Bering Sea halibut bycatch cuts critical for conservation

This time of year I split my days between my computer and the harbor, trying not to bring too much of the bait smell back to the office with me. Herring oil or not, it’s been my great fortune to find work in my hometown that allows me to always be talking about, writing about or looking for fish. I’ll be on the grounds this time next week, hauling in Pacific halibut, finding rhythm again for another season on the water. I’ll also be considering what’s coming up after I return to homeport — the June convening of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Sitka. There the Council will take final action on the proposed reduction of halibut bycatch caps in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, or BSAI, region. This decision point comes after a decade of steady stock decline, during which time the directed halibut fishery quota in the BSAI has dropped by 63 percent. Halibut fishermen in the hardest hit region — the Central Bering Sea — are facing closure if meaningful change doesn’t come out of the June meeting. Their crisis point has arrived. In the meantime, halibut bycatch caps in the BSAI stand the same as they were set during peak abundance decades ago. In 2014, BSAI groundfish fisheries caught and discarded seven times more halibut (number of fish) than the directed fishery landed. In a state that celebrates its commitment to sustainable fisheries, we have created through inaction an epic inequity in the Bering Sea, allowing a management system that prioritizes bycatch over directed fisheries. But it’s more than that. There are some that would tell you that a reduction of bycatch in favor of returning quota to the directed fishery is solely an allocation decision. While in some ways it is — under well-defined legal and ethical standards that say one fishery should not carry on unchanged at the cost of another collapsing — it is also a serious conservation issue.  At an average weight of just under 5 pounds, the vast majority of the 1 million halibut caught as bycatch in the BSAI last year were juvenile fish. Tagging studies conducted by the International Pacific Halibut Commission show that 70 percent to 90 percent of juvenile halibut can and do migrate out of the BSAI to all other areas of the North Pacific. So when we talk about halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea, we’re talking about high volume removals of a stock that supplies every halibut fishery from Nome to California. We’re talking about a reduction in numbers and essential genetic biodiversity. This is a conservation issue. A 5-pound halibut is well under the size that commercial halibut fishermen are allowed to keep. Regardless of the harvester, higher yield is achieved by harvesting larger fish. At the current rate and average size of bycatch, fishing pressure in the BSAI is diminishing juvenile cohorts before the stock is able to grow into collective maturity — an essential standard for sustainable fishing practices. This scenario shows us that we cannot directly compare the harvest impact of halibut bycatch and directed halibut harvest. They are harvesting from different populations, and one is removing significantly more animals from the ecosystem than the other. This is a conservation issue. Finally, the entire situation of a declining halibut stock is a conservation issue. Our regulations have simply failed to require halibut bycatch harvesters to participate in it. The Bering Sea halibut fleet has done everything but sell their boats in an effort to conserve the halibut stock. It’s time that other groups share the burden of that conservation. As someone who makes her living off the ocean, I know what I’m asking for, and it’s significant. A 50 percent cut in bycatch will mean change for the groundfish fleet in the BSAI. Not impossible change, not crippling change, but it will mean change. However, the alternative is the demise of one fishery, and the continued risk of coast-wide stock health. While I respect the voluntary reductions in bycatch the groundfish fleet has achieved, a meaningful regulatory conservation effort is long overdue. Please advocate for a meaningful reduction of halibut bycatch caps in the Bering Sea. Email comments to [email protected] The deadline to comment is 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 26. Hannah Heimbuch is a commercial halibut and salmon fisherman, and a Community Fisheries Organizer for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. She lives in Homer.

Legislature votes for factions over fish

The mantra “Fish come first” has been exposed as nothing more than a fish tale. Gov. Bill Walker’s second crack at a Board of Fisheries nominee was defeated April 19 in the Legislature by a 30-29 vote when Robert Ruffner of Soldotna became the latest trophy — though likely not the last — mounted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. Just as it did two years ago to oust board member Vince Webster by an identical 30-29 vote, KRSA engaged in a heavy-handed lobbying effort of distortions and character assassination, this time against a candidate who has devoted his professional career to conservation as the executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum. While KRSA claims “Fish come first” in its slick propaganda to mask its true purpose as a guided fishing lobbying group, Ruffner has actually lived that motto. By engaging in a campaign to smear a man who does the work KRSA claims to believe in, the group revealed itself as representing a faction first — not the fish. For an organization that downplays the linkages between its members and the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance trying to ban setnets in Cook Inlet via a ballot initiative, the guilt by association aspect of its attacks on Ruffner was particularly brazen. Because they had nothing to pin on Ruffner himself, KRSA cherry-picked the most controversial board proposals from anyone who supported Ruffner as if their own membership isn’t advocating for the most radical change in Cook Inlet by banning a gear group that has coexisted with sustainable salmon runs for more than a century. Then there was the laughable claim that Ruffner should be rejected because he doesn’t live in Anchorage. What a pile of fish guts. In its letter to legislators, KRSA argued that Ruffner would be less accessible to residents of Anchorage because he lives in Soldotna. It’s funny  they didn’t have that concern when the last board chairman spent half of every year living in Arizona more than 3,600 miles away from Anchorage and only came back to the state in the winter for board meetings. Nor should anybody believe KRSA would have made the residency argument about Anchorage had Walker nominated Joe Sportfishing Guide from Kenai for the seat. This residency argument against Ruffner — beyond the sheer hypocrisy of it given KRSA’s unequivocal past support for having a snowbird serve as chairman of the board — is ridiculous on its face. If Anchorage and Valley residents who enjoy dipnetting or angling on the Kenai River want to enjoy sustainable salmon harvests now and in the future, it is difficult to think of a better person to have on the board than someone who has dedicated his life to preserving the health of that river. Ultimately, Ruffner’s work to preserve and protect the Kenai River habitat from human impacts is what really scared KRSA. Commercial fishermen have long argued that in-river impacts must be considered to ensure sustainable salmon runs, and the last thing KRSA wanted on the board was someone who wouldn’t blithely dismiss such concerns about protecting spawning grounds and tearing up river banks with outboard motors. The KRSA and Mat-Su narrative is that commercial fishermen are to blame for anybody who strikes out with a dipnet or a pole and to hell with anyone who doesn’t toe that line no matter how many piscis pretzels they have to make out of twisting the truth. In the end, though, KRSA is just an advocacy group and the real blame lies with the legislators who bought into its cynical campaign that counts on a bipartisan group of bumblesticks to go along with it every time. Walker shouldn’t cave to the special interests or these selfish and short-sighted legislators in his next pick for the board, but who, after watching what has happened to the likes of good people like Webster and Ruffner, would subject themselves to such unfair attacks if they don’t fall into lackey lockstep with KRSA? The board process is broken, and what just happened to Ruffner is a perfect example why. Until the Legislature stops putting factions over fish it won’t be fixed anytime soon. Andrew Jensen can be reached at a[email protected]

