Alaska News Nightly: April 7, 2011

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Federal Government Shutdown Looms
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington, DC
With only one more day to fund the government and head off a federal shutdown, Congress is still wrangling over politics and dollars.

The Republicans leading the House of Representatives and the Democrats in the Senate can’t agree on a bottom line. If the government does shut down, 800,000 federal workers nationwide, including an estimated 17,000 in Alaska won’t be able to go to work.

Democratic Senator Mark Begich says a shutdown is looking more and more likely with every passing hour. He places blame squarely on Tea Party Republicans in the House, saying they’re being inflexible in negotiations.

Republicans have not named a dollar amount they’d be happy with, but they are listing some deal breakers: They want money withheld from Planned Parenthood and from enforcing environmental regulations.

Senator Lisa Murkowski says she won’t assign blame to one party or body, but like Begich, she’s chastising those who are being rigid and refusing to compromise. And she says it doesn’t make sense to completely eliminate funding for programs like some Tea Party Republicans want.

Murkowski says she’s most concerned that a shutdown will hurt military families. The military will keep working even if there’s a shut down, but while they’ll earn pay, they won’t collect paychecks. Murkowski is working on a bill that would get military pay to go forward even if a shutdown happens.

While the fishing industry is federally regulated, vessels should be able to continue on with their seasons. But some National Marine Fisheries Service operations could be affected. Krista Milani is a biologist with the agency, and she says that the Unalaska office could close up in the event of a shutdown. That would make it harder for people to get up-to-date information about the local fisheries. Instead, they would have to call the Alaska Regional Office to have their questions answered.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would also be mostly shut down in Alaska. Agency spokesperson Bruce Woods says the agency has a handful of biologists in the field right now. They would be immediately recalled to Anchorage.

At the USGS office in Anchorage, biologist Scott Hatch is preparing to head to Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska tomorrow for seabird research. He says it would be very disruptive if he has to fly back immediately.

An official at the Anchorage National Weather Service office says they will remain open during a shutdown. The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer would keep on some emergency staff. Two shift workers would remain on duty at all times. The Alaska Volcano Observatory also says it would also keep a small staff in the office.

Stryker Brigade Begins Afghanistan Deployment
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Fort Wainwright based Stryker Brigade is deploying to Afghanistan. A ceremony was held on post yesterday to formally begin the month long process of flying the 4,200 member combat team into southern Afghanistan for the year long mission.

Powerful Storm Batters Southwestern Alaska
Alexandra Guitierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
Strong winds blasted the southwest portion of the state yesterday, and caused significant damage across the Aleutian chain and the Alaska Peninsula.

In Atka, high winds tore the door off the local clinic. And in Unalaska, cars have been hit by loose debris, and a flying dumpster lid caused damage to the town’s bridge.

But the village of False Pass suffered the worst of the damage. According to the National Weather Service, 100 mph winds tore off the roof of the VPSO building. A few homes also lost theirs, and residents are now being housed at the school as repairs are made.

The storm moved on to western and south-central Alaska today. So far, there have been no reports of storm-related injuries in the affected communities.

Nikiski Gas Facility Closure Could Be Postponed
Ben Stanton, KDLL – Kenai
The pending closure of the liquefied natural gas facility in Nikiski might be getting pushed back a few months.

ConocoPhillips Alaska spokesperson Natalie Lowman says that although the contract to ship gas to Tokyo Electric and Tokyo Gas ended in March, they are expecting to have some “spot contracts” that could last into the summer. The original closure date was expected to be April or May.

Lowman says the long-term plans to mothball the LNG plant will not change, because there is a lack of long-term natural gas. Agreements have not been made final, and Lowman would not say where the shipments might be going.

The facility is co-owned by ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil. The LNG plant’s export license expires in March of 2013.

Conoco Boss: New Investment Likely If Tax Structure Changes
Associated Press
The chairman and chief executive officer of ConocoPhillips says his company stands ready to invest substantially in Alaska to increase petroleum production if the state changes its tax structure.

Jim Mulva spoke this morning at a breakfast meeting in Anchorage. Mulva embraced Governor Sean Parnell’s goal of boosting pipeline throughput from 600,000 barrels per day to a million barrels within 10 years.

Mulva says company projects already identified such as a gas partial-processing plant and a new drill pad with 50 new wells likely will move forward if the tax is changed.

Legislation Could Renew Coastal Management Program
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Legislation is moving that could lead to a long-term extension of the state’s coastal management program. That’s the program that coordinates permitting and plans for development projects. It is scheduled to close down July first unless the legislature votes before then to keep it open.

Young, Murkowski Propose Sealaska Land Transfer Bills
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
Senator Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young have introduced new versions of their Sealaska land-transfer bills. Murkowski’s measure was filed Tuesday, and Young’s was released Wednesday.

Both allow the regional Native corporations to select Tongass National Forest land. Sealaska could already claim acreage inside boundaries set by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The new bills, and their predecessors, authorize selections elsewhere in Southeast Alaska.

Population Shifts Alter Rural, Subsistence Designations
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Alaska Natives are on the move from rural villages to more urban population centers. The 2010 census confirms the changes in how Alaska’s people are distributed, but how the changes will upset the balance of rural-urban is still shaking out.

The federal subsistence board met Wednesday in a workshop session to begin the process of reviewing the rural status of Alaska communities, based on new census information. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act mandates that only rural communities are eligible for subsistence priority on federal lands. To begin the process, the panel first heard about how 2000 census numbers shaped the current status of communities.

Under current federal rural determinations, all but 10 communities in Alaska are designated as rural. But an influx of Alaska Natives from northern areas is causing concerns among some Alaska Natives in the state’s southern area. Southcentral Regional Advisory Council chair Ralphe Lohse told the board that newly relocated Alaska Natives are putting pressure on Kenai Peninsula subsistence resources, and that too many people moving into an area can jeopardize that community’s rural status.

Federal subsistence law has a threshold population figure of 7000. A community larger than that is presumed non-rural, and some at the board workshop questioned that figure.

The Federal Subsistence Board is charged with administering ANILCA regulations, but it can only propose regulation changes to the legislation. Only Congress has the power to change ANILCA.

New Railroad Spur Gets Green Light
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
The release of a final environmental impact statement at the end of March gave the nod to a rail spur linking the Matanuska Susitna Borough’s Port MacKenzie to the main Alaska Railroad line near Houston.

The ultimate decision on the best route is still a month away, although Borough officials say the publication of the EIS opens the way for preliminary work to start as early as this year.