Alaska News Nightly: June 16, 2011

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House Votes to Bar FDA Approval of ‘Frankenfish’

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

The U.S. House has voted to bar the Food and Drug Administration from approving genetically modified salmon for human consumption.

Alaska Representative Don Young sponsored the amendment, which passed by voice vote Wednesday night and is part of a farm spending bill.

Young says he’s concerned about the health impacts of eating the genetically modified fish, their impact on wild salmon, and the competition they’ll give to fishermen in Alaska.

His amendment prevents the FDA from using money to approve an application for the modified fish. A Massachusetts company, AquaBounty, has created the modified salmon, which some call “Frankenfish.” It includes a growth hormone that makes the fish grow twice as fast as natural salmon.

The bill banning approval of genetically modified fish has to pass the Senate to stick. Both of Alaska’s Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski are co-sponsoring a companion bill in their chamber.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to decide this year whether to approve the genetically modified fish. An initial advisory panel deemed it likely safe last year but called for more studies.

If the FDA gives its approval, it would be the first time a genetically altered fish or animal would be allowed on America’s plates.

Congressional Delegates Divided on Likelihood of Gas Pipeline

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

The dream of getting a gas pipeline to connect Alaska’s North Slope with the Lower 48 is an old one, and in recent years, it’s seemed closer than ever. But even as the company TransCanada works toward building a line, skepticism is mounting among some members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation that a project will happen any time soon, if at all.

It’s like Alaska’s White Whale, always just out of reach, but dominating the dreams of many: a line linking Alaska’s trillions of cubic feet of gas to Lower 48 markets.  If the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline could be built, why not a gas line?  Congressman Don Young was part of the generation that got the oil pipe going… but he says a gas line isn’t going to happen.

“No.  no way.  Not gonna do it.  Gotta be within the state.”

By “within the state” Young means maybe to Fairbanks or Valdez, or even Haines.  He points to the recent collapse of the Denali Project line by BP and Conoco Phillips as evidence the market’s not there.

And he hates the plan former Governor Sarah Palin put in place, AGIA, or the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, which puts up half a billion dollars in matching funds for the project.

“But they’re not going to build the gas line, or AGIA build the gas line, because gas is too cheap in the Lower 48.”

Young says the project had its window – years back when Frank Murkowski was governor and was dealing with the producers. Critics called his talks a give-away to the companies, and Palin and the legislature scrapped it for AGIA.

Frank’s daughter, Senator Lisa Murkowski, also believes AGIA has failed.

Like Young she’s encouraging the state to look at other options such as a line to Fairbanks that could later be lengthened if the market’s good.

“We’re now in a position where the conventional wisdom is there’s not going to be a pipeline, AGIA didn’t work, we’re going to be $500 million out and we’re no further ahead in getting Alaska’s gas to market whether it’s to the national market, the world market or the
local market.”

Murkowski says if the Lower 48 line is dead, she’s not sure what that means for the department designed to help get a gas line off the ground, the Federal Coordinator Office in Washington run by longtime Alaskan Larry Persily.

“It does cause some question as to whether well what do you do with that federal coordinator position if the direction of the line is focused elsewhere.”

But Senator Mark Begich defends the post and says it has a big role helping whatever plan emerges. He’s still bullish on a pipeline and says the demand for gas will only go up. But he warns it’s up to the state to make it real.

“We have nothing. And I think the state needs to just say, “here’s what we’re going to do,” buckle up and go. And right now they’re kind of like, I’m not sure we want to get in the car yet. Get in the car.”

Begich says the state could be hammering out fiscal terms to make the project appealing to gas producers.  The federal coordinator Larry Persily agrees. He says it’s important the state figures out who takes the financial risk, who writes the checks, and what the rewards will be.  But he warns that holding out for too good of a deal could jeopardize things.

“The pie that we’re going to split up if you will is a lot smaller with natural gas than it is with oil. Even if gas prices rebound. They’re just not as profitable per BTU as oil.  But it really comes down to whether Alaskans want a strong long term oil and gas economy.”

Persily disputes the notion a gas line is just a pipe dream.

“It may be conventional skepticism that the project is dead but I believe that’s wrong.  You look at the numbers and natural gas consumption in the US climbed last year almost 6%, hitting a new record.  Meanwhile production in Canada which is our biggest supplier, is down 15% from just 4 years ago and heading even lower.”

Regardless Persily says it’s not today’s market the producers are watching – it’s 10 or 20 years down the road.

President Obama hasn’t mentioned a gas line in recent energy speeches, but White House Deputy Assistant for Energy and Climate Policy, Heather Zichal, says don’t read too much into that.

“This gas line is too important for Alaska’s economy and for our own domestic energy supply so that we are going to as an administration keep trying to find ways to make it happen.”

When asked if there was any point when it would be time to throw in the towel, Zichal responded, “not as far as we’re concerned.”