Short-term cuts may cause long-term damage

In what are well-intentioned efforts to do everything possible to narrow a $4-billion budget gap, the appropriators in the Alaska Legislature may end up doing more harm than good. There is simply no way to cut a way out of this deficit, which should have put the emphasis from the jump on structural reforms rather than nickel-and-dime reductions in the budget. So far, the only such attempts are the effort to reform Medicaid from its unsustainable path and an operating budget that rejects 2.5 percent pay raises for unionized state employees in the next fiscal year. Union officials may be grumbling about this, and Gov. Bill Walker expressed his concern over it to the Associated Press, but a pay freeze for state workers is hardly an unwarranted action, and is one they should still prefer over outright job cuts. Other than that, the Legislature has spent time on sideshows such as daylight savings time and resolutions to demand all federal land be transferred to the state along with budget cuts that add up to little more than a duck passing gas in the wind. The cuts won’t solve anything, but like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings they threaten to cause damaging ripple effects. Consider the proposed $11 million in cuts to the state ferry system. That amounts to to 0.27 percent of the deficit. The effect of the cut, however, could displace more than 9,000 people who have already purchased tickets for travel this summer. More than two-thirds of them are tourists, which is the third-largest industry in Alaska. Is it worth saving $11 million to cause this much disruption to ferry customers and tour operators who rely on the system? The potential for souring people on their trip to Alaska, displacing state residents who have booked travel, creating a picture of unreliability for the ferry system and sticking tour operators with the problem is hardly worth the savings. Then there is Walker’s elimination of $5 million in funding for the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative, a multi-year effort to better understand the iconic state fish upon which an eons-old subsistence lifestyle is based and whose health — or lack of it — impacts every sector of the commercial and sport fishing industries. Given the stakes of achieving sustained and strong king salmon runs, refusing to fund this vital research is not a better outcome for the state compared to the good it can accomplish. Similarly, the slashing of the funding for Alaska Public Media from $5 million to $2.5 million to zero is also pointless and will disproportionately impact rural Alaskans who don’t have as many information sources. Walker’s decision to cut $8 million in funding for the Ambler Road environmental impact statement and ordering a halt to all work on the project also achieves nothing while setting back a vital long-term effort to open up a resource-rich area that will create hundreds if not thousands of well-paying jobs and help lower the cost of living in the area. The real pineapple on this upside-down cake of ill-conceived and ineffective cuts, though, is the effort to screw around with the Interior Energy Project by stripping $45 million in previously appropriated funds for the effort. While the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority explores the possibility of sourcing gas from Cook Inlet in an attempt to achieve the goal of first gas to Fairbanks by the end of 2016, Rep. Mike Hawker of Anchorage is throwing up amendments that will ensure it won’t happen. Interior stakeholders are right to compare the expense for the IEP to the cost of tax credits totaling $700 million in the last several years to subsidize the Cook Inlet gas resurgence. That’s more than a fair point; it is a convincing argument. Interior residents don’t deserve another year without a plan to lower their energy costs and improve air quality. Times like these are why we have savings accounts. It’s also the time when we need our legislators and governor to step up to the plate and deliver. As the session nears its close, we’ve seen a lot of small ball instead of home runs. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Administration must hear from Alaskans about energy future

Much to our misfortune, the administration has once again shown how a faraway federal bureaucracy can do and will do what it wants, when it wants — with zero input from those who will be affected most. Earlier this year, the federal government made a series of controversial proclamations regarding Alaska and its surrounding Arctic region that sent political shockwaves throughout the state and the country. First, President Obama announced that he would continue to block energy production in millions of acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska’s best onshore energy prospect, then made significant areas of the U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits to energy exploration as well. Together, the decisions snatched away tens of thousands of would-be jobs and billions in expected revenue, all without first conferring with those who would be most affected by these decisions — Alaskan consumers themselves. Fortunately, Alaskans finally got a chance to speak out earlier this month at a pep-rally-like press conference hosted by Consumer Energy Alliance-Alaska which was attended by several representatives from an assortment of industry and consumer advocate groups, like the Alaska Trucking Association The turnout was extraordinary. Dozens of consumers, as well as labor and business leaders, packed the event to express their support for more offshore Alaskan energy production, some holding up signs that read “OCS YES!” We hope the administration will see, feel, and hear what we saw, heard, and felt that day, the fears and uncertainties Alaskans have about their future, their children’s future, and their grandchildren’s future thanks to an administration that continues to hurt Alaska’s bread-and-butter industry — energy. “I got two little grandsons and I’m looking at them, hoping that when they’re old enough to get into the workforce that OCS is going to be cranking along and that we’re going to be having jobs to put them to work, to earn money, to raise their families,” Alaska AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami said at the press conference. The gathering was held moments before the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management held an open house about its proposed 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil & Gas Leasing Program — a plan that is “woefully inadequate” as currently drafted, said former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Here’s why: The Alaska Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) has about 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Development of these resources would create 54,000 jobs and $193 billion in federal revenue. These resources could help get Alaska out of its multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, help power millions of American homes, and help extend the longevity of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), an energy artery for the lower 48 states that continues to face a declining throughput. “TAPS, which is operating at one-fourth capacity, is the economic lifeblood of Alaska’s economy and a critical link to the nation’s long-term energy security,” Rick Rogers, executive director of the Resource Development Council of Alaska, said. As such, Alaskans of all political affiliations continue to urge the feds to allow the safe and responsible exploration and production of the massive amounts of natural resources that pepper the Alaskan and Arctic regions, but impediments to development persist. The DOI’s leasing plan is the latest hurdle. While the proposal includes three sales off Alaska — one in the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Cook Inlet, it also restricts leasing in certain areas. Moreover, it remains uncertain if even those three lease sales would proceed in the future. This is not the plan we need to guarantee that Alaska remains a significant component of the expanding American energy equation, which has made worldwide, geopolitical headlines in recent years for its top-ranked oil and natural gas production. Instead, we need a strategy that utilizes every resource we have available to us, regardless of where it is, to guarantee greater energy self-sufficiency. Alaska, ANWR, and its encircling Arctic regions are included. There is a lot riding on sustaining and expanding Alaskan energy production – the pocketbooks of consumers, the balance sheets of businesses and governments, and the job security of millions. Now it’s up to us to preserve that economic lifeline by letting the administration know how we feel about their defective strategy. David Holt is the president of Consumer Energy Alliance and Aves Thompson is the executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association.

Rules over reality, and clouding Sunshine Week

A couple weeks ago, the House Majority offered a high-minded defense against an accusation by Gov. Bill Walker that it was working for someone other than Alaskans by trying to limit his expansion plans for a state-led gas pipeline. On March 2 in House Speaker Mike Chenault’s office, sponsors of legislation to prioritize the Alaska LNG Project over Walker’s new plan to create a competing project went one-by-one around the room emphasizing that they work for their 17,000 or so constituents in addition to all Alaskans. That respect for working for constituents came to an abrupt end just two weeks later when the same Majority caucus booted Eagle River Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold for the crime of voting against their operating budget. Reinbold believes cuts to the operating budget didn’t go far enough and said she was frustrated to see spending that was cut in subcommittees being reinserted into the final budget. The horror. In response, the caucus stripped Reinbold of key committee assignments, including as co-chair of the Joint Armed Services Committee. By punishing Reinbold for voting according to the wishes of her constituents — who include the heart of Alaska’s military population — the caucus is now also punishing them and looking petty in the process. Rules are rules, Chenault said, apparently unaware of the contradiction between what his members said about working for their constituents first on March 2 and punishing one who did just that two weeks later. In healthy budget times, perhaps some defense could be offered for a rule that demands caucus unity over personal differences, but we are hardly living in normal budget times facing $7 billion in deficits over the current and next fiscal years. It is the picture of tone deafness to put caucus rules over reality when the dispute revolves around the best way to get Alaska’s budget situation under control. While it is true that Alaska cannot cut its way out of a $3.5 billion hole this year or next, it is also true that the ever-swelling operating budget has been flagged as an issue to be addressed long before the bottom fell out of oil prices in the last eight months. Just a couple years ago, it was well-known that prices would eventually have to maintain levels of $120 per barrel or more just to balance the budget, and that was when prices were consistently hovering around the $100 mark instead of closer to $40 where they are now. The fact is, any simple, one-time cuts in the operating budget are insufficient to fix the unsustainable path we’re on. It is long past time to start figuring out ways to bend the cost curve down on the drivers of the operating budget, and perhaps Sen. Pete Kelly’s effort to reform Medicaid will be able to do that. It is surely not the time for Walker to jeopardize the state’s best hope for new revenue through commercializing North Slope gas just to fulfill his decades-old dream of being the guy who delivered a gasline to Alaskans. Nor is it the time to put a caucus rule over convictions. Hard choices must eventually be made, and kicking out a member who appears ready to make them only weakens the caucus rather than strengthening it.   Casting shadows during Sunshine Week Gov. Bill Walker ran on a platform of transparency, so an action by his communications office March 16 that came during the celebration of the Freedom of Information Act known as “Sunshine Week” was doubly ironic. Our reporter DJ Summers heard there had been a letter sent from a federal agency to Walker regarding upcoming North Pacific Fishery Management Council nominations. We asked Katie Moritz from our sister paper the Juneau Empire to stop by his office to get a copy. Moritz was told by Ty Keltner, the communications coordinator for Walker’s office, that there was a letter from the U.S. Commerce Department that had been received on Feb. 3. The only catch was that Summers would have to file a public records request if he wanted to see it. Summers dutifully filed the request March 16 at 4 p.m. We eventually got a response from Walker’s public records specialist Angela Hull that it had been received as we neared press deadline on March 18. In the meantime, however, we had already gone ahead and asked the ever-helpful Julie Speegle at the Alaska Region of National Marine Fisheries Service on March 17 if she could get us a copy from the Commerce Department. Less than a day later, Speegle had connected us with the Maryland headquarters and we had a copy of the letter signed Jan. 28 without any help from Walker’s administration. And, we’ll add, without having to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request. Turns out the letter Keltner withheld from a simple inquiry was essentially a form letter from NMFS outlining the process for nominating candidates and a deadline for when materials had to be received. A big nothingburger that contained little we didn’t already know about the nomination process. Having time to respond, search and retrieve a large amount of records is a reasonable provision in the Alaska Public Records Act. However, what the governor’s communications office pulled by withholding an innocuous letter they acknowledged existed and when it was received hardly lives up to Walker’s claimed commitment to transparency. The only thing transparent about this action is how trifling it was. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]  

