure. The FAA approved ACUASI’s Pan-Pacific Test Range in late 2013 to be one of the country’s first six UAS testing hubs. The Pan-Pacific Range includes test sites in Oregon and Hawaii. President Donald Trump pushed the FAA to take the further steps to advance commercial remote flights in October 2017 when he issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the Transportation Secretary to establish a UAS Integration Pilot Program. Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said in a statement that the program is helping the agency continue to develop safe practices for integrating drones into the commercial aviation industry, which is the ultimate goal. “This important milestone in Alaska gets us closer to that goal,” Elwell said. The beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight was observed by a group of FAA officials, Cahill added. She said it was meant to simulate a flight conducted to inspect pipeline integrity and monitor activity in the TAPS right-of-way. However, the Skyfront Perimeter, a 6.5-foot diameter quad-copter, employed to fly the mission was not equipped with a camera or other surveillance instruments; the flight was strictly to demonstrate it could be done safely, according to Cahill. “It was the airspace integration and the detect-and-avoid (demonstrations) that were the complex parts of this mission,” she said. Utilizing UAS to conduct infrastructure inspections, mapping, wildlife monitoring and even fish counting has long been the goal of unmanned vehicle proponents. Unmanned craft are seen as being particularly applicable to Alaska, where vast distances and often challenging terrain and weather regularly combine to make manned flights to conduct the same work costly and dangerous. A lot of this work has been done under current FAA regulations, which require small UAS to be flown within eyesight — without binoculars or other visual aides — and lower than 400 feet, but those limitations still don’t allow operators to capture the full suite of benefits an unimpeded UAS can provide, Cahill stressed. “If I want to go monitor a seven-mile long salmon stream in a canyon I would have to put people at a distance where they could keep their eyes on the (unmanned) aircraft the entire length of that seven miles,” she said of current FAA requirements. “That requires flying people in or them hiking in under dangerous conditions; that’s not safer than flying the manned aircraft we’re trying to replace. So we need to go beyond visual line of sight.” To go further, the ACUASI team used a detect-and-avoid system from San Francisco-based Iris Automation Inc. aboard the Skyfront to alleviate conflicts with birds or other aircraft in combination with a system of eight ground-based Echodyne radars to keep tabs on the aircraft. The area used in the demonstration was also chosen for its usually quiet airspace and general lack of development after consultation with FAA officials, according to Cahill. “We could see (the aircraft) in the telemetry. We could see it in the radar data; we knew where it was. We knew the Iris system was watching the airspace and it all worked really well,” she said, adding that, “the key word in everything we do is ‘safe.’ If it’s not safe, we’re not doing it.” Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. President Tom Barrett said in a statement that even though the Skyfront flight wasn’t technically doing pipeline-related work, it is significant progress towards operating TAPS more reliably, safely and with better environmental protections. “This innovative step forward will advance safe performance not just in our industry, but in multiple disciplines and workspaces across the country,” Barrett said. To Cahill, it was significant, but incremental progress, as she told the FAA’s integration program team that ACUASI wants to gain approval for “365 days a year, 24/7 beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations in Alaska,” for the litany of applications such permission could be used on. The focus now is getting approval for longer flights, she said. “It really is a crawl, walk, run, scenario and we crawled, but we crawled before anyone else did and we’re very, very excited about that.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Report concludes private-Medicaid doable, but costs uncertain

A Medicaid overhaul analysis commissioned by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s administration concluded Alaska could see benefits from shifting a subset of its Medicaid population to private insurance, but the details of potential cost savings and whether or not the change can be implemented remains unclear. Boston-based Public Consulting Group Inc.’s 48-page Alaska Proof of Concept Analysis Medicaid report says the public policy firm believes there is “a plausible path to approval of a ‘Private Option’ waiver for Alaska” from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, based on similar approvals for other states. While federal Medicaid officials could be amenable to such a plan, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services leaders would likely have to establish a new pricing system for services provided to Medicaid recipients on private insurance, according to the report. Additionally, the state would probably need to bring at least one other private insurer — and competition — into the individual health insurance market to gain CMS approval, it states. Currently, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska is the only private insurer in Alaska’s individual health insurance market. Under the private-Medicaid concept, a group of relatively low-utilization Medicaid recipients would be moved to private insurance plans and the state would subsidize the premiums and other out-of-pocket expenses paid by those individuals. A new “reference-based pricing” mechanism would be necessary to curb reimbursement costs for procedures paid for by the state through a private insurer that were previously paid at Medicaid rates. According to Public Consulting Group, which cited estimated figures from other recent reports on Alaska’s Medicaid program, Medicaid reimbursement rates in the state are approximately 126 percent of what Medicare pays for particular services. However, commercial insurers in the state pay providers on average 353 percent of Medicare, rates that would significantly increase Medicaid costs to the state. To counter that, state officials could implement reimbursement rates specific to the Medicaid population moved to private insurance, according to the report, but also not without potential consequences. “In selecting targeted (reference-based pricing) reimbursement rates, Alaska will need to consider trade-offs between cost savings and the impact those savings may have on provider network access,” the report states. A 2016 study, known as the Milliman report, and done when state lawmakers were debating a suite of Medicaid reforms, concluded that shifting low-income adults enrolled under expanded Medicaid coverage to the individual private insurance market would cost the state an additional $57 million per year growing to $97 million per year over the first five years of the plan. Milliman Inc., a Seattle-based actuarial and consulting firm, submitted a proposal for the latest study but was not chosen by DHSS officials. The contract for the Medicaid analysis was for up to $100,000. DHSS officials requested the report this past spring, which was obtained by the Journal Aug. 13 through a public records request, after the Dunleavy administration initially proposed cutting $225 million from the state’s Medicaid budget in February. Office of Management and Budget officials at the time acknowledged the $225 million proposed cut was an arbitrary figure needed to reach an overall balanced state budget and DHSS leaders said in March they could cut about $100 million from Medicaid this year largely through regulatory actions, such as cutting provider reimbursement rates. The Legislature ultimately cut the state’s Medicaid services appropriation by about $70 million to $493 million, and Dunleavy vetoed another $50 million before signing the budget. Many legislators were critical of the veto because short-funding the program on the front end without major changes to Medicaid will likely necessitate supplemental appropriations later in the fiscal year — a scenario that has played out in recent years. While overall Medicaid spending in Alaska continues to rise, the state’s part of that bill is shrinking. According to the Legislative Finance Division, overall spending on Medicaid in Alaska has increased from $1.7 billion to more than $2.3 billion since fiscal year 2015, but the state’s portion of that has actually gone down from $724 million in 2015 to $677 million in the just-ended fiscal year 2019, which includes other services such as behavioral health as well as a $15 million supplemental budget request. The Dunleavy administration has also suggested shifting the state’s federal Medicaid funding to block grants as a way to limit overall costs. Public Consulting Group recommended a “global cap” to self-impose spending limits while giving the state flexibility in how it would stay under the cost cap. Doing so could also help the state offset any extra costs from the private insurance option by using a portion of the expected federal savings to cover higher reimbursement rates, according to the report. Any such changes to Alaska’s Medicaid program would require CMS approval. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

International issues boost premium for Alaska oil

Sanctions against Iran and contaminated oil from Russia appear to be giving Alaska a small but much-needed financial boost. Alaska North Slope crude oil is bucking a longstanding trend and is now trading at a premium to Brent crude, a leading benchmark price followed closely by global oil traders. The Brent benchmark originates from London with oil largely sourced from North Sea fields. Alaska North Slope oil has sold for a premium to Brent in every month since last November except for May, when Brent averaged 1 cent more per barrel. Since May, the daily average Alaska price premium has gone from $1.28 per barrel in June to $1.96 per barrel so far in August, according to the Alaska Department of Revenue. The spread peaked on July 9 when Alaska oil sold for $3.25 per barrel more than Brent-priced crude. For years, Brent crude consistently sold for a higher price than Alaska oil. The Brent premium to Alaska oil has typically been in the $1 to $2 per barrel range, but hit a near-term peak in February 2015 when Brent oil sold on average for $4.80 per barrel more than Alaska North Slope crude. More recently, in August 2016 Brent sold for $2.99 per barrel more than Alaska, according to Alaska Department of Revenue data. At that time Alaska oil was also selling for slightly less than West Texas Intermediate — the benchmark for Lower 48 oil — which was also bucking tradition. Over the previous five years, Alaska North Slope crude has sold for a significant premium to West Texas Intermediate. The Alaska premium over WTI peaked at $10.04 per barrel last February and has been more than $5 per barrel for more than a year. Alaska oil is traded on its own price for a variety of reasons, but a major driver is that the vast majority of shipments from Valdez are sent to West Coast refineries. Transportation constraints limit the amount of oil produced east of the Rocky Mountains that can be sent west. That soft barrier has led to the development of ostensibly two oil markets in the U.S. Economist Ed King, who recently served as the lead economist in Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s administration, wrote on his firm’s website July 23 that a $3 premium to Brent — going from $2 less to $1 more — correlates to “an extra $100 million or so of financial gain” to the state through extra royalty value and tax collections. According to Alaska Tax Division Director Colleen Glover, every dollar change in the price of Alaska North Slope crude equates to roughly $42 million more, or less, to the state treasury over the fiscal year at the current price band of $60-$65 per barrel. Alaska oil sold for $62.82 per barrel on Aug. 13, according to the state Department of Revenue. Economists say it’s often difficult to pinpoint a specific reason as to why one oil price changes in relation to another, but according to American Petroleum Institute Chief Economist Dean Foreman, the new Alaska premium over Brent oil correlates to increased exports to South Korea from the Valdez oil terminal at the end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Foreman said in an interview that trade data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates South Korean oil buyers purchased 42 percent more oil in June than they did a year prior and Bloomberg reported July 23 that two 1 million-barrel capacity tankers —ConocoPhillips’ Polar Adventure and BP’s Alaskan Explorer — were delivering oil to Yeosu, South Korea, last month after being filled in Valdez. BP Alaska officials declined to comment on the exports; ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman wrote via email that the company recently sold a cargo of Alaska oil to customers in Asia, its first export of Alaska oil this year. Longtime Alaska petroleum economist Roger Marks surmised that traditionally low North Slope production during the summer months could be straining the ability of West Coast refineries to find adequate supplies, which could contribute to the price premium as well. Foreman noted there is rarely a single explicit answer as to why oil is traded or priced as it is, but he said South Korea is likely buying more Alaska oil because the country’s typical supplies of light crude from Iran and Russia have been choked. President Donald Trump re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran last November that restricted its ability to export oil after his administration chose to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal the Obama administration agreed to in 2015. South Korea was one of a handful of countries that the Trump administration granted waivers to, allowing buyers to keep purchasing Iran oil without repercussions until those waivers expired at the end of April. Additionally, about 36 million barrels of Russian oil were contaminated in spring by organic chloride, which curbed Russia’s oil exports and further limited South Korea’s options, Foreman said. “If you increase by 40 percent the amount of crude that South Korea wants, if you have existing supply channels (of Alaska North Slope crude) going into California, it’s going to have to compete against that and that would be the process of bidding the price up,” Foreman explained of the Alaska oil premium over Brent. “We’re talking about 2,000 to 3,000 barrels a day; this is not huge volumes but it is enough on the margins that it would be one source of a possible premium leading to higher prices on the margins.” Glover, of the Tax Division, said via email that China is also purchasing Alaska oil and added that slumping production from Venezuala and output cuts by OPEC members — aimed at increasing oil prices globally — have likely boosted demand for Alaska oil domestically as well. According to Glover, approximatley 40 percent of oil processed in California refineries was sourced from OPEC members in 2018. "The story just boils down to ANS crude being worth more to the U.S. west Coast and Asian refineries," she wrote. Foreman noted that Alaska oil has a similar “weight,” or gravity, to Iranian and Russian crudes, making it a viable substitute for South Korea refineries designed to handle oil from those areas. “ANS was obviously an attractive and available source for (South Korea) to want to take more year-over-year,” Foreman said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Court fight over King Cove road enters third round

