Alaska News Nightly: January 26, 2011

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Spill Commission Co-Chair Endorses Exploratory Arctic Wells
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
One of the leaders of the President’s Oil Spill Commission endorsed Shell’s plan on Wednesday to drill an exploratory well in the Arctic, even though he admits spill research is inadequate.  Co-chair William Reilly told the Senate Energy Committee today that he believes Shell’s Beaufort Sea proposal is in his words, “as good as I have ever seen.”

Environmentalists and some locals strongly disagree, and are fighting the drilling plans, saying there’s not enough information about cleaning up oil in the Arctic, and that a spill could be disastrous to wildlife.

Reilly’s support for moving ahead on Arctic exploration came despite his admission that a lot is unknown about cleaning up oil – in general – and especially in icy waters.  He noted that when the BP Horizon was gushing water in the Gulf of Mexico, no one – not government scientists or oil company engineers – really knew how safe the oil dispersants would be.

The President’s Oil Spill Commission was established six months ago after the April BP Blowout in the Gulf, and made recommendations earlier this month to improve the safety and environmental soundness of offshore drilling.

Reilly says the Commission’s recommendations for the Arctic, which include better baseline science and stationing the Coast Guard locally rather than 1,000 miles away, will take time.  In fact, he says just getting the basic science will take at least three years.

But despite that, when pressed by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, he said drilling in the Arctic should go forward, and not wait for the science to catch up.

That pleased Murkowski, but troubled some Democrats on the Senate Energy Committee.

The Oil Spill Commission’s report blamed both the government and the oil industry for systemic failures.

Murkowski took issue Wednesday with placing blame on the whole industry, and asked Reilly if it was like a couple of bad doctors in an otherwise good hospital.  She asked why there haven’t been more problems if it’s system-wide.

The head of the Senate Energy Committee, Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, pledged to put forward oil spill prevention legislation.  It passed out of his committee last year but stalled in the full Senate.

Legislature Working to Clarify Write-In Law
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
The Alaska Legislature wants to ensure voter intent takes precedent when counting write-in ballots.

The issue was raised last fall when failed U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller sued the state over the counting of write-in ballots for Senator Lisa Murkowski. Miller argued the state was violating its own election law by counting ballots with minor misspellings of Murkowski’s name. State and federal courts disagreed, but judges described the law as inconsistent and recommended changing it.

Legislation to clarify the law had a first hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Testimony Continues in Waterman Case
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Both the prosecution and defense in the Rachelle Waterman trial have finished questioning of Brian Radel. He’s one of two young men convicted of the murdering Rachelle’s mother, Lori Waterman in a separate trial. He’s serving a 99-year sentence. The other convicted murderer, Jason Arrant was called to the stand this morning, but refused to testify. KSKA’s Ellen Lockyer is at the courtroom.

Bird Lovers Celebrate Historic Albatross Birth
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Bird lovers are celebrating the recent birth of a single chick on a tiny island in the North Pacific. That’s because the bird is the first short tailed albatross born outside of Japan in modern history. The endangered bird feeds along the Aleutian chain but the vast majority breed on a single island in Japan. Because that island is also an active volcano, biologists are helping the species establish colonies at a few alternative sites. The new chick is one success story in that effort.

Young, Begich Find Common Ground
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Alaska’s Democratic Senator and Republican Congressman sat together at last night’s State of the Union address, and found they had much in common in their reaction as Alaskans, despite their party differences.

Senator Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young agreed on several points, including dismay at the President’s call to boost taxes on oil companies, and approval at proposed clean energy standards and trimming of bureaucracy.

President Obama called for dramatically boosting clean energy in America.  The President said he wants to see 1 million electric vehicles on the road in four years, funded by reducing tax breaks for oil companies.  After the speech, Senator Begich and Congressman Young said they were not among those cheering for that line.

Begich said they did appreciate the call for clean energy – especially natural gas.

Senator Lisa Murkowski had to leave the Capitol before the speech started because her younger son was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis.  This morning, she said his surgery was successful, and that she caught most of the President’s speech on radio and TV.

Murkowski says while she approves of setting clean energy goals – rather than renewable energy standards – she wants to hear more about the Administration’s plans.

This was Congressman Young’s first State of the Union in decades.  He saved Begich a seat, since the Senator came into the chamber as part of the Democratic leadership team escort of President Obama.

Young typically skips the State of the Union, but says he went since so many Democratic friends encouraged him to attend.

Volunteers Prepare Athletic and Wellness Center for Reopening
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
On Feb. 1, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp will take possession of the core campus of the former Sheldon Jackson College. Campers won’t arrive until the summer, but in at least one building, the lights are already on. Work is underway to re-open the Hames Athletic and Wellness Center, which closed late last year.  And as KCAW’s Ed Ronco reports, at the moment, volunteers have a lot to do before the public comes back inside.

Climber Aborts Solo Attempt on McKinley
Associated Press
A Minnesota climber is abandoning his attempt to reach the summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley.  Lonnie Dupre began his descent yesterday after brutal weather stranded him at about 17,000 feet on the highest mountain in North America. Dupre had hoped to gather strength at a lower elevation, but after spending a cold and “miserable” night at 14,200 feet, he decided to continue down the mountain. Dupre told his manager that spending days at an extreme altitude made him weaker than he expected. He is expected to make one more overnight camp before getting to 7,000 feet, where an airplane can pick him up.  Dupre was trying to become the first person to climb Mount McKinley alone in January.