GUEST COMMENTARY: Remembering Stevens in renewing namesake fisheries act

Almost 40 years ago, without regard for the conservation of our fisheries or the needs of the Alaskan people, foreign fishing fleets dominated the waters off Alaska’s shores and took anything and everything in their reach. Ask anyone familiar with the times, deck lights of foreign vessels — dozens if not more — could be seen just miles off the coast of Kodiak and other coastal communities. Recognizing the need for change, countless Alaskan fishermen came to Congress to ask for help in pushing the foreign fleets out. Sen. Ted Stevens and I knew that Alaska’s and America’s interests needed protection and we immediately began working to spearhead common sense fisheries reforms through Congress. Reforms weren’t easy, but partnerships and friendships were formed — with Representatives and Senators across state and party lines – to convince our colleagues it was the right thing to do. After years of work, the foundation of our domestic fishing fleet was born, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, or MSA. Along with the creation of the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone that pushed foreign fleets further from our shores, the MSA “Americanized” our fisheries and created wealth and certainty for our State and fishermen. Alaska is now home to the strongest, most sustainable fisheries in the world. All across the North Pacific, from Dutch Harbor to Ketchikan, our fishermen and coastal communities have thrived under the policies developed in the MSA. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska’s seafood industry now contributes nearly 80,000 jobs to our local economies; is home to 11 of the nation’s top 20 most valuable commercial fishing ports; and harvests more than 60 percent of the nation’s seafood. As Alaska’s fisheries continue to flourish, with healthy communities and jobs at sea and on shore, there ultimately comes a time when our laws — even those that are working well — must be reviewed and updated. Just as our fishermen and fisheries must adjust to new dynamic challenges, our laws must also be reviewed to keep pace with changes in our industry and ensure they are being implemented as intended by Congress. After more than two years of reviewing the MSA, I have been asked by the House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to once again put my fisheries experience to work by leading the charge on reauthorizing this important legislation. In an effort to ensure a proper balance between the biological needs of our fish stocks and the economic needs of our fishermen and coastal communities, I have introduced legislation with a number of regional cosponsors to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. H.R. 1335, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, provides a number of modest but necessary reforms, including efforts to: provide fisheries managers with increased flexibility and transparency; allow for improved data collection through the use of electronic monitoring; increase accountability for our federal agencies; and create predictability and certainty for coastal communities that depend on stable fishing. In many ways, the MSA continues to support Alaska fishermen and protect our fishery resource as envisioned. But as I’ve learned in Congress, our laws are not written in stone and we must constantly review them, listen to our constituents and make changes when necessary. As we move forward on this important legislation and take up separate efforts to address Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing by foreign vessels, I look forward to once again hearing from the countless Alaskans and Americans who helped us develop these positive reforms. While I will miss teaming up with Senator Stevens again during this process, as we did for the first time in 1976 and for the last time in 2006, I will remember him fondly as we work to update the law bearing his name.

Walker is shocked to find politics going on in Juneau

There was a lot of Louis Renault going around Juneau last week. The Casablanca police captain unforgettably pronounced himself shocked — shocked! — to find out gambling was going on in Rick Blaine’s club. Renault’s supposed ignorance of the routine business in Blaine’s club is of course belied a moment later when an employee hands him a stack of cash: “Your winnings, sir.” “Oh, thank you very much,” Renault says as he pockets the money, “now everybody out!” On March 2, Gov. Bill Walker took his turn as Renault first, proclaiming himself shocked the House leadership introduced a bill to prioritize the ongoing Alaska LNG Project over Walker’s nebulous plan announced Feb. 18 to create a competing project by upsizing the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline. A couple hours later, it was Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who declared he was shocked that the impulsive new governor would fly off the handle in the manner he did at a hastily called press conference by insulting the bill sponsors, declaring House Bill 132 unconstitutional and vowing a veto. While the House sponsors no doubt expected a reaction from Walker, whose administration has not been forthcoming with the details of his new plan, it is possible they were surprised he would dispense with any modicum of decorum by calling their bill “un-Alaskan” and asserting they were working for someone besides their constituents. In Walker’s case, the more disturbing conclusion than a feigned ignorance of politics going on in Juneau is that of a willful ignorance. Did he really think the Legislature and its leadership that spent years crafting the structure of the Alaska LNG Project was going to roll over as he blew it up? Does he not realize that anything he wants — whether it is Medicaid expansion or funding for his new gas plan — will require that he work with legislators rather than vilify them? He can line item veto, but he can’t line item appropriate. It is probably also worth noting here that the legislation creating the Alaska LNG Project passed by veto-proof majorities in both houses. In their press conference following Walker, the House members including Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, were calm yet firm in their reaction to Walker’s personal attacks and easily defended the merits of the bill they’d just introduced. Walker, in contrast, was full of emotional bluster, disjointedly jumping from metaphor to metaphor about buying cars and leasing commercial office space, grasping at hearsay from a meeting with ExxonMobil to paint the House leaders as the only ones opposed to his idea to create a competing project to AK LNG. Repeatedly pressed by reporters about why he believes it is better to align with customers who want the lowest price possible than to align with the producers who not only have the gas but want the best price possible, Walker had no good answers. Instead, he kept going back to an example of a commercial office building that requires tenants signed up to lease space to finance construction That is all well and good, but the problem with Walker’s example is that he’s trying to finance a project and line up tenants when he doesn’t own the lot where he wants to build, or, in this case, the gas. Walker needs the suppliers of the gas — aka the big three producers — to be on board with any plan or he has nothing to market to customers. There is no way he can attempt to market 2 billion cubic feet of gas per day of which the state currently has no access. Going back to his real estate example, given that he doesn’t own the lot where he wants to build, Walker’s plan appears to be to seize it through eminent domain. If he really intends to invoke the “duty to produce” concept, North Slope gas will be tied up in court for decades. That would be a moot outcome, though, as the state will go bankrupt long before such a case is resolved. What is becoming clear is that Walker did not level with the Alaska voters during his campaign when he said he would continue the Alaska LNG Project as conceived and in fact always intended to chart his own course even if his haphazard style of governance alienates legislators and throws uncertainty at markets that were finally starting to take a North Slope gas project seriously. Not even Captain Renault could fake shock at this outcome. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Board needed a shakeup, but aftershocks are coming

