Alaska News Nightly: April 14, 2011

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State Legislature Gears Up For Overtime
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
This year’s legislative session will not end Sunday night, the voter-mandated 90 day deadline. It’s not yet clear how long beyond that date members will need to finish the work that’s still pending.

Speaker Mike Chenault, in a floor speech during Thursday session, said the House will not leave Juneau without having given proper attention to the capital projects budget, which is still in the formal possession of the Senate Finance committee. He said he would rather not have a budget at all than to accept a “take it or leave it” package from the Senate.

Chenault said his differences with the Senate over the budget come down to a view of public process and respect. He says legislators should research issues and listen to the public before they vote on issues.

Finance Co-Chair Bert Stedman, who is responsible for the Capital projects budget in the Senate, agrees there is no way the legislature can adjourn on Sunday. But he says it’s because of timing and rules. He says Chenault’s concerns don’t consider that the House already has access to the budget and has already been negotiating changes to it, all with the idea of putting an agreeable bill up for final votes without having to go through further amendments, conferences or negotiations.

Stedman says he’s been delaying Senate Committee action because he is waiting for final decisions from the House on a handful of issues, adding that Chenault’s comments and willingness to stay in session reflect “good public policy.”

Chenault said he would be willing to adjourn Sunday without a capital budget, but Stedman says the Senate would simply stay in session, using their Constitutional limit of a one hundred twenty day session rather than the statutory ninety day limit. Continuing the session instead of adjourning will keep active all the legislation that is still pending in both the House and Senate, although there has been no discussion yet of whether members would take action on anything other than the budget.

Observatory Offers New Glimpse Of Northern Seas
Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage
Scientists have quietly set up a giant observatory over a wide swath of northern ocean, from the northern Bering Sea, through the Chukchi, to the Beaufort. It’s a series of observation points that are visited by different vessels at different times during the scientific field season. The Arctic Observing Network is a model of international co-operation that is likely to expand to include both Polar Regions, and may, over time, be able to make predictions about what will happen as the climate changes.

Interior Department Studies Possible Effects Of Chukchi Oil Spill
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
The Interior Department has released a memo that looks at the potential for a large oil spill from a well blowout in the Chukchi Sea. The Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management selected a study area with geology that would produce high flow rates and then modeled what would happen during a blowout scenario like the Gulf of Mexico spill. The analysis shows oil flowing at a rate of 60 thousand barrels per day initially, dropping off to 19,000 barrels per day after 3 months. The World Wildlife Fund requested the memo.

Shell Oil has been trying to drill exploratory wells in the arctic for several summers. Their proposal imagines a worst case scenario oil spill that releases only 5,500 barrels per day, far lower than the Interior department estimate.

But Shell Vice President Pete Slaiby says that’s because they are planning to drill a very different type of prospect in the Arctic Ocean. He says the reservoirs the company wants to drill have much lower worse case discharges, and the company will have the assets in place to handle any spill and has historically been over prepared for potential spills.

BP Chief Touts New Oil Tax Structure
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The President of BP Exploration for Alaska, John Minge, gave a rousing talk to a couple hundred people in the Carlile Transportation facility in Anchorage at noon today. Minge spoke in support of Governor Parnell’s legislation that would change the Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, or ACES, tax system.

Minge said even though the session is slated to end soon with the tax issue tabled, he believes the tax structure will change. He says he wants Alaska to get a fair share of oil profits but ACES goes too far.

Minge believes there is a lot being spent today, but a lot of investment is going into infrastructure maintenance and upgrades that does nothing to add more oil to the pipeline. He says if the tax structure changes to the Governor’s plan, BP will advance a gas partial processing plant and a new drill pad he referred to as the I pad.

Minge says BP has identified more than 5 billion barrels of resources and a better fiscal policy would help them unlock them in existing fields. He says BP, along with partners ConocoPhillips and Exxon will be conducting seismic work at Point Milne and Point McIntyre. The work will take place in 2012 and 2013 and cost 100 million. This is being done, he says, because they anticipate the tax law will change and if it does the estimated 20 to 40 new wells that he expects they’ll find would be competitive under the Governor’s plan.

But Anchorage Democrat Representative Mike Doogan says the legislature hasn’t moved an inch since the bill left the House. He says currently it appears that the oil companies want a bunch of money and they’re not willing to commit to how that will help Alaska. That, Doogan, says is why lawmakers are stuck.

Fairbanks Republican Senator Joe Paskvan says he’s pleased that BP wants to have continued conversations. He says the tax issue is by no means shelved and it will be worked on through the summer and into next year.

Initiative in SW Alaska Aims To Halt Pebble Mine
Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham
It looks like an initiative that would protect salmon and salmon habitat from mining will soon be on the ballot in Southwest Alaska. Late last week, the initiative was approved by the Lake and Peninsula Borough. The Initiative is the latest in a series of attempts to stop the Pebble Mine before it even gets started.

Spending Deal Passes U.S. House And Senate
Libby Casey, APRN – Anchorage
The U.S. House and Senate have passed the spending deal hammered out late last Friday night that avoids a government shutdown. All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation voted for it. The plan cuts more than 38 Billion dollars in spending, and funds the government for the rest of the fiscal year until October.

It passed the Senate 81 to 19. That body rejected measures that would have defunded Planned Parenthood and the national health care law. Senator Lisa Murkowski was one of just five Republicans to join all Democrats in voting against the Planned Parenthood cuts.

The vote tally in the House for the spending plan was 260 to 167. While a majority of Democrats voted against it, some had to join the ‘yays’ to give the GOP speaker room for passage, because 59 of his own Republicans rejected it.

Alaska Congressman Don Young voted for it. He says the threat of a government shutdown was too real and wasn’t worth the risk. He wants to get moving on next year’s budget.

When it comes to the 2012 budget, plans for next year and beyond, Republicans came out loudly Wednesday against the blueprint President Obama laid out for deficit reduction. Instead many are supporting a plan by Budget Committee Chairman Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. But Congressman Young says neither one has it right.

Young says President Obama has come up with some sound ideas, and he’s looking to both sides to push for more oil and gas development, mining, and manufacturing. But the Alaska Representative says he is glad Capitol Hill is talking about the nation’s finances – a situation Young calls a crisis.

Budget Deal Strips Low Income Energy Program
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
The Congressional budget deal includes a big cut for a program that many Alaskans rely on. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, is losing $390 million from its emergency contingency fund.

But Ron Kreher, who oversees the program for the state, says it won’t have much of an impact on Alaskan families. He says its money that is usually released late in the year, so the state never factors it into the budget plan.

Kreher says the state has benefited from the emergency fund in the past, but it often goes to southern states that are affected by extreme hot weather:

Kreher is much more worried about the negotiations that will take place over next year’s budget. The Obama administration has proposed cutting total LIHEAP funding in half. If that happens, Kreher hopes the state would step in to make up the difference.

The average household that benefited from the program last year received about $1,300 to help pay for heating fuel. The money goes to more than 19,000 Alaskan households.

Film About Towns Youth Debuts In Barrow
Jake Neher, KBRW – Barrow
A new film dramatizing Barrow youth is getting positive reviews at major film festivals around the world. But on Wednesday, writer and director Andrew MacLean showed the film to what he called his most important critics, the people of Barrow.