So the project keeps moving forward, whether Alaskans believe it will happen, or not.

UAA Professor Urges Better Management of Oil Reserves

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A University of Alaska professor says there’s a lot of value remaining in proven North Slope oil reserves, but the state needs to do a better job preparing for the future. UAA economics professor Scott Goldsmith gave a talk to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday about the importance of the oil industry to the state’s economy. Goldsmith says 16 billion of the 20 to 21 billion barrels of known North Slope oil reserves has been produced. He says the remaining oil will likely be worth as much as what’s already been pumped due to higher oil prices.

Goldsmith says crude prices give Alaska another chance to a better job managing the state’s finite oil wealth. Goldsmith said state tax policy needs to reflect and balance different types of oil development.

Goldsmith says undefined quantities of oil on federal lands could significantly add to Alaska production, but tax revenue from those properties would be much less than development on state land. Goldsmith underscored the importance of oil to the state’s economy, saying half of Alaska’s  jobs can be tied to oil development. He says state revenue from oil lightens the tax burden for other industries, and on individuals, who, in other states pay an average of $2,300 a year in state taxes.

Annual Finances Released by Congressional Delegates

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Alaskans got their annual glance at the personal finances of the state’s Congressional delegation on Wednesday. And they found Senator Murkowski and Congressman Young earning extra money from a range of investments that included stocks and real estate. Senator Mark Begich requested an extension to file his disclosure report later this summer. One-fifth of the entire Senate asked for similar extensions.

Senator Murkowski reports that she, her husband and their two kids have investments worth between $300,000 and $1.25 million. She also has — through First Bank — an IRA, a CD and stock shares.

The couple made more than a quarter-million dollars from their share of the sale of an Anchorage building on E Street. And the Senator’s husband Verne Martell made $10,000 from the sale of his former business — the Alaska Pasta Company.

It’s hard to say exactly how much any members of Congress are worth — because the federal reports only require disclosures within a broad range of dollar amounts. Additionally, members do not have to reveal the value of their primary homes or how much they owe on them.

Congressman Don Young has between $115,000 and $300,000 in investments and holds $165,000 to $400,000 at the Congressional credit union. He also has life insurance policies in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $500,000. The Congressman earned a small income from his Alaska teaching and legislative pension.

Young did report income for his legal expense fund, which he disclosed in the “gifts” section of the financial form. That totaled $25,000.   Both Congressman Young and Murkowski and her family continued to collect the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend Checks.

New Program Launched to Help Alaska Natives Protect Lands

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The Alaska Conservation Foundation is launching a new program aimed at helping Alaska Natives protect their lands.

A new fund, designed by an Alaska Native Steering Committee, will provide a vehicle for Alaska Native tribes and  Alaska Native non-profits to protect the land, waters and wildlife integral to their way of life. Polly Carr is a program officer with Alaska Center for the Environment.

The Alaska Native Steering Committee has developed the grant guidelines and will make funding recommendations each year, Carr says.

Steering Committee members include Vera Metcalf, the Executive Director of the Eskimo Whaling Commission in Nome, and Orville Huntington, Tanana Chiefs Conference Wildlife and Parks Director.

The Fund will support the incorporation of indigenous knowledge to promote food security and sustainable economies, connect the importance of environmental health, and address the impacts of climate change.

Alaska Native individuals and nonprofit organizations may apply for funding. $100,000 will be granted in the inaugural round.

Fairview Hosts FBI Presentation on Hate Crimes

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

Last week, an FBI agent based in California who specializes in Civil Rights took part in a public forum held at Anchorage’s Fairview Recreation Center. For an hour, Supervisory Agent Peter Kaupp told the packed room what constitutes a federal hate crime…and what does not.

Copper River Salmon Return Slows Down

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Copper River red salmon return has slowed down after a big start. This year’s run is predicted to be a little over 2 million sockeye, on the high side of the 10-year-average. State biologist Mark Sommerville says so far the overall return remains above that projection but volume has fallen off in the last week. Sommerville says that resulted in a reduced catch for dip-netters at Chitina.

Water levels are also an issue for Chitina dip-netters. Sommerville says the Copper River has been running about normal, but it’s now reported to be dropping with recent cooler weather.

Ferry Supporters Lobby Governor Parnell to Keep Funding

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Ferry supporters are lobbying Governor Sean Parnell to keep money for a new vessel in the budget. But even if it survives his veto pen, it may not be enough

Juneau Teen’s Death Prompts Call for Better Prevention Programs

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

It’s been two years since 18-year-old Taylor White died in tragic drunk driving accident in Juneau, just days after his high school graduation.

In a similar event last week, 19-year-old Gabriel Carte died in a crash and once again police think alcohol was a factor.

Since his death, White’s friends and relatives have worked through the Taylor White Foundation to prevent teenage substance abuse and drunk driving.

Foundation members say they’re on the right track, but this most recent tragedy shows the need for more prevention programs in Juneau.