Alaska had a record number of earthquakes in 2014, but this year could set a new one if Gov. Bill Walker keeps it up. After openly picking a fight with the Legislature and the supporters of the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline project by dismissing three Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board members, Walker has stepped on another fault line: Cook Inlet fisheries. While Alaskans are generally united on fisheries issues such as trawl bycatch or the Pebble mine, nothing sets state residents against each other with greater bitterness than the perennial fights among sport and commercial salmon users in Cook Inlet. Whether it is Kenai guides against East Side setnetters or Mat-Su Valley anglers and legislators against drift boats or “Joe Fisherman” against both sport guides and commercial users, the term “fish wars” coined to describe Cook Inlet management fights is not much of an overstatement. The long history of Cook Inlet controversies led to Walker’s latest dramatic move after the Board of Fisheries chaired by Karl Johnstone unanimously refused to deem United Cook Inlet Drift Association Executive Director Roland Maw qualified to interview for the job of Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner. While there can be no doubt that Maw has not only advocated for his membership but also sharply criticized board actions, there can also be no doubt that he was qualified to be interviewed for the job. The Board of Fisheries made a mockery of a public process and the law when it refused, without comment, to interview him and put on the record what are the well-known concerns about placing an advocate such as Maw — or any advocate for that matter — into the commissioner post. Not only did Walker quickly inform Johnstone that he wouldn’t be nominated for a third term on the board, but when Johnstone resigned Walker tapped Maw to replace him. The move is stunning, and not just for the Hollywood plot twist. Maw is a far stronger commercial fishing advocate than any of the other members of the board who come from the industry, and replacing Johnstone with Maw reverses the balance of power on the seven-member board. The sport fish majority led by Johnstone instituted radical changes to Cook Inlet fisheries at its 2011 and 2014 meetings. After the 2011 meeting, Johnstone said that the allocative decisions made in some cases were worth “millions of dollars.” UCIDA has twice filed lawsuits in federal court challenging Alaska management of Cook Inlet salmon, the most recent in 2013 after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council formally ceded that control to the state in 2012. Relations are also strained between UCIDA and the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission because the Northern District sport users successfully pushed for new restrictions on drifters at the 2014 board meeting. Since then, the group has used state grant money to hire a consultant that commercial fishermen allege is biased against them. That sparked the most recent volley between the two user groups as UCIDA refused to attend a January workshop of the Mat-Su Commission. Walker doesn’t have to look far into the recent past to see how nasty the Cook Inlet fish wars can be over board nominations and he should expect one over Maw given the makeup of the board and that his term will include the next Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2017. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, mounted a vicious lobbying campaign in 2013 against former member Vince Webster, a setnetter from Bristol Bay, and succeeded in defeating his nomination by a 30-29 vote — the only one of then-Gov. Sean Parnell’s 88 nominations who was not confirmed. That was when Webster wasn’t even a member of the majority, having lost the chairmanship to Johnstone in 2011. Think of what KRSA will do at the prospect of Maw shepherding the votes on the Board of Fisheries. The board needed a shakeup to be sure, but Walker should also be prepared for the aftershocks that are coming.

The new Congress brings new hope, new clout for Alaska

For the first time in eight years, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. While our eight-vote majority in the Senate is not enough to unilaterally overcome filibusters or presidential vetoes, it is enough to restore regular order and actual debate on important issues. The changes we are bringing to the Senate — including longer work weeks and an open amendment process — will create opportunities for bipartisan coalitions to promote policies that strengthen Alaska and our nation. In this new Senate, Alaska will hold the gavels of both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. The combination of these powerful positions provides a singular opportunity for us to pursue policies that protect and strengthen Alaska’s rightful role as an American energy powerhouse. These new positions are critical for creating a bright future for our families. We now hold the gavels of the panels with both policy and spending authority over the federal agencies that control more than 60 percent of the public lands in our state. I will continue to be a tireless advocate for Alaskans — on a life-saving road for King Cove, increased access to our federal lands, offshore oil production, monetizing our natural gas resources, the responsible development of the Arctic coastal plain, and more — except now, federal officials will have no choice but to listen. Alaska’s natural resources are vital to our prosperity. That is why it’s in our interest to make our energy supplies as abundant, affordable, clean, diverse, and secure as possible. The best way to achieve these goals is to lead by example and encourage inclusive debate in both the committee and subcommittee. Bipartisanship and the flexibility to create solutions where perhaps none existed before are important, and I stand ready to work with federal agencies to create opportunities in Alaska. But that collaborative spirit ends when President Obama’s policies restrict access or stifle Alaskans. The greatest single issue of concern for many Alaskans is the high cost of energy. The good news is that we now have a unique opportunity to revisit our energy policies. Congress has not passed comprehensive energy legislation since 2007. Much has changed in the intervening years. It’s time to reimagine our energy policies and ensure that Alaska once again has a prominent role — as a source of supply for our nation, and a testbed for promising new technologies. As chairman I will pursue an aggressive energy and public lands agenda that promotes Alaska’s economic independence and self-reliance, all while respecting our environment. Implementing policies of abundance will help us finally access our rich resources. That includes the NPR-A — which has become a petroleum reserve in name only under President Obama — the waters of the outer continental shelf, the forests of Southeast, and many other areas where access has been prohibited. Promoting abundance is just the first step to making energy affordable. We must also look to energy efficiency to reduce costs for families and communities. From Kotzebue to Metlakatla and from Bethel to Eagle, improved energy efficiency for public buildings and homes offers a real opportunity to reduce energy bills. Voluntary programs rather than more government regulation is key to success. We must look for ways to continue building on the investments the Denali Commission and State of Alaska have made in energy for our communities and our people. Sadly, too many in Washington see policy as a pathway to protect Alaska from the people that live there. This attitude is especially visible in the current state of Arctic policy, where studies rather than investment is driving the agenda. With the United States taking over the Arctic Council this year, we must use our new leadership role to promote policies that respect the wishes of the Alaskans who call the Arctic home — and allow them to build lasting economies and create opportunities for their children. Low oil prices are creating a level of uncertainty about state revenues and some may want to look to Washington, D.C., for short-term answers, but lasting solutions will not come from another federal program. Instead they will come from policies that provide new access, facilitate new production, and finally achieve economic independence. With a restored Senate and key chairmanships, Alaska is well served in the 114th Congress. We should all be excited by the opportunities ahead. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is Alaska’s senior senator and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. She has been a member of the Energy Committee since 2002.

Conservation isn't the goal of the anti-setnetter initiative

As you’re out shopping this holiday season, someone wielding a clipboard might approach you and ask if you want to save king salmon. Don’t be fooled. The petition being peddled by professional signature collectors throughout the state won’t save Alaska’s iconic king salmon. In fact, it will hurt our great salmon runs and result in smaller harvests for everyone except a small group of Kenai River sportfishing guides, lodges and private landowners. The goal of this petition is to put a misleading initiative in front of Alaska voters that, if passed, would end setnet fishing in Cook Inlet, put hundreds of Alaska families out of work, destroy one of the Kenai Peninsula’s biggest economic drivers and, most important, weaken the salmon runs on which Cook Inlet’s commercial, sport and personal-use fishermen depend. Initiative sponsors claim conservation as their goal but this initiative isn’t about saving fish, it’s about putting more king salmon in the river for the sport fishery to catch. That’s not conservation. It’s greed. This selfish effort to ban setnets hits home for me: My wife is my business partner; my two teenage children are members of our commercial fishing crew. Our business, our income, our investment in boats, motors, equipment, land, shore leases and gear would all be rendered valueless because a small group of well-financed, dishonest people want all the fish. It has taken the joy out of fishing and replaced it with fear for the future of this valuable, rich and colorful fishery. In 2013, the average king harvested in the East Side Setnet fishery, or ESSN, was very small; more than 75 percent weighed about 10 pounds or less. These three- and four-year-old kings are not valued by the sport fishery, which targets and retains only large kings. That same year, the ESSN fishery harvested 2,988 king salmon. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s genetic stock identification studies, approximately 2,300 of these were Kenai River late-run king salmon. Only 715 were large kings the sport fishery desires. Based on data from 1986-2011, the Kenai River sport fishery harvests about 22 percent of the total annual king run. If the ESSN fishery had been eliminated and those additional 715 large kings had entered the Kenai River, only about 157 fish would have been caught by sport-fishermen. So this initiative would kill an entire industry and put thousands out of work to provide sport-fishermen the opportunity to catch an additional 157 king salmon. Because of a poor king run in 2013, the ESSN fishery was open under a very restrictive fishing schedule. Even so, the fishery generated an ex-vessel value of more than $9 million with its sockeye salmon catch alone. At the same time, the late king run made its escapement goal as it has every year since biologists have tracked it. According to an analysis of Alaska’s commercial seafood industry conducted by the Alaska-based McDowell Group, sockeye taken in Cook Inlet setnet fisheries generate a big impact in Alaska because the expenditure per fish is relatively high, and more are sold into local markets. McDowell says a conservative multiplier of 4 to 4.5 must be applied to that ex-vessel value to realize its true impact. That means the $9 million ESSN harvest brought roughly $40 million to the local economy. Had a setnet ban been in place, Alaska’s economy would have been deprived of these millions of dollars and thousands of fishing jobs. In order to offset the loss of the ESSN fishery, those additional 157 kings would have to generate more than $250,000 each, if caught in the in-river fishery. What is likely to happen if the inlet is managed solely for the guided sportfishing industry? Just look at the health of the Kenai River’s early king run for your answer. This run is fished solely by the sport fishery, and has been for decades. Unfortunately, it is in dire straits, having missed its escapement goals several times over the last two decades, most recently in 2013. Recent weir data shows that the majority of the run now consists of small, male fish. That comes as no surprise, either, as sport fishermen have continually selectively fished for the large, trophy kings, foregoing the smaller jacks. Size is a heritable trait in king salmon, and the removal of generation after generation of the large fish by the guided sport fishery has had a detrimental impact on Kenai River early-run king salmon both in run strength and individual fish size. The ESSN fishery, with nets designed to catch sockeye weighing four- to 10-pounds, also catch kings of the same size, giving the big Kenai kings that make it to the spawning grounds a greater impact on the population’s gene pool. This anti-setnet initiative has nothing to do with truth or conservation. It’s simply a smoke screen to hide the negative impact of the guided sport fishery on the health and well being of Kenai River king salmon. Andy Hall is an East Side setnetter, a lifelong Alaskan and president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association.