The battle over a proposed emergency access road through the Izembek National Wildlife refuge is headed back to the federal court system for a third time. A consortium of Alaska and national conservation groups again sued Interior Department leadership Aug. 7 over a land exchange agreement signed with King Cove Corp. that would allow the completion of a road through currently wilderness-designated Izembek lands. The lawsuit comes less than five months after the same group won a nearly identical suit when U.S. District Court of Alaska Judge Sharon Gleason threw out a January 2018 land exchange signed by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Gleason concluded Zinke didn’t sufficiently justify his rationale for approving the land swap, which went against numerous prior agency decisions on the longstanding issue. Most notably, in 2013 then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell nixed a land swap between the federal government, the State of Alaska and King Cove Corp. approved by Congress in 2009 that would have cleared the way for a road through Izembek to link King Cove with the nearby village of Cold Bay and it’s all-weather airport. Jewell concluded — following a recommendation from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials — that the road would have unacceptable impacts on the refuge and the world-renowned gatherings of migratory birds that use Izembek’s habitat each year. The conservation groups also argued Zinke did not follow a process for disposing of Alaska conservation unit lands prescribed in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act when he made the deal. Opponents of the road largely insist building it would set a terrible precedent of development on land previously designated by Congress as wilderness, one of the highest land preservation classes available. “This deal violates the same laws as the first one and we’re prepared to continue to fight to protect this irreplaceable wilderness. This is another Trump administration public land giveaway that breaks multiple laws and dishonors the public processes that go into protecting the health of the lands, waters and wildlife of the National Refuge and Wilderness System,” said Trustees for Alaska attorney Bridget Psarianos, who signed the 42-page Aug. 7 complaint. Led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, advocates for the 11-mile segment that would complete an approximately 30-mile road, argue it would provide a safe and reliable way for residents of King Cove — a village shrouded by mountains with notoriously bad weather — to reach Cold Bay’s airport and its 10,100-foot runway. The Cold Bay airport was originally built as a military airfield in World War II and has occasionally been used by commercial jetliners needing to make emergency landings. This time, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt quietly signed a land swap deal with King Cove Corp. July 3 after company President Dean Gould sent a letter and draft agreement to him May 21. The land deal Bernhardt signed is strikingly similar to what Zinke approved less than a year-and-a-half prior but it does not cap the federal government’s land conveyance to 500 acres or explicitly prohibit the proposed gravel road from being used for commercial purposes. According to Bernhardt’s agreement, the land swap would be an equal-value trade not subject to acreage limitations. However, King Cove Corp. would agree to relinquish its rights to 5,430 acres of land it had selected within Izembek under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act but has yet to be conveyed. The Native village corporation would still have rights to other yet-to-be-conveyed selections outside of the refuge. Bernhardt also attached a 20-page memo to the latest agreement that details his rationale for the decision. In it, he asserts that there have been more than 70 medevacs out of King Cove to hospitals often in Anchorage or Seattle since Jewell made her decision in 2013 and 21 of those were conducted by the Coast Guard at a cost of roughly $50,000 per mission. Bernhardt also wrote that Jewell in 2014 committed that Interior would work to find alternative emergency transportation options, which spurred a 2015 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of a possible King Cove-Cold Bay ferry, King Cove airport upgrades and a helicopter shuttle, but to-date has not amounted to much more. That study concluded that a ferry and two terminals would be more than 99 percent reliable but would cost between $30 and $42 million to build, according to Bernhardt. The State of Alaska estimates the road would cost about $30 million to build. He added that since the report, Aleutians East Borough officials, strong advocates for the road, have said they don’t intend to develop a landing craft. The borough previously operated a federally funded hovercraft as a means of emergency transportation during bad weather to Cold Bay but cited high operating costs and reliability concerns when that operation was scrapped. Bernhardt also noted in the memo that the State of Alaska is instituting drastic cuts to funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System, although it’s unlikely the state would operate a King Cove-dedicated ferry. The Corps of Engineers determined expanding King Cove’s small airport or using a helicopter to be more expensive and less reliable options. Additionally, he wrote that the land exchange agreement is just that; any decision to build a road would be up to King Cove Corp., while state officials have expressed a willingness to fund the construction. “Secretary Jewell placed greater weight on protecting ‘the unique resources the Department administers for the entire Nation,’” Bernhardt’s memo concludes. “I choose to place greater weight on the welfare and well-being of the Alaska Native people who call King Cove home. I value the well-being of an entire community over the impacts derived from the change in ownership of these various parcels of property which are an incredibly small percentage of Alaska’s Wilderness. Although it is not a decision I take lightly, it is one that I believe best serves the public interest, my responsibilities and humanity.” The Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove sued Jewell in 2014 to get her decision to deny a land swap overturned. However, U.S. Alaska District Court Judge H. Russel Holland dismissed the lawsuit the following year, ostensibly ruling that although the tribe disagreed with Jewell, she made the decision within the bounds of applicable federal laws and regulations. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Dunleavy signs second, funded capital budget with vetoes

Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed the capital budget Thursday afternoon during a brief and somber ceremony at the Associated General Contractors of Alaska headquarters in Anchorage. The bill signing came on the heels of the news that state Sen. Chris Birch, R-Anchorage, had died unexpectedly late Wednesday. “Today is cause for celebration but it’s a tempered celebration with the loss of Sen. Chris Birch yesterday. It was a shock to all Alaskans. It was certainly a shock to us,” Dunleavy said. In signing the capital budget, Senate Bill 2002, the governor restored roughly $115 million of funding from various state accounts for programs such as Power Cost Equalization, which subsidizes high power costs for rural residents, the Alaska Performance Scholarship and the University of Washington medical school partnership Alaska participates in with other western states known as WWAMI. “Today’s action represents only one part of the equation — a properly funded capital budget that we see as significant progress for fulfilling our commitments to Alaskans, encouraging growth within our economy, and working together on moving forward,” Dunleavy said in prepared remarks. The funding for those programs and others had been moved into the state’s $1.9 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve fund on July 1, as required by law, but lawmakers initially failed to muster the votes needed to perform what has been dubbed the “reverse sweep” to pull the money back out of the budget reserve so it can fund the various programs. While the reverse sweep vote