Alaska News Nightly: March 22, 2011

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Begich Calls for Renewed Offshore Development Focus
Casey Kelly & Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau
U.S. Senator Mark Begich is calling for a federal coordinator for the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. In a speech to the Alaska Legislature Tuesday, Begich said he plans to introduce legislation next week to create the office – modeled after Alaska’s federal gas pipeline coordinator.

Begich says an Arctic OCS coordinator would help develop oil and gas offshore, as well as in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The office would work across federal permitting agencies – the EPA, the US Army Corp of Engineers, and the Interior Department – that Begich says are causing heartburn for Alaska today.

“The federal OCS coordinator would work with the state of Alaska and affected local governments to streamline development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which hold such promise for future oil and gas development,” Begich said.

He says his bill also would allow the creation of federal coordinators for offshore development in the Lower 48. Begich told state lawmakers Alaska is well-positioned to influence Arctic policy and should seize opportunities in the region. He said he’s already reached out to President Obama to cut red tape standing in the way of development.

“The president’s “climate czar” recently left her job, apparently correctly reading the tea leaves that cap and trade legislation is not happening,” Begich said. “Along with that I asked the president to replace the “climate czar” with a “development czar” to help focus the administration on the right priorities to our nation, on producing American energy, from American soil with American workers.”

He says the national focus on clean energy should be good news for Alaska’s proposed natural gas pipeline. But he says the state must act quickly.

“I know you are waiting for a new report about an in-state gas line and results of open season negotiations,” Begich said. “From my perspective I urge you not to wait too long.”

“Our window or opportunity may be closing and we must address the in-state energy needs of Alaska business and consumers.”

Meeting with reporters after the speech, Begich clarified that he supports both an in-state gasline and a line to the Lower 48. But he says the in-state line is needed now to provide reliable energy and stimulate Alaska’s economy.

“Because if you don’t have in-state, you can ship all the gas you want to the Lower 48, but if there’s nothing happening here economically,” Begich said.

Begich says the state needs to act fast because competition from other states where oil and gas exploration has increased recent years. But unlike Senator Lisa Murkowski, who last month urged lawmakers to approve Governor Sean Parnell’s proposed tax cuts for oil and gas companies, Begich says only small incentives are needed to spur development. In his speech he mentioned small, independent producers and international companies partially owned by European countries.

“It doesn’t take a lot of money, but just enough that they can, if it’s grant or loan or combination that they can seed off of, I think that’s a huge opportunity sitting out there,” Begich said.

Most members of Congress are in their home districts this week. Begich expects the climate in Washington to be more favorable to Alaska development when members return.

“Because they’re going to come back and they’re going to have their heads beaten in by their constituents on price of oil for heating, price of gasoline for their car, energy costs for their power for their house, and they’re going to hear this. So, for us it’s a huge opportunity right now,” Begich said.

Begich also encouraged state lawmakers to invest some of the state’s surplus in Alaska-based high-tech industries and technologies, which could leverage federal and private funds.

This was Begich’s third speech to the legislature since he took office in 2009.

Alaska Military Bases Not Targeted for Major Budget Cuts
Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau
U.S. Senator Mark Begich says Alaska military bases are not being targeted for major budget cuts. Instead the Obama Administration is recommending increased spending in the state.

Begich told state lawmakers Tuesday that Alaska is recognized as a strategic post in the nation’s world obligations and domestic security.

Defense is a significant portion of the federal budget, and Begich says there will be reductions. But while some bases are being downsized and closed, he believes military spending in Alaska will be strong.

Begich, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the congressional delegation has worked hard to influence program spending, including defense.

With Alaska having the largest open air space in the country, Begich says it will be used more and more to test unmanned and other military aircraft.

32 Muskox Die During Unusual Tidal Event
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
At least 32 muskox died in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Peninsula last month during an unusual tidal event that sent water surging into an area that is usually dry land. But biologist don’t expect the mass die off to have any long term impacts on the population.

Company Investigating Viability of Cook Inlet Tidal Power
Ben Stanton, KDLL – Kenai
A company based in Maine is several years into a preliminary study of the viability of generating electric power using the strong tides in Cook Inlet. At a meeting in the City of Kenai Tuesday morning, Ocean Renewable Power Company outlined their general strategy for moving forward.

Geoduck Industry May Expand Along Gulf
Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer
Geoducks are known in Chinese culture as “elephant trunk clams” because of their elongated necks, which can grow to more than three feet. Farming of the strange looking clam with the funny name is an $80-million a year industry in British Columbia and Washington State, where geoducks grow wild. Now, Homer Representative Paul Seaton would like to see them grown in communities along the Gulf of Alaska.