Research shows freshwater problem with Mat-Su salmon

The Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership, representing 55 organizations that share an interest in sustaining salmon in the Mat-Su, hosted a conference in November. During the two days of the 2014 Mat-Su Salmon Science & Conservation Symposium, speaker after speaker gave detailed descriptions of recent and on-going projects that are providing baseline data and documenting the scope of impaired salmon habitat in the Mat-Su basin. There were several presentations on aquatic invasive species. Elodea, a highly invasive plant species, was recently discovered in Alexander Lake, transported there by floatplane. This infestation, if not eliminated, could rapidly spread throughout Alexander Lake and creek system and further, providing excellent habitat for the other invasive specie, Northern Pike. In the 1990s Alexander Creek supported a multi-million dollar king salmon sport fishery that included numerous lodges, cabin and boat rentals and fishing guide operations. In 2008, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed king fishing in Alexander Creek and later documented its decline and closure as entirely due to pike predation on juvenile salmonids. In recent years ADFG has eliminated thousands of pike from the Alexander system but it will take years of continued mitigation before the salmon runs can recover. The spread of invasive elodea throughout the lake, creek and side sloughs will hinder ongoing efforts to rehabilitate this system. Shell Lake is another fascinating story. In 2006 Shell Lake had nearly 70,000 sockeye salmon return to spawn, by 2012 the salmon run had nearly collapsed due to pike predation and disease. The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association took eggs from the remaining salmon, incubated and reared them at their Trail Lakes Hatchery. About 80,000 smolts from this hatch were released back into Shell Lake in 2014. Only about 20,000 of these smolts made it out of the lake and downstream towards the ocean, the other 60,000 smolt were consumed by the Northern Pike in the lake within a few weeks. ADFG has been documenting the pike infestation in the Mat-Su basin since the mid-1990s. Numerous studies and reports have indentified the devastating consequences to the salmon populations, it is estimated that at least 50 percent of the salmon production in this watershed has been eliminated by Northern Pike. All species are affected and species that spend the most time in freshwater — sockeye, kings and cohos — are the most vulnerable to pike predation. At the symposium we heard references to the work being done to replace culverts that block salmon passage. At this time there are still over 400 culverts that impede the migration of salmon and need to be replaced in the Mat-Su basin. While there were no actual reports on the progress made, we know that it will take years of effort and millions of dollars to restore passage to the more than 600 miles of documented spawning and rearing habitat that have been made inaccessible to salmon due to improperly constructed culverts. Pollution, high water temperature and turbidity can all affect water quality and ultimately affect the successful spawning and rearing of salmon. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation gave a brief presentation about impaired waters. Big Lake, Cottonwood Creek, Deshka River, Little Su, Lake Lucille, Matanuska River and others are all impaired at some level from hydrocarbons (gas and oil), sewage, urban runoff, herbicides, fertilizers and dump debris. Off-road-vehicle and ATV traffic damage to salmon streams was presented as a long-term challenge. Baseline mapping of ATV stream crossings has begun. Most of the crossings evaluated were ranked as “extremely degraded”. We learned that ORV/ATV traffic in the watershed is unregulated and increasing. One of the keynote speakers at the Symposium gave a powerful presentation on the efforts to conserve and restore Atlantic salmon on the east coast and how partnering and collaboration among all stakeholder groups is essential for any conservation effort. This message resonated loudly and was endorsed by most of those attending. The Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership mission statement also echoes this message of collaboration. Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence of impaired salmon habitat, in spite of all the ADFG reports that identify declining salmon production in the Mat-Su basin as a freshwater problem, there are still a few people with such a myopic point of view that they are unwilling to accept these scientific realities. In a desperate and divisive attempt to blame someone else for their own problems, the Mat-Su Borough is proposing to waste the bulk of their recent state grant by hiring Outside consultants to invent new research projects about salmon movements in saltwater. Rather than killing pike, eliminating elodea, replacing more culverts, or reducing pollution sources, they want to fund projects that fit their agenda to perpetuate the salmon allocation wars. Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend increasingly scarce state funds on local projects with already identified solutions that will benefit our salmon resources, rather than waste money on high priced fishery consultants from Oregon? Erik Huebsch is a lifelong Alaska commercial fisherman who lives in Kasilof.

Change, opportunity in Alaska Communications' new focus

I once heard it said, “if you’re not moving forward, then you’re falling behind.” Those words aptly describe the motivations behind Alaska Communications’ decision, announced just last week, to move its business in an exciting new direction. After a long and proud history of serving Alaskans, Alaska Communications revealed Dec. 4 that it will focus on expanding its already successful broadband services and will discontinue providing wireless services. As an Alaskan, a customer and a member of the Alaska Communications board of directors, I believe this decision not only will boost the company’s future growth, but also provide customers with the highest quality broadband Internet services in Alaska. The company, recognizing the need to shift its focus and move forward, signed an agreement to sell its shared wireless network and wireless phone subscribers to GCI in a transaction that will close in 60 to 90 days. The sale will enable Alaska Communications to reinvest in its business, to further improve technology and service and provide more value to its customers. The company will become even stronger for the long-term. As the former president and CEO of one of Alaska’s largest businesses, I know firsthand how business enterprises need their service providers to deliver reliable, consistent service. By bringing focus specifically on the company’s broadband services, Alaska Communications will have the resources to bring faster, more reliable, unlimited internet to Alaska’s businesses and homes across the state — while continuing to grow its business offerings at an industry-leading pace. In this way, we will do our part to help Alaska’s businesses succeed. Already, Alaska Communications’ strength in broadband and its related IT-managed services has attracted major customers such as the State of Alaska, Providence Hospital, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and the Anchorage School District. I am no stranger to the need to lead business transitions and to shift focus. By definition, transitions involve change, and change can necessitate making difficult, even courageous, decisions. At Alaska Communications, we are fully committed to helping our employees — those who will no longer work for us and those who will help forge our new direction. We have made sure that people and resources are readily available to assist any member of our company through this transition. Our company has always valued its employees and will continue to promote a vibrant workplace in years to come. For Alaska Communications, Alaska truly is the most important place on earth. Our Alaskan roots are deep — with a history of being in business in Alaska for more than 100 years. Our employees understand the unique needs of Alaskan business and they work hard to earn their trust every day. Our commitment to providing first-rate customer care will not change. We are — and will remain — Alaskans serving Alaskans. Being Alaskan means being able to adapt. And in the fast-paced and ever-changing telecommunications industry to adapt is the only way to not fall behind. By leaving the wireless business, we emerge as a stronger, better and more profitable company. At Alaska Communications, we will build on our successful track record and move forward with focus and determination — strong and ready to seize new opportunities before us. Margie Brown is an Alaska Communications board member and the former president and CEO of CIRI.