historically has been a noncontroversial technicality, accessing the Constitutional Budget Reserve, or CBR, requires a three-fourths supermajority affirmative vote from both the House and the Senate. House minority Republicans at the time refused to approve the reverse sweep until lawmakers passed a $3,000 per person Permanent Fund dividend. Dunleavy first signed the $1.2 billion capital budget July 8, but that version of the key spending bill was only partially funded because it largely relied on funding from the CBR and lawmakers in the 40-member House couldn’t muster the 30 votes needed to access it. The capital budget primarily funds infrastructure projects for the 2020 state fiscal year that began July 1. There was also much concern amongst legislators that further delay in passing a fully funded capital budget could cause the state to miss out on roughly $1 billion in federal funds for numerous programs that require a state match if it was not passed by the end of July. For example, $73 million in state matching funds in the 2020 budget unlocks approximately $750 million in federal transportation money for road construction and airport improvement projects across the state. However, Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office indicated to the Anchorage Daily News after discussions with federal officials that the capital budget was not as time-sensitive a matter as once thought. Still, the Senate approved the second iteration of the capital budget July 20 on a 19-0 vote and by the House July 29 on a 31-7 vote. Dunleavy did not sign the first capital budget without vetoes to the tune of $10.6 million and the second go-round was no different. The governor vetoed more than $34.7 million from part or all of 26 line items in the budget bill, including $5 million for the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.’s popular home weatherization program. Dunleavy also vetoed $10 million in statewide addiction treatment facility matching grant funding, cut $3.6 million from AHFC’s Homeless Assistance program and $70,000 for cameras in Soldotna Police patrol cars, among other spending reductions. Dunleavy vetoed $444 million from the state operating budget June 28, a move intended to provide more money for PFDs that also drew sharp criticism from across the state. On the vetoes, he said during the capital budget signing that a sudden decline in oil prices — from about $85 per barrel before last year’s election to less than $60 today — necessitated significant reductions. “Had (oil) held at $85 we’d probably be having a very different conversation in Alaska, at least for a while,” Dunleavy said. The majority of legislators have pushed for modifying the PFD formula instead of significantly cutting state services, while Dunleavy has long championed the current PFD and it’s that disagreement that has led to the current, prolonged fiscal debate. Anchorage Democrat and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich called the capital budget vetoes "truly antithetical" to the governor's priority to improve public safety in Alaska in a statement following the budget signing. "This was a bare-bones capital budget to bring in federal dollars and help alleviate some of Alaska's infrastructure needs and to keep Alaskans working. It was carefully crafted with the entire Legislature's input, which is why it passed with significant support — twice," Begich said. "I'm disappointed in Governor Dunleavy's acitons today, and they will only hurt our economy and make Alaskans less safe." Dunleavy stressed that his vetoes are not intended to harm Alaskans, as he said has been suggested. Rather, “What’s going to harm Alaskans is to pretend we have no budget deficit,” he said. Dunleavy did not take questions from reporters after making his comments. The $4.4 billion operating budget passed by the Legislature left the state with roughly a $600 million expected surplus at the time but did not appropriate funding for PFDs. Lawmakers officially sent House Bill to Dunleavy Wednesday to pay PFDs of approximately $1,600 per person and restore most of the funds he vetoed from the operating budget.  A statement issued Tuesday by Dunleavy’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow says the governor will “make a determination on a certain number of additions to the budget, but he largely considers a vast majority of the (fiscal year 2020) budget settled." It’s not known when or if he will sign HB 2001.   Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Data-driven minds descend on Anchorage

It's been hard to miss for anyone who spent time in Downtown Anchorage the past week, but others may not have noticed one of the premier computer science and artificial intelligence conferences in the world is in town. For the better part of five days a markedly young crowd of computer scientists and data analysts is streaming between presentations at the city’s Dena’ina and Egan event centers. The Association for Computing Machinery’s 25th Conference on Knowledge, Discovery and Data Mining has consumed virtually every square inch of both from Aug. 4-8. Conference co-chair Vipin Kumar acknowledged in an Aug. 6 interview that Anchorage is not a typical city to host discussions about high-technology innovation but also noted that the conference, known as KDD, was recently in Halifax, Nova Scotia, among meetings in Sydney, San Francisco and Beijing. His fellow co-chair Ankur Teredesai said it was a family trip to Alaska eight years ago — the first trip with his young daughter — that largely drove him to pitch for holding KDD here. As is often the case with first-time visitors, he was taken aback by the state’s natural features. Teredesai also noted that conference organizers wanted to move away from a solely business-driven agenda. “It was fascinating to me to see what would happen if 1,500 to 2,000 data scientists converged on this city and shared in that spirit of the importance of the environment and climate change,” he said. Kumar added that the computer and data science industry as a whole, not just the conference planners, has historically had a single commercial problem-solving focus that is just starting to change. “We thought Anchorage would be a really good place because — what’s a better way to get people to think about certain issues than to bring them to where they matter the most and you can see them the most?” said Kumar, who chairs the University of Minnesota Computer Science and Engineer Department. Anchorage’s Chief Innovation Officer Brendan Babb, the local KDD co-chair, said having individuals as influential in the data science industry as Kumar and Teredesai actively championing for Anchorage as a place to host the conference was an immense help. Still, Babb admitted to being “a little bit surprised and bewildered” when the choice was made nearly three years ago. “There’s some unique data to Alaska and its great to have some of the best minds in the world taking a look at it and sharing what they know. Everyone’s been incredibly generous and excited to be here. It’s been fantastic,” he said. Teredesai, a computer science professor at the University of Washington Tacoma and co-founder of the advanced health care analytics firm KenSci, also said the group received “tremendous support” from the folks at Visit Anchorage, who spend much of their time recruiting national and international trade shows and conferences to the city. Visit Anchorage spokesman Jack Bonney said the city is a practical place to hold an event with global participation, as Anchorage is within a nine-hour flight from the vast majority of the world’s population centers. “In the eye of a meeting planner we’re a very cost-conscious option,” Bonney said. According to Visit Anchorage, hosting the KDD conference will generate roughly $4 million in additional economic activity in the city. Babb said that city officials hope the exposure will encourage some KDD attendees to return north permanently. “We’d like to snag some as they visit here and have them relocate to Anchorage,” he remarked. Based on the response, he