Alaska News Nightly: July 1, 2010

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Environmental Groups Seek Delay in Liberty Reservoir Drilling
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Several environmental groups are asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to delay BP’s plan to begin drilling to reach its Liberty reservoir off Alaska’s coast. The oil reserve is located in federal waters, but the company will access it from a man-made gravel drilling pad about a mile off Alaska’s coast.

BP is using a technology called ultra extended reach for the Liberty project. That involves drilling down two miles and then horizontally six to eight miles to tap into the oil. The technology is not new, but the project is likely to set a record for the longest extended reach well in the world. The environmental groups say the project is too risky, given the disaster that’s still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

After the Gulf spill, the Interior Department issued a moratorium on new offshore oil drilling in deepwater until a presidential commission investigates the incident. That stopped Shell from drilling exploratory wells this summer in the Chukchi and Beafort Sea.

BP says the project doesn’t fall under the moratorium in part because it is drilling from a land based rig, sitting on a man-made island in less than ten feet of water. The project is also tapping into a proven reserve of oil. The company acknowledges there are technical challenges with ultra extended reach drilling. But BP spokesman Steve Rinehart says the complex project has been carefully developed over the last several years.

Rinehart says the company is continually evaluating the project to ensure the design, materials and systems meet the company’s high standards.

BP had hoped to begin drilling this fall. But Rinehart says given the increased federal attention to the project and the company’s own desire to make sure it moves ahead safely, drilling isn’t likely to begin until next year.  The Liberty reservoir is estimated to hold 100 million barrels of oil.

Usibelli Coal Licensed to Search for Gas Near Healy
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The state has approved licensing Usibelli Coal to look for natural gas in the Healy area.  The area’s coal bed methane potential raised concerns when Usibelli filed an initial request to explore back in 2003. Shallow gas development is still controversial.

Tesoro Alaska Settles with State
Associated Press
Tesoro Alaska Co. and a tanker corporation have agreed to pay Alaska nearly $430,000 to settle claims from the grounding of an oil tanker in ice-choked waters of Cook Inlet four years ago.

The vessel was taking on petroleum products from Tesoro’s refinery in heavy ice conditions when the tanker broke away from the Kenai Pipeline Co. dock. The crew could not start the ship’s engine and it grounded. About 84 gallons of gasoline spilled from loading lines. The companies admitted no violations. State officials said the crew failed to meet key requirements of winter ice operating rules.

ACLU Debates Court System’s Bail Conditions
Dave Donaldosn, APRN – Juneau
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is asking the court system to stop enforcement of a law that went into effect Thursday redefining the court system’s conditions to grant bail to some people charged with felonies.

The bill passed the legislature during this year’s session – and was quickly signed into law by the governor in May.  The comprehensive bill was described at the time as a change to statutes that had not been updated in more than 40 years and – according the governor – “would protect all Alaskans, and particularly many of our most vulnerable friends and neighbors.”The ACLU’s executive director, Jeffrey Mittman, in the legal complaint that will be heard in court Friday, says the law doesn’t conform with the national idea of a person being presumed innocent before convicted.  He says it also doesn’t take into account Alaska’s own Constitution that has a provision guaranteeing a “right to bail.”

The state, however, says the new statute does not go beyond either the state or U-S Constitution.    Deputy Attorney General for the Criminal Division Rick Svobodny says it was carefully written to keep within those limits.   He says that having a right to bail allows the legislature to set the criteria for setting that bail.  He also says that the statute does not restrict a given right.

The merits of the case will be argued in Anchorage Superior Court Friday morning where the ACLU will ask for a temporary restraining order to stop the bill’s implementation.

Hikers Recovering from Plant Poisoning
Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines
Five Canadian hikers are back on the Chilkoot Trail after fully recovering from nearly-lethal plant poisoning.

Elfin Cove Cleanup Continues
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
In Elfin Cove, residents continue to clean up after a fire two weeks ago that destroyed a lodge and restaurant. In Sitka, meanwhile, relief efforts are being organized by the restaurant owner’s daughter, who says help is still needed in the community’s rebuilding effort.

Sealaska Re-Elects Four Board Incumbents
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
Sealaska shareholders re-elected four board incumbents Saturday in Craig. They also rejected a measure that would have weakened board powers. CoastAlaska’s Ed Schoenfeld reports on the Southeast Regional Native Corporation’s annual meeting.

Juneau Students Take Flight
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
Kids are taking flight in Juneau this week. Eighth and ninth graders at the Flight Quest day camp are getting hands on lessons in aerodynamics, physics and math, making paper airplanes, balsawood gliders and model rockets. The Juneau Economic Development Council is putting on the camp, which features the world record holder for longest paper airplane flight.