Alaska News Nightly: May 4, 2011

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Court Upholds Decision Halting Juneau Access Projects
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday upheld a lower court decision halting the Juneau Access project.

The court ruled that federal District Court Judge John Sedwick correctly ordered a new Environmental Impact Statement for the project, being pushed by the State Department of Transportation.

It would extend the road north of Juneau by 50 miles, from Echo Cove to the Katzehin River. It would end at a new ferry terminal, where a boat would carry passengers and vehicles the rest of the way up Lynn Canal. Sedwick said the EIS did not adequately consider alternatives, including improvements to the existing ferry service between Juneau and Haines and Skagway.

A three judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court heard an appeal by state DOT last July. Two of the three judges upheld the decision in an opinion released Wednesday.

The ruling is a victory for the environmental groups that sued to stop the road extension. Lindsey Ketchel is Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Governors Parnell, Palin and Murkowski made the project a top regional priority. The latest estimates put the project cost at nearly $500 million.

Department of Transportation Spokeswoman Brenda Hewitt says the state will take a hard look at its options before deciding whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court or go in a different direction.

The state was forced to defend the EIS before the 9th Circuit panel by itself after the Obama Administration pulled out of the lawsuit in September 2009.

House, Senate Agree on State’s Operating Budget
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
17 days into the special legislative session – and the House and Senate Wednesday finally agreed on the terms of the state’s operating budget for next year.   The conference committee put the final touches on the measure this afternoon, setting it up for passage on Friday.  But there are still a few other open issues to resolve, including the most contentious one – the capital projects budget.

Data Shows Alaska’s Oil Tax Climate Remains Competitive
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Data released from the State Department of Revenue shows Alaska’s oil tax climate is more competitive than it’s been represented to be by proponents of industry tax breaks.  Fairbanks State Senator Joe Paskvan, a Democrat, presented information on the Senate floor Tuesday that factors in the value of state tax credits to oil companies.  Paskvan, who co-chairs the Senate Resources Committee, says the industry significantly benefits from the credits.

Paskvan says the credits, which include deductions against an oil company’s tax liability and cash payments to incentivize specific exploration and development, reduce the effective overall tax burden.

Paskvan says the tax rate on gross revenue is 12 to 18 percent when oil is between 75 to 95 dollars a barrel, not the 70 plus percent rates purported by supporters of tax breaks.  He says he’s requested additional data to help understand the tax picture above $95 a barrel and below $75 a barrel. He says the latest information shows the complexity of the taxation and the need to better understand the math before making any changes to the system.

Fate of Denali Commission Funds Still Unknown
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
Staff at Alaska’s Denali commission are waiting to hear whether or not they will need to return $15 million of their funding. Congress rescinded the money when the federal budget deal was passed in April.  At this point it’s still not clear if the full $15 million will need to go back. Joel Neimeyer is the federal co chair of the commission. He says in 27 years as a federal employee, he’s never seen anything like this.

Neimeyer says projects that could be impacted are waterfront upgrades. He says it may mean they will have to wait until next year rather than starting this summer.

The Denali Commission started with $20 million in base funding more than a dozen years ago and zoomed up to $140 million a few years later. President Obama has steadfastly entered $12 million for the commission’s base funding but congress knocked it back to about $10.7 million.

Because the commission gets other funding to leverage, they currently average around $40 million annually to help rural infrastructure projects.

Senator Lisa Murkowski says, it’s difficult to know what will happen with so much fiscal uncertainty in congress, but she’s heard Alaskan’s concern.

Joel Neimeyer says a congressional budget study recommended terminating the Denali Commission and the other two rural development commissions that serve the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia.  So Denali isn’t being singled out, but it’s tougher work for Alaska’s senators to protect the Denali Commission because the others have multiple Congress members to argue for their commission’s work, but Alaska has only three. He says the other two commissions have not had funds rescinded. He says he believes the Denali commission will survive but he says as funding diminishes, it is important to define how the commission can continue its work of improving living conditions for rural Alaska communities.

Neimeyer says regardless of what congress decides about whether the $15 million will have to be returned, he thinks the impacts will not be felt this year. For 2011, he says there is $180 million  in collaborative funds that will start or complete projects across the state. He says prioritizing sustainability, protecting the billions in state and federal investment in rural infrastructure will be increasingly important.

Anchorage Officials Campaign to End Panhandling
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Anchorage officials are starting a campaign to end panhandling in the city.  Mayor Dan Sullivan said Wednesday that the new “Change for the Better” program will help appropriate social services assist the homeless.

Today Marks 100th Anniversary of Cordova Coal Party
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
It’s the 100 year anniversary of a fight between Alaskans and the federal government over energy resources.  Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell says the story and message of the Cordova Coal Party ring true today.

Treadwell commemorated the Cordova Coal Party at an event in Juneau today.  The battle between the state and federal government over energy resource has since shifted to oil and gas, and Treadwell says the state has challenged the President and Congress to find ways to put a million barrels of oil per day into the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

Treadwell says there’s currently no plan for increasing Alaska oil output.  He says courts aren’t the state’s only avenue to force the issue, and that going over the head of government to the American people is another tactic to apply pressure to develop oil on Alaska’s federal lands.

Whaling Season Off to Strong Start
Jake Neher, KBRW – Barrow
Whalers in Northern Alaska are off to a strong start for the 2011 spring season. Crews have been in full gear since the first leads opened up in the Arctic Sea ice.

Subsistence Board Votes to Set Hard Cap on Bycatch
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
The Federal Subsistence Board voted in favor of setting a hard cap on bycatch accidentally caught by fishermen in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

Air National Guard Get Natural Disaster Response Training in Alabama
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
35 members of the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Medical group are in Alabama this week providing free medical and dental care. They are not in an area hard hit by tornados last week. Instead, this is a training mission designed to give guard members real world experience to prepare for missions overseas or in response to natural disasters.

Lieutenant Colonel Sharolyn Lange is Chief Nurse with the 176th Medical Group and leading the mission. She says the clinic has been very busy.