might be on to something. Kumar said KDD organizers generally expected to attract 1,500 to 2,000 attendees to Anchorage, but the actual response astounded them. “We had 3,200 people register and a couple hundred more knocking on the door asking, ‘can we get in?’” he said. Those 3,200 or so attendees came from 51 different countries, according to Babb. It’s believed to be the largest professional gathering the city has ever hosted. And while the North Slope oil fields or the fishing grounds of the Bering Sea seemingly share little with Silicon Valley, the men stressed that the research done in their industry is not only applicable, but essential, to the future of Alaska’s industries as well. Teredesai recalled that one of the first lessons in a primary textbook used by computer science graduate students, entitled, “Pattern Classification” could’ve been drafted on a fishing boat. “It’s quite fundamental and everybody uses it,” Teredesai said of the book. “If you open the first chapter the first example in that book to teach someone pattern recognition is actually to teach them to learn to classify the differences between a salmon and a sea bass.” More directly, there have been numerous presentations on the applicability of current data science in resource management; for example, how to use satellite imagery to combat illegal high seas fishing, Kumar said. The leaders of Alaska’s oil and gas industry have also long-discussed the need to advanced technology and data analysis to remain globally competitive in a traditionally high-cost operating regime. Teredesai noted further that the ability to process large amounts of data in highly compressed timeframes is paramount to the supply chain and logistics industry, which are important parts of the Alaska economy, whether it’s mobilizing for a remote construction project or part of the global cargo trade. Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the fifth-busiest air cargo hub on the planet. “The entire Amazon supply chain is driven by the algorithms that are published and reported in this conference,” Teredesai said. Kumar added, “If you’re in industry and you’re not paying attention to this area you are losing out to your competitors. You can’t afford to ignore this technology.” Babb continued that the work done at firms like Teredesai’s KenSci is helping reduce the cost of health care and improve the effectiveness of telemedicine delivery, which has major benefits for rural Alaska communities lacking access to large health care facilities. Teredesai also said he thinks the exposure KDD will give Anchorage and Alaska will encourage more activity, and possibly investment, in the data science realm here. That is, if the city and state make the proper investments as well. He called investing in higher education “a no brainer.” “I understand balancing priorities but it is in these type of hard times that we have to make sure that our longer term goals and visions have to be protected. So, making sure that places of innovation, places to access education like universities are funded at the appropriate level,” Teredesai said. “Even high schools and elementary schools — taking money away from education and putting it to something else may solve the short-term problem but it creates more problems in the long run.” ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Preliminary finding would allow oil exploration near Bering River

A small Nikiski-based company is close to getting exclusive oil and gas exploration rights to a large swath of state land at the edge of the Gulf of Alaska. Acting Division of Oil and Gas Director Jim Beckham signed a preliminary finding Aug. 2 that, if finalized, would give Cassandra Energy Corp. sole rights to exploring 65,773 acres at the mouth of the Bering River. The area of mostly tidelands and near shore state waters is adjacent to the Copper River Delta State Critical Habitat Area to the west. Much of the surrounding area is Chugach National Forest land. The Division of Oil and Gas issues broad exploration licenses to encourage companies to hunt for commercially viable hydrocarbons in areas outside of the state’s traditional North Slope and Cook Inlet basins. The 256-page draft decision would give Cassandra Energy exploration rights to the acreage for 10 years and includes a $1 million work commitment, a contingency established by Beckham based on work proposed by the company, it states. The division is soliciting public comments on the preliminary exploration license through Oct. 4. Division of Oil and Gas officials said Cassandra Energy leaders have outlined a general work plan to them but declined to relay that information out of commercial concerns. The company has not submitted formal exploration or operational plans to the state. The exploration license could eventually be transformed into more formal state oil and gas leases. Cassandra Energy initially planned to explore the nearby onshore historic Katalla oil field near the Bering River in the early 2000s by drilling from Chugach Alaska Corp. holdings inside the Chugach National Forest. The plan sparked a lawsuit over the U.S. Forest Service’s evaluation of Cassandra’s proposal, according to news reports at the time. Oil has been produced from areas near the exploration acreage in the past. According to the license finding, 44 wells were drilled in the Katalla field and surrounding areas in the early 1900s and approximately 154,000 barrels of oil were ultimately produced. A small refinery built in 1911 supplied fuel to the Kennecott mine located about 150 miles to the north. The refinery burned in 1933 and was never rebuilt, according to the license. The area is also known to have occurrences of coal. Division officials expect the area’s bedrock — fractured and disrupted by many large earthquakes — could make oil and gas recovery difficult. “Although there is no evidence of a viable conventional petroleum system, it is likely that the unconventional shale play still holds technically recoverable oil and gas resources,” the license states. Representatives for Cassandra Energy could not be reached in time for this story. The company first submitted an exploration license application for the area in April 2015. While adjudication of exploration license applications requires multiple rounds of public comment and subsequent evaluation, the process usually doesn’t take more than four years, which is how long it has taken to reach the preliminary decision for Cassandra Energy’s application. In this case, the Division of Oil and Gas was more deliberate in its evaluation of the proposal because of the ecological and economic importance of the nearby Copper River Delta, division officials said. The commercial fishery that occurs there each spring and summer is the first major salmon harvest in the state each year and in turn generates a very high per-pound value for the prized Copper River chinook and sockeye salmon taken. This year, Copper River District fishermen harvested more than 1.2 million sockeye salmon and nearly 18,000 chinook. The Copper River also supports a large upriver personal use salmon fishery. According to comments from the fishing group Cordova District Fishermen United summarized in the preliminary finding, Cordova ranks 14th among U.S. fishing ports in terms of landed value and volume, with much of that harvest coming from the Copper and Bering River areas. Then-Cordova District Fishermen Executive Director Alexis Cooper wrote during a 2015 comment period on the application that the group opposes oil and gas exploration in the area until technological advances in the industry eliminate a substantial risk to renewable resources in the region. Department of Natural Resources officials responded in written comments included in the preliminary finding that they understand the importance of the region’s commercial fisheries and therefore the license prohibits surface activity in the Copper River Delta State Critical Habitat Area, among other measures. Other Cordova residents and area conservation and fishing groups opposed an oil and gas exploration license for the western Gulf of Alaska, repeatedly citing the need to protect the region’s fisheries and other marine life. Several noted that Prince William Sound is still recovering from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. DNR officials responded, in part, that, “Spill response techniques and technology have improved since the time of the Exxon Valdez spill and other agencies including (the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation) are responsible for review of spill prevention and response plans for any proposed activity associated with this exploration license.” Requirements in the draft license for mitigating environmental impacts from oil and gas activity prohibit facilities within 500 feet of fish-bearing waters and limit development within a half-mile of several rivers in the area. The license would also restrict offshore drilling to onshore directional drilling unless an environmentally preferable location is found. It also states that the Division of Oil and Gas would approve many development proposals would only after consulting with other resource agencies, such as Environmental Conservation and Fish and Game. