Alaska News Nightly: March 2, 2011

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Officials Hopeful About Shale Oil Potential
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
State officials are cautiously optimistic about a new type of on shore oil development that could help feed the sputtering Trans Alaska Pipeline. A new company called Great Bear Petroleum is armed with almost half a million acres in new leases and a plan to go after unconventional oil sources on the North Slope.

Alyeska Resumes Loading Tankers
Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez
The Alyeska Pipeline Company resumed loading tankers at the marine terminal in Valdez, Wednesday, after a bout with extreme weather.  The decision comes two days after the Coast Guard reopened the port of Valdez.

95 mile per hour winds over the weekend prompted the coast guard to close the port as a safety precaution.  Wind readings had to be below 40 knots before it was reopened.  Alyeska continued operations, but ceased loading it tankers.  The Coast Guard reopened the port on Monday after winds dropped to 30 knots.

Hearing Scheduled to Determine Status of Brief Relating to Exxon Valdez Settlement
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
A federal court hearing scheduled for Friday will allow arguments as to whether an amicus brief can be filed in a case that has not yet been to court. Retired UAA Marine conservation Professor Rick Steiner filed the request in Judge H. Russel Holland’s court in December. Steiner plans to ask Judge Holland to order Exxon to pay the more than $92 million requested of them in 2006 from the original Exxon Valdez settlement in 1991 that contained a re-opener clause for up to $100 million if unforeseen damage resulted from the spill years later. Steiner says he was in the courtroom in 1991 when Exxon promised to do the right thing.

Steiner intends to ask Judge Holland, who was the judge that presided over the original settlement, to add interest to the $92 million that would bring the total to $115 million.

The reopener was invoked during Frank Murkowski’s tenure as Governor in 2006. The demand for payment was made on August 31 of that year. One day before the time to request it would have run out and the reopener would have been void. Murkowski sent a letter to Holland’s court this week urging the judge to settle the issue. Saying Alaskan’s deserve closure. Steiner says because there hasn’t been a hearing, the judge could have dismissed his brief filing request out of hand.

Steiner says government science shows 19 of 32 species are not fully recovered in Prince William Sound.

Steiner’s request, not surprisingly, is objected to by Exxon, but it’s also being protested by the state and federal government on the procedural point that he can’t file a brief on a case that hasn’t been to court. Steiner says after wide spread public support for invoking the reopener more than four years ago, both the Palin and Parnell administrations did nothing to force the payment issue with Exxon.

State Attorney General Spokesman Bill McAllister says Steiner is trying to force a certain timetable on the proceedings that should be left up to the parties in the case. McAllister says Exxon isn’t going anywhere and when the studies show the best way to proceed, the corporation can still be requested to pay. Steiner says using the agreed upon standard for the reopener that extensive environmental injury not seen 22 years ago is documented, those studies are already completed.

The hearing in Judge Holland’s court is scheduled for 10 am Friday in Anchorage.

Senators Pressuring TSA to Reexamine Pat-Down Policies
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
The head of U.S. Homeland Security says she’ll look into the experience faced by state Representative Sharon Cissna last week in a Seattle Airport.  Cissna is a breast cancer survivor, and TSA agents wanted to give her a pat-down after a body scan picked up scars from her mastectomy.  When Cissna refused she wasn’t allowed to fly.

Wednesday, Senator Lisa Murkowski got a chance to press Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the issue.

Both Murkowski and Senator Mark Begich are pressuring the TSA to change their policies.  Murkowski told Napolitano that she sent a letter to the head of TSA, and has not yet heard back.

Murkowski said for Alaskans, not flying is a difficult decision.  For Representative Cissna it meant a long, multi-day journey back to Juneau from Seattle on a ferry.

Secretary Napolitano pledged to look into Cissna’s experience.

Secretary Napolitano says overall, most fliers have had no complaints about the new body scanners and pat-down procedures.

President Signs Stop-Gap Spending Measure
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
President Obama signed into law Wednesday a stop-gap spending measure that funds the government for two more weeks.  This morning the Senate followed the House’s lead and passed the trimmed, temporary budget on a vote of 91 to 9.  Both of Alaska’s Senators voted for it, as did Congressman Don Young.  Now the deadline for a shutdown is March 18.

Even as Congress wrangles over current spending levels, it’s also looking to nest year – and the President’s proposed budget.  Wednesday, committees in the Senate and House heard testimony from Obama’s cabinet on their departments’ funding. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appeared before the Senate Energy Committee and defended the President’s $12.2 billion request for the department that covers lands, Alaska Native and Native American issues, and oil development.  That’s frozen at last year’s spending levels, and Salazar says it saves more than $1 billion too.

Secretary Salazar singled out as a sacrifice the Alaska Lands Conveyance Program, which is on the chopping block, much to the dismay of the Alaskan delegation.

But Senator Lisa Murkowski, questioned cutting the Conveyance Program.  She pointed out that there was a pledge to finish any outstanding land conveyances by the 50th anniversary of statehood, a date that came and went in 2009.

Both Murkowski and Congressman Young are complaining also about the new “Wild Lands” policy. That’s an order to analyze millions of acres of public lands to determine if they contain wilderness characteristics. Congressman Young lit into an Obama Administration official Tuesday at a hearing on the matter:

Murkowski agrees, and told Secretary Salazar Wednesday that the Wild Lands policy could “lock up” lands in Alaska, and amounts to a “work around” of the limits on the Wilderness Act.

B.C. Powerline Pushes North Toward Alaska Link
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
Canadian officials say construction could begin this spring on a project bringing the North American power grid much closer to Southeast Alaska. Supporters say that will make it easier to develop a cross-border line tapping into the region’s rich hydropower resources.

Spruce Tree Species Shifting West
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Results of tree survey show spruce species declining in the Interior, and increasing in
Western Alaska and other areas previously at the fringe off the conifer species range. The recently released study uses satellite images and tree ring analysis to look at black and white spruce, which make up 70 percent of boreal forest trees.  Co-author of an article on the study, University of Alaska Fairbanks Ecology Professor Glenn Juday says the shift in the boreal forest is being driven by climate change.

Juday says Interior summer temperatures have gone up an average of 2 degrees Celsius and are continuing to increase.  He says another 1 to 1 and a half degrees and the region will reach a point where spruce cannot survive in most areas.  While the average increase is significant, Juday says the real tree killer is acute hot dry spells.

Juday says Alaska is seeing one of the first well documented biome shifts.  An article on the study is published in the scientific journal Ecology letters.

Environmental Organization Praising Plan for Logging, Road, Trail, Culvert Work
Joe Viechnicki, KFSK – Petersburg
Southeast Alaska’s largest environmental organization is praising a newly released plan for logging, road, trail and culvert work on Kupreanof Island in the heart of the Tongass National Forest.