Bristol Bay, Bering Sea need protection from oil drilling

There is no match to Alaska’s diverse and productive fisheries. From Southeast to the Bering Sea, we produce half of the U.S. domestic seafood. Fisheries management might be complex but the result is simple: healthy fisheries equal more jobs than any other private sector enterprise in the state and a tax base that supports Alaska’s coastal economy and communities.  Our responsibility is to take good care of the habitat that makes this abundance all possible so that future generations of Alaskan fishermen have an opportunity like we have had. Bristol Bay and the southeast waters of the Bering Sea is one place where choices should be clear. This region accounts for the greatest magnitude and wealth of Alaska’s fisheries. Not only are the rivers and lakes of Bristol Bay host to 50 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon, the marine waters support other valuable fisheries. Here is one of the most important halibut nursery grounds, contributing to the halibut population throughout both the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. What happens here arguably affects halibut fishermen everywhere. The prized red king crab grow to maturity in Bristol Bay and Alaska’s large groundfish fisheries, including pollock and cod, are located nearby. Herring arrive in the early spring, turning on a spectacle of marine life and supporting the significant roe, food and bait fisheries. There is a decision pending at the EPA about whether or not the super-sized Pebble mine can go forward in the Bristol Bay watershed. In this past November election, an impressive 75 percent of the voters agreed to raise the bar on approving future large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. There should be no question of the statewide concern about protecting the Bristol Bay salmon fishery from large-scale mining. Another decision is needed that will put to rest the question of opening the marine waters of Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea to offshore oil and gas drilling. Although promises can be made about more jobs and economic diversity, we have to ask at what risk? Not all economic activity is compatible with the long-term interests of the successful renewable industry we already have. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates the region’s oil and gas resources to be worth $7.7 billion over a 25- to 40-year period. The fisheries could produce $50 billion to $80 billion over that same time. The geology represents one of the lowest reserves around the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf. High risk but low return does not sound like a sound business plan for sustaining our fisheries or meeting our energy demand. In 1995, the U.S. Department of the Interior bought back leases from the oil companies that they had purchased in the 1980s because of ongoing and unresolved concerns that Bristol Bay is meant for fisheries, not offshore drilling. But since then the government has attempted to re-open the same area that had been bought back. We need a reliable decision to protect Bristol Bay now and for the future. This is the time to remove Bristol Bay and southeast Bering Sea from the federal oil and gas leasing program for good. It makes no sense to come back to the same question every five years when the Department of the Interior puts a new leasing schedule together. Presidents and administrations come and go, so it is our job to generate a lasting solution. As fishermen, we’re out there to catch fish and provide quality natural food for the nation — but the truly magnificent phenomenon of millions of sockeye surging to the rivers is a humbling observation every season. We need to provide permanent protection for Bristol Bay fisheries resources from economic displacement — like the Pebble mine and offshore oil and gas drilling — that jeopardizes the nation’s most valuable fisheries.  Please join us in support of a permanent withdrawal of Bristol Bay from the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. Longstanding Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishermen, Stosh Anderson lives in Kodiak, Alaska and Robert Heyano is a life-long resident of Bristol Bay.

Judge puts brakes on the EPA

In a remarkable twist to the decade-long saga over the Pebble mine, a federal judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to halt its work on the effort to preemptively veto the project before any plans have been submitted. It is a ruling that should be cheered by everyone in the resource development community — in Alaska and around the nation — as the beleaguered company carries on its legal challenges against the EPA’s attempt to establish precedential powers under the Clean Water Act that will no doubt eventually go beyond Pebble and chill investment across the country. The heart of this case — and why Judge H. Russel Holland’s ruling is significant — is the routine behind-the-scenes collaboration between government agencies such as the EPA and anti-development interest groups to fix the outcome of decisions. The Freedom of Information Act responses obtained by the Pebble Limited Partnership and relied upon by Holland in issuing his injunction Nov. 24 reveal an EPA process that dates back to at least 2008 when Phillip North of Region 10 began laying out a roadmap for how to stop the project. One of the major arguments the EPA has advanced over the years since it announced in 2011 it would conduct an assessment of mining impacts in the Bristol Bay watershed is that the agency was compelled to undertake the process because it had been asked to by Alaska Native groups in the region. However, the emails by and among EPA officials and anti-Pebble groups reveal that the idea for having Native groups ask for the assessment originated because the agency knew it could not independently begin the process without a permit application and so the plan was hatched to have stakeholders in the region make the request. What is abundantly clear from the emails and records obtained by Pebble is that the EPA was never committed to an unbiased evaluation of mining in the region and in fact was seeking evidence to support its predetermined outcome. Reaching a conclusion before conducting the research is in fact the opposite of science, and the anti-Pebble groups and EPA officials who state the Bristol Bay assessment is a scientific document should rethink that claim. It has been written in this space that Pebble may very well be the wrong mine in the wrong place, and without discussing the merits of the project it is apparent that the overzealous and potentially unlawful effort to preemptively stop the mine may very well end up doing more harm than good to its opponents. If Holland eventually rules in Pebble’s favor and against the EPA, the entire multi-year assessment process and millions of taxpayer dollars will have been wasted leaving the leaders of that effort with no one but themselves to blame. When a judge issues an injunction, the key pillar of the decision is whether the party seeking it is likely to prevail on the merits of the underlying claim. Holland’s issuance of an injunction against the EPA reveals that he believes this to be case. It is also important to note that the same Judge Holland in September dismissed another case brought by Pebble against the EPA challenging the Bristol Bay assessment as not ripe for consideration. Holland’s decisions reaching opposite outcomes in the two Pebble cases reveal he is considering each case on the merits according to the law, which is the sort of unbiased demeanor that federal agencies such as the EPA are also obligated to bring to bear on issues such as Pebble. His injunction against the EPA and its process for producing the Bristol Bay assessment is a sign that the agency failed to meet that neutral obligation and may finally be held to account for it. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Obama makes a sucker's deal with China

There is a simple way to tell if the deal on carbon emissions between the United States and China announced Nov. 12 is good for them and bad for us: the Chinese agreed to it. Unlike our “citizen of the world” president, China always acts in its best national interests while Barack Obama has made it his practice for six years to lower American standing and influence around the world. On its face the deal is a joke. China agreed to begin lowering its emissions — in 2030. At the same time, Obama agreed to cut U.S. emissions by as much as 28 percent before 2025. What that means is that China’s growth in emissions — and it is already the world leader at 25 percent of carbon emissions compared to America’s 15 percent — between now and 2030 will entirely offset any cuts made in the U.S. and then some. That makes the whole agreement pointless and entirely detrimental to the American economy in return for exactly nothing in terms of reduced carbon emissions. Brilliant! It is discouraging to see the American president pushed around so easily by the world’s dictators in China and Russia, who flaunted their new close ties throughout Obama’s visit and put a lie to the idea that Vladimir Putin has in any remote way been isolated as a consequence of his invasion of Ukraine that has led to thousands killed and his military’s role in the downing of a commercial airliner that killed 298 people. China’s state-run media ridiculed Obama in advance of his visit, and during the visit the Chinese unveiled their new stealth jet fighter based on technology they stole from the United States via hacks into military subcontractors. Meanwhile the Chinese military continues an unrelenting series of cyberattacks on everything from the Post Office to the White House. The Chinese are squashing dissent in Hong Kong and flexing muscles against their neighbors in the South China Sea where they are stirring up conflicts with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Throw in their role as the escape route for NSA leaker Edward Snowden as he made his way to safe haven in Russia and it is clear that Obama is neither feared nor even respected by the likes of Xi and Putin. And how does Obama respond to the repeated Chinese provocations, which when targeted at our military are direct threats to our national security? He chomps gum and talks unironically about “taking our relationship to the next level.” If only Xi and Putin were Republicans, or maybe the prime minister of Israel. Then Obama would have no trouble playing hardball. Unfortunately in his permanent state of belief that America is no more than just one of 200 or so nations around the world, he only appears comfortable when he is directing the force of his office and his bully pulpit against his domestic political rivals rather than America’s foreign adversaries. As much as Obama refuses to come to terms with the Nov. 4 election results, the American people are putting the brakes on his administration and when the new Republican-led Senate takes over in January one of the first orders of business should be to kill this sucker’s deal. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Turnout doesn't measure up to options on the ballot