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

AEDC outlook darkens over gridlock, spending cuts

Prolonged indecision in Juneau is stifling economic recovery in Anchorage, according to the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. CEO Bill Popp recalled that at the start of the year AEDC officials thought the city’s economy would finally be pulling out of what has been a three-plus year recession by midsummer; however, the data indicates that’s not the case, he said at the group’s three-year economic forecast presentation July 31. According to figures compiled by AEDC, Anchorage’s economy — which usually reflects what’s happening statewide — has lost roughly 100 jobs in the first half of 2019. Popp acknowledged the number is on the edge of the margin of error, but said other indicators support the belief that the economy has again turned for the worse. “We should’ve been in positive territory at this point by about a few hundred jobs, but we’ve seen the start of a significant decline that’s got us very, very concerned,” Popp said. While the long-struggling construction industry has added roughly 600 jobs in the first half of 2019, Popp attributed most of the growth to repairs from the November 2018 earthquake and much of that work will fade after next year, he said. The historically strong health care sector added just 100 jobs so far this year, the slowest growth in about 15 years and likely a response to cuts to the state’s Medicaid funding, according to Popp. On a positive note, companies in the professional and business services sector — engineering, architectural, financial, law firms and the like — are finally slowing their job reductions. The sector lost about 200 jobs in 2018 after shedding about 3,000 jobs since late 2014. According to AEDC, early data for this year shows the losses are continuing at a reduced rate. “To reach a point where they’re flattening out, that is great news for a sector that provides great jobs for our economy,” Popp said of professional and business services. “Hopefully, we will see this flat turn into growth with new investment in the oil patch and federal military spending in our state.” AEDC leaders have and other economists have previously said the recession that cost Anchorage more than 5,000 jobs and nearly 12,000 statewide started when North Slope oil companies responded to the oil price crash of late 2014 by cutting their labor force about a year later. But it was extended and deepened by the inability of state lawmakers to agree on a long-term fix for the state’s budget deficits that exceeded $3 billion annually in recent years, they contend. Popp said economic optimism generated a year ago by rebounding oil prices and the Legislature’s move to approve a long-debated annual endowment-style draw from the Permanent Fund to provide a new, steady source of revenue for government services has mostly evaporated in a new political climate. “We are on the precipice of taking a three-and-a-half-year recession that is now fully fledged as a policy-driven recession and we are talking about extending it another three years, maybe more, because this does not take into account potential cuts in next year’s budget cycle that have been talked about,” he said, noting the conclusions also assume the Legislature ultimately doesn’t override Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s $444 million of vetoes to the state operating budget. Dunleavy has repeatedly said the roughly $650 million in budget cuts this year — his vetoes combined with about $200 million in reductions passed by the Legislature — get the state roughly halfway towards closing its ongoing deficit while paying Permanent Fund dividends and via the traditional formula and he hopes to enact further cuts next year. The final tally indicates Anchorage lost about 900 jobs last year and AEDC expects the city will shed another 700 this year and about 1,000 next year as the budget cuts take full effect. Another 200 job losses could be seen in 2021 as the negative trend flattens, according to Popp. If AEDC’s forecast is correct, Anchorage would end up losing nearly 8,000 jobs, or about 5 percent off the city’s 2013 employment peak of 156,100 jobs. University of Alaska Anchorage economist Mouhcine Guettabi estimated in early July that the state budget cuts would cost Alaska’s economy as a whole more than 4,000 jobs over the coming years. Economist Ed King, who worked in the Dunleavy administration for a brief time, wrote July 10 that he believes the Alaska will add approximately 800 jobs over the coming year primarily due to growth in the oil and gas sector from new, large North Slope projects. If AEDC’s forecast proves true, the Anchorage economy would regress to 2007 job levels over the next three years. Dunleavy has stressed a belief that cutting government spending will spur growth in the private sector and paying larger PFDs will inject money into the Alaska economy as well. The “full,” statutorily calculated 2019 PFD of approximately $3,000 per person would transfer $1.9 billion from the Permanent Fund to Alaska residents. However, economists, including King, have said they cannot find a significant link between the size of the PFD and job growth in the state. Popp said the PFD provides a short-term boost to the retail sector each fall, but little more, a sentiment shared by UAA’s Guettabi. “The PFD has had little or no appreciable effect in terms of major employment bumps in our community,” he said. “From our view that proposition (of the PFD supporting job growth) is a canard; it is a false premise.” AEDC’s predicts the job losses will coincide with continued population loss for Alaska’s largest city as those searching for new job opportunities continue to migrate to the Lower 48. Popp said the long-term trend of Anchorageites seeking more affordable housing options in the Mat-Su Borough is starting to slow, but the city has experienced a net loss of approximately 4,000 residents to the Lower 48 each of the past five years. “We’ve got a pretty good sense that a substantial portion of that 20,000 is adult, working-age individuals. It’s a brain-drain for our city; it’s an absolute brain-drain,” he said. Births have largely offset the outmigration, leading to less population decline. The belief that many working-age adults are leaving Anchorage is supported by the fact that the city’s unemployment rate has stayed fairly steady in the 5 percent range throughout the recession. Those in need of jobs are often moving south rather than applying for unemployment benefits and looking for work locally. Further, many employers still cite a lack of qualified workers as an impediment to growth despite the mediocre to poor economic conditions, according to Popp. “We are not competing effectively to retain the workforce that we have or to attract the workforce that we need to fill the jobs that we need for our community,” he