Orca Remains on Kruzof to Benefit Students, Science
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
Sitka students will likely be among those benefitting from the remains of a killer whale found dead on the shore of Kruzof Island, about 10 miles east of Sitka. A team of scientists and volunteers performed a necropsy on the young male orca and recovered its skeleton on Friday.

The whale was located near Inner Point, about a mile and a half walk from where the necropsy team was dropped off.

At the work site, the killer whale carcass is on its side, with bright red flesh exposed to the open air. The intestines look like a pink fire hose, coiled inside the body. And the smell is strong – a sour, spoiled odor that seems to cut through the air in invisible channels. Two steps to the right or left can be the difference between smelling the fresh ocean air or choking on the stench.

Dr. Stephen Raverty is a veterinary pathologist and head of pathology for the Provincial Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He’s kneeling next to the carcass. His hair is sweaty and his waterproof overalls and gloves are covered in blood. He’s working quickly, racing against a rising tide. Eventually, the carcass is tied off with some green rope to prevent it from being carried away by the waves, which crash against the rocks, soaking some of the necropsy team.

During a break, Raverty sits on a log long enough to explain what he’s learned so far.

“This animal does have a low-grade infection in its abdominal cavity. It has fibrinous peritonitis,” Raverty says. “In people, it would be just a severe stomach pain or an abdominal pain. Essentially it would be an infection of the lining of the organs within the abdominal cavity.”

Raverty says finding out what role that might have played in the whale’s death will require more tests, and some serious time in front of a microscope. The data will be included in an ongoing survey of stranded killer whales worldwide. Raverty says more than 250 animals have been documented worldwide so far.

A short distance away, a smaller team is trying to get tissue off the skull, so it can be transported back to Sitka.

“At which point we’ll freeze it and then we’ll take the rest of the meat off,” says Shannon Atkinson, a professor in the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “The more we can get off now the less we have to carry. So it’s actually out of convenience that we’re doing this.”

Atkinson is based at the school’s Juneau Center. Her role in this is to recover the whale’s skeleton, which will be used as part of a class she leads called D.E.M.B.O.N.E.S., which stands for “Distinctive Education in Motion: Biodiversity Of Nature and Environmental Stewardship.”

In the class, high school and middle school students reassemble skeletons of marine mammals for college credit. Right now a lot depends on funding and timing as to who will reassemble it, but Atkinson wants it to be students in Sitka. She’s also hoping the reassembled skeleton will be displayed in Sitka.

The class, she says, covers multiple disciplines – from the biology and physiology of animals to their cultural significance to the policies about how they’re managed.

“It’s one of the special things that kids almost nowhere else in the world really have access to: the kinds of natural resources we have up here. So one of my focuses is trying to make sure kids get access to this. Otherwise, they really don’t learn much about their backyards. And when you have a backyard anything like coastal Alaska, it’s pretty fantastic. There’s a lot to learn here.”

As morning turns into afternoon, the skull gets cleaner and the carcass gets smaller. Up away from the tide, Dr. Rachel Dziuba is trying to get a tissue sample from the lungs. She’s using a knife to score them across the top like a loaf of bread.

“By ‘breadloafing,’ you’re just taking small sections and then you can look at the tissue in each section,” she says. Dziuba is a veterinarian representing the Alaska Sea Life Center. She has a lot of experience performing necropsies, on a lot of different species.

“This is my first orca,” she says. “I’ve been out on several humpback whales, many other marine mammals – Steller sea lions, harbor porpoise, a lot of harbor seals, but never an orca. It’s a pretty rare find around here.”

The rareness of this find translates into important opportunities for the scientists on scene – to see how the whale is put together, to take samples back for analysis, and for Atkinson from UAF, to offer more opportunities for students in Sitka and elsewhere.

The necropsy team also included local volunteers, UAS whale biologist Jan Straley and members of her team, representatives of the Sitka Sound Science Center, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and NOAA.

The whale was discovered by some recreational boaters on March 13. They immediately called it in. Officials urge anyone who finds a stranded marine mammal – dead or alive – to do the same thing. The marine mammal stranding hotline can be reached at 1-877-925-7773.

New Non-Profit Will Promote Haida Language, Culture
Deanna Garrison, KRBD – Ketchikan
A new Haidaburg non-profit is in the works to promote the Haida language and culture as well as educational opportunities in the Prince of Wales community.