I usually don’t buy into post-election hand-wringing over voter turnout for a simple reason: If you don’t care enough to vote then I really don’t want you having a hand in the outcome anyway. That said, however, the extremely low turnout for the 2014 general election is mystifying. After 100 percent of the precincts were counted by the wee hours of Nov. 5 and a lonely correspondent from CNN had the vacated Egan Center all to himself at 7 a.m. Eastern time blearily reporting on the Alaska results, only 44.8 percent of the state’s nearly 510,000 registered voters had cast a ballot. Even adding in the 20,000 or so outstanding absentees and questioned ballots only gets turnout to a bit less than 49 percent. Leading up to Tuesday, I’d mentioned more than once at my local watering hole — where talking politics is allowed — that given the smorgasbord of issues and diverse candidates on the ballot that it should be the highest turnout in Alaska history (of course that was before I looked up the numbers, which I’ll discuss below). After all, if you couldn’t find something on this year’s ballot that could get you out to the polls then I can’t imagine another set of choices that could. There was a governor’s race that suddenly became competitive in the last two months of the year through an unprecedented and opportunistic combination of a Republican and a Democrat ticket with Bill Walker and Byron Mallott. That alone was enough to change a yawner of a race into a nail-biter, but throw in the central issue of the emerging Alaska LNG Project between Walker and Gov. Sean Parnell and there was far more than a just four-year term on the line. While the governor’s race featured a contest between two Republicans, there was a U.S. Senate race featuring the highest spending ever in the state that offered as clear a choice as can be imagined. The stakes were no less than the control of the upper body of Congress, the demotion of Majority Leader Harry Reid and the ascendency of Sen. Lisa Murkowski to the most powerful position for Alaska since the late Sen. Ted Stevens chaired Appropriations. Even our eternal congressman Don Young made his challenge from Forrest Dunbar interesting with his increasingly rough and reckless pronouncements that were possibly once endearing but now are more than a little wearisome. Throw in not one, but three statewide ballot measures alternately known as “pot, pay and Pebble” or “weed, wages and watersheds” plus the hotly debated Anchorage labor union ordinance repeal for the state’s population hub and there really was something for everyone. But in the end it looks like turnout won’t crack 50 percent for this race, which would make it the lowest turnout in a nonpresidential/gubernatorial general election for any cycle going back to 1978. (Division of Elections records don’t break down turnout before 1976). The previous best was 74.9 percent in 1982 when nine bond issues were on the ballot, and the previous low was 50.1 percent in 1998. As I mentioned at the top, if you didn’t vote because you don’t care then I’m glad. But for the first time I’m actually curious why.

Obama not choosing 'all of the above' in Alaska

Editor’s note: This column is in response to an Oct. 8 New York Times article about Alaska titled, “As Energy Boom Ends, a Political Identity Crisis.” We certainly accept the premise of the New York Times article. Falling production is provoking economic anxiety, bordering on an economic crisis, in Alaska. Yet, it is also completely unnecessary, because there’s plenty of oil in Alaska. In its “Annual Energy Outlook for 2014,” the Energy Information Administration estimates that Alaska — alone — has 38 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. Some of that oil is located on state lands, in the form of reserves at existing fields. But the lion’s share is in the Outer Continental Shelf (23 billion barrels), the non-wilderness portion of the Arctic Coastal Plain (over 10 billion barrels), and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (roughly 1 billion barrels). It’s also important to keep in mind that whenever Alaskans are actually allowed to look for oil, we tend to find more than expected. So in a massive state with huge swaths of land that remain unexplored, 38 billion barrels could ultimately prove to be an underestimate. Certainly, that was the case with Prudhoe Bay, which is now at 17 billion barrels produced and counting. For today’s purposes, though, we’ll stick with EIA’s number: 38 billion barrels of oil. How much is that, exactly? Well, if produced at a rate of 1 million barrels per day, Alaska’s oil would last for 38,000 days — or about 104 years. If production is allowed to reach even higher rates, Alaska could have enough resource in the ground to replace nearly 30 years of oil imports from OPEC or more than 50 years of oil imports from the Persian Gulf. The problem is that the federal government, which controls more than 60 percent of the land in Alaska, has repeatedly blocked efforts to develop our resources. Despite President Obama’s willingness to take credit for rising production on state and private lands in the Lower 48, his real record is best revealed in places like Alaska. He and his administration have repeatedly denied access to promising lands; blocked or delayed the approval of roads and bridges needed so that production can begin; and issued regulations that fail to hold up in court. It’s usually more instructive to judge someone by their actions rather than their words, and the Obama administration is no different. The administration has now locked up half — more than 11 million acres — of the NPR-A, an area explicitly reserved for energy production. The administration is “revising” the management plan for the Arctic coastal plain; most interpret that as a plan to lock the area up as wilderness after the election, even though Congress has repeatedly rejected bills seeking the same. The administration is also rewriting its rules for offshore exploration in Alaska and subsequently delaying efforts to return to an area that was safely explored and successfully drilled more than 20 years ago. President Obama is not pursuing an “all of the above” strategy in Alaska. Instead, his administration’s restrictions are now inducing levels of economic anxiety in local residents that the New York Times has deemed worthy of the national spotlight. We appreciate the coverage, but what we’d really like is a president and a Senate that will work with us to solve the problem — by producing more of Alaska’s energy. Robert Dillon is the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee communications director and a spokesman for Ranking Member Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Alaskans deserve reform that cuts costs, improves services

It has now been more than four years since then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi explained to Americans why she had to push the health care reform bill through in such a rush: “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in the bill … and get away from the fog.” Now it is 2014, the fog is lifting, and we are watching the “Affordable Care Act,” or ACA, fall apart under its own weight, and contradictory legal interpretations. The Administration has now unilaterally delayed or changed over 30 of the health care law’s provisions. Earlier this month, MODA, one of our two health care insurance providers, announced it would not extend noncompliant “bare bones” policies past this year. Of course, they would not have been put in the position to offer these policies in the first place if the president had not postponed a piece of the law for two years to keep his, “If you like your health care, you can keep it” promise from becoming demonstrably untrue — at least until he is on his way out of office. On the legal front, it is unclear who is eligible under the law for subsidies — premium tax credits — to help defray the cost of health insurance. In July, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that only those who purchase insurance through state-based exchanges may qualify for subsidies, while the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that subsidies may also be applied to plans purchased through federally facilitated exchanges (i.e. the national Healthcare.gov site). Given the split in the circuits, this issue could reach the U.S. Supreme Court, but that just means more uncertainty for the time being. We also recently saw the Alaska Division of Insurance announce that “rates for health insurance plans covering nearly 16,000 Alaskans will increase substantially in 2015 as a result of the Affordable Care Act.” In 2015, Premera Blue Cross insurance rates will increase between 35 and 40 percent, and the middle “Silver” plan will see an increase of 37 percent on average. According to the Alaska Director of Insurance Lori Wing-Heier, MODA premiums will increase between 22 percent and 28.8 percent. The agency also announced that even with these cost increases, the health insurers were still going to be losing millions of dollars. How did we get here? If you remember back to 2009, the health care law was sold on a promise to reform our nation’s health care system, reduce premiums for families by $2,500 a year, and make health care more accessible and affordable for all Americans. That sounded great then and sounds great now, but unfortunately these promises have not come to fruition for many Alaskans. Four years later, we have dealt with a botched website, skyrocketing premiums, greater out-of-pocket costs, and employers dropping coverage and sending employees to state-based or federally facilitated exchanges instead of complying with burdensome and expensive federal mandates. The key reason I opposed the health care law when it was proposed and jammed through Congress? Not politics; just simple math. The basic economics of being a high-cost rural state with limited providers has resulted in the costly outcomes we are seeing today. Like storm clouds approaching on the horizon, this was a problem many people could see coming. With the mandate to require that every Alaskan buy coverage — or force them to pay a tax — the ACA was doomed to fail our state and make health care coverage even less affordable. In high population states with many providers and participants, expenses can be spread out across thousands or millions of residents; but in Alaska, just a few expensive medical cases can ripple across the state and hit Alaskans’ pocketbooks. If you have been watching this debate unfold, you are likely aware that enrolling young, healthy Americans in the health care exchanges is the key to making the equation work. These “young invincibles,” as they are referred to by policymakers, would pay their premiums, be less likely to need care and stabilize the overall cost structure. Before enrollments got underway, insurance providers said they needed a third of Alaskans between the ages of 18 and 25 to enroll, however, only 9 percent have yet to do so. When you look at the costs involved, it is tough to blame them. For example, MODA premiums for 19-year-old Alaskans increased in all three categories: up 55 percent in the basic “Bronze” category and double for the “Silver” plans — from $1,092 per year in 2013 to $2,268 per year in 2014. Health insurance costs for younger Alaskans have increased the most because the ACA prohibits insurers from charging a 64-year-old more than three times the premium they charge a 21-year-old — so the entire formula gets inflated. Worse still, the law imposes an added, costly tax referred to as the “Cadillac Tax” on high-dollar insurance plans — meaning most of the plans available to older Alaskans — which tacks on an added 40 percent charge to insurance plans valued at $10,200 (individual) and $27,500 (family) starting in 2018. Even before the premium increase was announced, Jason Gootee, the head of MODA’s Alaska operations, said, “An independent actuarial study commissioned by the state in 2012 projected premiums to rise between 30 percent and 80 percent. The one piece of good news for Alaskans is that a high percentage of them who purchase through the exchange qualify for a subsidy.” But, a policy that forces Alaskans to utilize government subsides should not be considered sound policy — and I have heard from many Alaskans who do not like being put in the position of asking for a subsidy for a basic expense like health care. With more troubling data from the Alaska Division of Insurance coming out regularly about the surging costs, providers are acknowledging that the economics are not working out and Alaskans are paying the second-highest premiums in the nation. According to Eric Earling, Spokesman for Premera, “We’ve been working on a number of initiatives to control rising medical costs in Alaska, but major challenges exist. We’re very concerned about that impact on our customers and all Alaskans. The Affordable Care Act adds more to the cost of healthcare coverage and the cost of the ACA’s individual market changes in states with smaller populations like Alaska is not sustainable without action.” This means many Alaskan individuals, families and employers are asking tough questions: Do we make cuts to our family budget to buy health insurance? Do we skip buying health insurance and pay the tax instead? As a small employer, do I drop coverage for my employees because of all the federal mandates? Alaskans deserve better. Doctors are required to take the Hippocratic Oath before they practice medicine, which boils down to “First, do no harm.” Unfortunately, this bill to create “affordable care” is causing real harm to thousands of Alaskans, whether by premium increases or the real risk of a detrimental change in employment or benefits. The Affordable Care Act has evolved from a controversial partisan power play to a late-night punchline to a major economic drain on our state. Alaskans deserve true health care reform that cuts costs and improves access to services. I will continue to fight for this Alaskan priority in Washington, D.C. Lisa Murkowski is the senior U.S. senator from Alaska.