said. Overall, Anchorage’s population is likely to shrink back to less than 293,000 residents before in 2021 after peaking at more than 301,000 in 2013, according to AEDC. If the projection proves true, it would take the city back to a population level not seen since 2010. In addition to the hard numbers, Popp said AEDC leaders are also very concerned about consumer confidence in the Anchorage economy, given it is service-driven and therefore very sensitive to consumer spending. The group’s second quarter 2019 consumer optimism survey conducted by Alaska Survey Research in conjunction with Northern Economics indicates a sharp decline in residents’ confidence in the Anchorage economy, with respondents most concerned about the future as opposed to the immediate situation. “We’re now in what we believe is the ‘we’re not sure territory’ of 45-55 (on a scale of 0-100) but the trending is definitely towards the negative,” Popp said of consumer economic confidence, which is now measured at 53 compared to 59.3 a year ago. The “future expectations” response dipped to 49.3, a drop of more than 8 points compared to 57.7 in the third quarter of 2018. The turn towards the negative comes just a year after a near-term peak in the third quarter of last year when oil prices were higher and the state had just approved the structured use of Permanent Fund income to support government services, an action that drastically reduced the budget deficit. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Anchorage Assembly approves $42M contract for first new port dock

The Anchorage Assembly has approved funding to start a total rebuild to the docks at the city’s beleaguered port a decade after construction problems halted prior efforts to upgrade the essential infrastructure. An 8-3 Assembly vote at a July 30 special meeting allows city officials to award a $42.1 million contract to Seattle-based Pacific Pile and Marine to build the first phase of a new, roughly $220 million petroleum and cement terminal at the city-owned Port of Alaska. The Assembly had delayed the vote twice before at its regular bi-weekly meetings on the hope officials in Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration could reach an agreement over the work with a consortium of eight Port of Alaska customers, who object to the plan, primarily because of its cost. The port user group is comprised of the general cargo shippers Tote Maritime and Matson Inc.; five fuel supplier and distribution companies; and Alaska Basic Industries, which is a primary cement distributor in the state. Representatives of the user companies have stressed at numerous Assembly committee meetings and work sessions over the past few months that city and port officials do not have a plan to finance the rest of the petroleum and cement terminal, or PCT, and cannot explain how the cost of the project went from $38 million in 2014 to more than $200 million today. Millions of dollars have already been spent on preconstruction dredging in front of the docks and other soil stabilization work. They have urged the city to stop work to advance the port modernization project and reexamine the whole scope of the project to replace all of the five cargo and fuel terminals at the port, which is now estimated to cost $1.9 billion, a price tag no one sees as viable. A significant portion of the $1.9 billion cost is for removing what’s left over from the original port expansion project, which stopped in 2010 after large sections of sheet piling meant to support the new docks were found to have been damaged during installation. Anchorage Municipal Manager Bill Falsey acknowledged during the July 30 meeting that the city is still about $100 million short of finishing the PCT, but said the city’s plan “is to responsibly make incremental progress” on port work while ways to bring down the cost of the rest of the dock replacement are examined. Falsey also noted the PCT needs to be built first, as it’s location south of the existing facilities will open up space for work on the rest of the docks while vessels continue to call on the port. He has long insisted that city officials recognize the $1.9 billion plan is wholly unaffordable, even though the PCT is the first part of that plan. However, ongoing examinations of the badly corroded steel piles that support the current docks — many of which are more than 50 years old — continue to reveal damage from the November 2018 earthquake, adding to the urgency of the matter, according to port officials. Their experts contend the port has less than 10 years before some of the docks will have to be de-rated for weight capacity or closed altogether if they are not rebuilt. The $42.1 million contract to build a PCT trestle and dock platform next year “begins to put petroleum and cement deliveries back on reliable footing,” Falsey said. Dave Karp, a senior vice president with Tote Maritime’s parent company Saltchuk, said before the vote that the user group and city officials met multiple times over the past week but were unable to reach a compromise path forward. He emphasized the users do not want to obstruct progress on rebuilding the port as they agree the work needs to be done; they just don’t believe it is so pressing that it needs to happen before a comprehensive look at the project costs is complete. “Do we really want to risk history repeating itself?” Karp asked Assembly members, in reference to the failed port expansion project that cost roughly $300 million and produced little viable infrastructure. Consultants hired by the Assembly to review the project for cost saving measures have said alignment between the city and the users will be critical to move the project forward successfully. Falsey said the city will “wring out the big costs from the rest of the project while making incremental progress” on the PCT. The users have suggested repairing one of the existing petroleum terminals but the viability of that is unclear at this point. Adding to the pressure, Pacific Pile and Marine representatives have said the contract needs to be approved by Aug. 1 in order to ensure the massive steel pilings can be ordered and fabricated in time for the 2020 construction season and to get the best price. Assemblyman John Weddleton, who voted against the contract, said it’s difficult to stop a major project once it is started and questioned when the current Assembly members — none of whom were a part of the body at the time — would’ve stopped the failed expansion project. “I don’t want to get stuck with something else we don’t need,” Weddleton said. “I’m ready to pause. I’m going to say, ‘let’s look.’” Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel said the city needs to move forward with the PCT, contending the debate over it has served as a catalyst to bring the city and users to the table for important discussions about the rest of the project despite the disagreement over how and when to move forward. “I understand there’s debate but I’m convinced there’s critical need for this infrastructure,” she said. The Assembly also approved the formation of a formal five-member port working group to facilitate better communication between the city, users, and the Assembly on major port reconstruction decisions. The group will have two members nominated by the users and approved by the Assembly, two city officials and one Assembly-selected member, likely the Assembly’s consultant hired earlier this year to examine the overall scope of the port work for cost savings. Assemblyman Fred Dyson, who voted against awarding the contract, said he doesn’t expect major savings will result from the meetings, but he commended the users and the city for making good-faith efforts to reach a compromise. Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy was the third “no” vote. Karp reiterated after the vote that the users will continue to work with the city on ways to improve the final port project. Falsey also emphasized again that the administration is open to hearing from anyone who can help produce a better, less costly, port modernization plan.