Cook Inlet comeback reflects state, local leadership

For those who love comeback stories, it is difficult to find a better example than Cook Inlet. Just a few short years ago, Alaska’s oldest oil and gas basin was in a death spiral. Years of declining production of both oil and gas jeopardized Southcentral’s longtime energy supply, to the point that serious discussions were underway about importing liquefied natural gas, or LNG. I found the situation entirely unacceptable in a state that is still so rich in natural resources. Fast forward to today, and I can say with confidence that bold leadership and decisive action have turned Cook Inlet around. Just this year, Cook Inlet oil producers have boosted output 25 percent. More impressive, production has essentially doubled in Cook Inlet since fiscal year 2010, increasing from 8,900 barrels per day in fiscal year 2010 to 16,288 barrels per day presently. This means Southcentral residents and businesses are now assured of a reliable source of energy for years to come. This dramatic turnaround is not just a happy accident. As governor of the state, I realized years ago the situation was serious and needed immediate action. On both the state and local level, I worked alongside members of the Legislature and with municipal leaders, like my running mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, to create incentives to attract new investment in the aging basin. This proposal was broadly supported in the Legislature, with key Republicans and Democrats endorsing the effort. House Bill 280 passed in 2010 and was quickly signed into law. The resulting positive effects were almost immediate. Investment by Inlet oil producers came flooding back into Cook Inlet by independents like Hilcorp and Cook Inlet Energy, among others. The two companies have been drilling new wells and upgrading platforms acquired from others steadily, with solid results that benefit all Southcentral Alaskans. ConocoPhillips was even able to restart the mothballed LNG export plant near Nikiski. An additional benefit of all this activity and the resulting production was the creation of a natural gas storage facility. This allows gas producers to store excess gas that is extracted from the basin in the warmer months when demand is low, and save it for the colder months when demand spikes. The storage facility offers an additional level of security for Southcentral residents who rely on Cook Inlet’s gas every day for heat, lights and electricity. Perhaps just as important as energy reliability is the economic impact this legislation has made on the Kenai Peninsula. Ask anyone in Kenai, Soldotna or Nikiski, and they will tell you how much their local economies have picked up since oil and gas activity began surging on the Peninsula. Alaskans eager to take advantage of the economic boom have launched new businesses, hiring hundreds of locals eager to meet the needs of the newly revitalized industry. The Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a trade organization made up of small businesses that supply Alaska’s natural resource industries, has seen its membership grow on the Kenai Peninsula by 50 percent in just four years. More opportunity and prosperity for Alaskans, combined with a secure supply of energy, is the recipe for continued economic growth in an area previously depressed. None of these positive developments would have been possible without strong state and local leadership. Had I not taken quick, decisive action to protect Southcentral residents a few years ago, the circumstances could have been costly and unsafe. I’m proud of the work we did to breathe new life into Cook Inlet and to provide a secure energy future for the residents who call Southcentral Alaska home. This is my record. This is what Alaskans can count on with Parnell-Sullivan. We’re committed to building the right support for decisive actions that provide opportunity for Alaskans. Parnell is the governor of Alaska running for reelection.

Gasline an important part of the governor's race

The governor race in Alaska has taken an interesting turn with independent Republican Bill Walker jumping out of his party and platform to team with Byron Mallott, the Democrats' candidate aligned with Sen. Mark Begich and President Obama. If this alliance wins, then it will have a major impact on the ongoing gasline projects. Some say that this race is now reminiscent of the Palin or Hickel races, but there are major differences. Sarah Palin ran against proven corruption in the Legislature and won with the conservative populist vote, never abandoning party or principles. Hickel ran a conservative campaign against a liberal Republican opponent. Walker is running a liberal populist campaign based on an appeal to perceived evils in our successful oil and gas industry. He believes the state should just take over many facets of the industry, reminiscent of third world nationalization. He’s running against an incumbent governor whose optimism and focus on increasing oil production and a gasline have created an economic boom with jobs increasing every year. We currently have a gasline deal moving forward with buy-in from the producers and approval of the Legislature. From an energy perspective, the most important issue that the next governor will address is a gasline project. Bill Walker has for many years been a driving force behind the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, established in 1999 by the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the North Slope Borough and the City of Valdez. It was created to support a gasline effort, and early on chose to support the one that the voters had asked for that year, the line to Valdez. That project never garnered the support that was necessary to see it to fruition. Other gas projects were later proposed and gained political backing. Walker’s Port Authority chose a scorched earth policy, working to defeat many proposals that weren’t their own. They advertised with public dollars and personally lobbied the Legislature and administration to kill all other gas projects, instead of modifying their plan to fit the new situation. Personally, I’ve always been a supporter of the line to Valdez, and voted for Walker in 2010 because I thought that the specific gasline was the defining issue. What I don’t understand is refusing to adapt when the situation changed, delaying the chance for a gasline, due to a desire for a particular plan. Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good. Consider the following questions: How is Walker going to advance the gasline project that is already in motion? The Alaska LNG project, a project to construct a gasline and the facilities to export gas and provide for Alaska’s energy needs, has achieved cooperation with the oil companies and they have been doing field work for it all summer. The planned route goes to Nikiski, on the Kenai Peninsula, not Walker’s hometown of Valdez, and the environmental impact statement work is underway. There are more negotiations still to be done. How will a man who has consistently worked for the last 15 years for a specific project to Valdez and against all others handle those negotiations? How will he make the win-win deal that is needed in our free enterprise system to advance a gasline, when he has taken an adversarial position with the oil companies, going so far as to sue the state after the Point Thomson settlement took place? This settlement that would supply the gas for a line has caused the oil companies to invest billions in infrastructure and had 700 people working this summer. If Walker mandates a change from what was previously approved and intended by the legislature, how will he be able to get legislative approval? For most of Alaska, a gasline is just an important source of future revenue, but for us in Fairbanks it is life or death, as many of our long-time citizens are leaving for places with cheaper utility bills. Sean Parnell helped the Interior by proposing and supporting the Interior Energy Project to truck gas to Fairbanks. This is a bridge project that will prove helpful, but does not diminish the need for a long-term solution such as a gasline. If you examine the record of the candidates then it’s pretty easy to see that the choice you’ll make in November is Walker or a natural gas pipeline. Lance Roberts is an engineer, born and raised in Fairbanks. He is a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the assembly or borough administration.


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