Alaska Air Group rebounds to solid second quarter profit

Alaska Air Group Inc. executives said the company is returning to its core business principles following a strong second quarter that netted the company a $262 million profit. Seattle-based Alaska Air Group Inc. operates Alaska Airlines and regional carrier Horizon Air. Air Group leaders have long stressed fundamental business principles to achieve an investment-grade balance sheet with modest debt levels; ideals that led the company to seven consecutive years of record profits earlier this decade. The streak of profitability provided Alaska Airlines the financial wherewithal to purchase Virgin America, one of its primary West Coast competitors, in an April 2016 deal that cost the company roughly $4 billion. The complexities of merging two large airlines have since eaten into company profits, but the airline is poised to return to its strong moneymaking ways, CEO Brad Tilden said in a July 25 conference call with investors. “We are well set up to move towards our targeted annual growth and our targeted pretax margin of 13 to 15 percent over the business cycle,” Tilden said. “Our results for the first half of the year make us optimistic for the rest of 2019 and beyond.” Company officials generally said their focus in 2019 is on managing costs — which was done better than expected in the first half of the year — and the coming years will be about beginning to realize the benefits of the larger network the Virgin America acquisition can provide. Alaska Air Group produced a profit of just $4 million in the first quarter, but executives blamed the relatively small profit on unusually bad winter weather in the Pacific Northwest. The $262 million in second quarter earnings was a 26 percent improvement over its $193 million profit for the same period in 2018. The $262 million profit also translated into a net of $2.11 per share. Alaska Air Group stock closed trading July 25 at $63.83 per share. The company paid a dividend of 35 cents per share in the second quarter and repurchased approximately $25 million worth of shares in the first half of 2019, according to the quarterly report. “We set a plan to return $220 million to shareholders this year and we’ll hit it,” Chief Financial Officer Brandon Pedersen said during the earnings call. The $262 million profit was on the back of nearly $2.3 billion in operating revenue, which correlates to 6 percent year-over-year growth. Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Harrison said that the second quarter revenue growth of was the best year-over-year per unit improvement the company has seen in seven years. Pedersen noted the company also enjoyed its second consecutive year-over-year improvement in quarterly margins. “It’s evidence that our plan to improve revenues is working,” Pedersen said. Air Group ended the quarter holding more than $1.6 billion in cash and short-term investments. The company, which holds nearly $13 billion in assets, generated cash flow from operations totaling roughly $1.1 billion during the first half of the year. After $330 million in capital expenditures, Air Group was left with $735 million in free cash flow, which Pedersen said was nearly $400 million more than 2018 year-to-date. The extra available cash is the result of a calculated decision last year to reduce capital investments in order to have more money on-hand, he said. In Alaska, the company completed a new $50 million hangar at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport last November. The Anchorage maintenance facility was the largest of numerous new construction and renovation projects Alaska Airlines began across the state in 2016. It also spent $30 million to remodel and expand several of the terminals it owns at rural Alaska airports it serves. The airline also participated in several terminal upgrade projects at some of its West Coast hubs, such as Los Angeles International Airport, in recent years. The airline also finished launching three new cargo aircraft dedicated to serving the state of Alaska last year. Additionally, Pedersen said Air Group has repaid about $280 million in debt this year and is trying to refinance some of its outstanding obligations to fixed-rate debt to take advantage of currently low borrowing costs. He noted the company has repaid $1.2 billion of the roughly $2 billion it borrowed to purchase Virgin America and is on pace to reduce its debt balance by about $350 million this year. Including aircraft leases, Alaska Air Group’s debt-to-capitalization ratio currently sits at about 45 percent and is on track to be 42 percent by the end of the year. The company should return to its 40 percent debt-to-cap target next year, according to Pedersen. “A fortress balance sheet has been the hallmark of this company for many years and we’re moving quickly back to that position,” he said. On the operations side, Pedersen said Horizon Air’s productivity — measured as passengers per full-time equivalent employees — improved 3.3 percent in the second quarter and the regional carrier’s passenger traffic increases 17.4 percent on a 15.3 percent increase in capacity, according to the quarterly report. Chief Operating Officer Ben Minicucci added that Horizon, which for years had dealt with on-time performance issues related to an industry-wide pilot shortage, according to company leaders, is now among the top-performing regional carrier in the country. “I want to give a shout out to the people of Horizon for a complete turnaround in their performance over the past couple of years,” he said. During the quarter Alaska Airlines also reached a two-year contract extension with its mechanics represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which allows Alaska mechanics to work on all of the airline’s mainline aircraft, according to Tilden. Alaska Airlines historically flew Boeing 737 aircraft exclusively, while Virgin America operated Airbus planes. Alaska also reached a tentative five-year agreement with its roughly 5,200 office, passenger service and ramp employees represented by the International Association of Machinists, which Tilden said he hopes will be ratified by the union in the coming weeks. Alaska does not have any of the currently grounded Boeing 737 MAX series aircraft. The airline was scheduled to take three 737 MAX planes later this year, but those deliveries will likely be cut to one MAX this year, according to Pedersen, with two more coming early in 2020. The new labor deals will add about $50 million in wage and benefit costs annually, and about $40 million in the second half of this year due to $24 million in signing bonuses that will be paid in the third quarter, according to executives. Pedersen said even with the new labor costs the company expects to keep its cost growth at about 2 percent per unit for the year, excluding fuel, which is in line with earlier projections. “We’re delivering industry-leading performance and our customer service is award winning,” Pedersen said. “On the financial side we have revenue and cost momentum and our balance sheet is strong. If we continue to execute our plan we’ll be in the top quartile of the industry for profit margins, balance sheet and free cash flow generation.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

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