Alaska News Nightly: June 23, 2011

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Obama’s Oil Release Dismays Alaska’s Congressional Delegation

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska’s Congressional Delegation is unilaterally dismayed at President Obama’s decision Thursday to tap into the nation’s emergency oil reserves.  The White House announced this morning that it’s responding to tightness in the oil markets by releasing 30 million barrels of crude.  The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve is located in salt caverns off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, and is accessed only sparingly.

Alaska’s Congressman and Senators say despite the recent higher prices at the gas pump, it’s not time to use the emergency oil:

Representative Young: “Dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. This is so anti-American independence, anti-American that I’ve ever seen.”

Senator Murkowski: “I do think this is misguided, I think this is obviously transparent in terms of its political nature. I think that that is quite disturbing.”

Senator Begich: “I don’t know who gave them the advice; I wouldn’t have given him the advice. This is not a good idea ‘cause it’s just short term.”

Despite the fact that Begich sits on the same Democratic side of the aisle as the White House, he’s pushing to drill more oil wells in Alaska rather than using up the saved supply.

“I mean Alaska is in my view America’s strategic oil reserve, and that’s what we should be working on. These little band aids where they just say we’re going to sell-off 30 million barrels of oil, that’s not going to do it. That’s just a moment in time. Two months from now we’ll have discussion and we won’t know what happened to price at the pump because it won’t have an impact.”

On Thursday, a senior White House official said the Obama team is not making predictions about whether gas prices will go down from their action. Oil prices did plunge Thursday when the news broke.

But Murkowski and Young agree with Begich that opening up the reserves won’t likely save money at the gas pump.  In fact Murkowski says the timing is off.

“The high prices that we saw six to eight weeks ago are no longer so high. We’re seeing the price of oil go down, the price at the pump go down, the only thing that is going up are the unemployment numbers. The misery index if you will. And I think that is what the president has
responded to and is trying to deflect from the current economic just fall out.”

The White House says it’s been working for weeks on the plan to open up the reserves and is doing so in consultation with major oil producing countries, which have committed to boosting production. Europe will also tap 30 million of its reserve barrels.

Congressman Young says the White House should instead speed up on its plan to open up the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, or NPR-A, to drilling, and blow through the delayed permitting process.

“If I was the president, I’d declare a national emergency for energy policy and get drilling. No more lawsuits, no more delaying, no more bureaucracy delays.”

The White House says relying on the nation’s oil reserves is necessary because of the restricted supply of light, sweet crude coming from Libya, especially in anticipation of the heavy summer driving season. The strategic oil reserves contain more than 700 million barrels of oil, and the Obama Administration plans to at this point to tap less than 5 percent of that.  This will be only the third, and the largest, sale of the strategic reserves since they were created after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s.

Troop Draw-Down Concerns Alaska’s Congressional Delegation

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska’s Congressional delegation also reacted with some concern today about just what the President’s planned draw down of troops in Afghanistan will mean for Alaskan soldiers. They want assurance it’s done in such a way that does not leave the remaining American forces
high and dry.

Senator Lisa Murkowski heard a direct pledge from Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week that troops in Afghanistan will not get short shrift as the draw down takes place. But she’s still hearing worried questions from Alaskans, especially around Fairbanks.

“The Stryker Brigade from Fort Wainwright was going in right as things were starting to hit the most difficult time, going into the summer season. And so the families are anxious, and they hear the news that well there’s going to be this draw down, pull out of certain numbers, and they’re thinking, wait a minute, my loved one just went over there, he’s going to be there for a full year, they’re going to be pulling out all these other troops, and does this put him or her in a more precarious situation than otherwise.”

One wife with questions is Nikki Withington.  She lives in Fairbanks, and her husband just deployed to Afghanistan.  She doesn’t want budget cuts or draw downs to put him in added danger.

“Well, I think the Stryker brigade is very capable of taking care of themselves. It is their job after all. But I do think the less troops there are there, not even just necessarily American troops, the less of a presence the less safe it will be.”

Withington says she believes progress has been made in Afghanistan, and so a draw down makes sense – but she fears this may be too much too soon. And she wants the nation to turn its attention to its war and the soldiers fighting it.

“Everyone is also concerned about the big government spending and everyone is thinking like, hmm… they want the troops home, and Obama sees it as a way to cut back on how much spending the DoD is doing.”

It’s concerns from Alaskans like Nikki that have the attention of the Congressional delegation. They’re all grappling themselves with what should be done in Afghanistan. Senator Murkowski for example admits she doesn’t know what the perfect number of troops is to keep in-country. She says the President’s plan to pull out 10,000 troops this year and 33,000 by next summer is a compromise. And she doesn’t claim to know better.

“I know people in this country are war weary, I too am war weary. I go out to Walter Reed and talk to the men who have given so much, not their life but many of them their limbs. I hear their resolve and their commitment, but I look at the price that has – is being paid, and then the gains we hope we are making and a policy maker I want to be sure that we are there for the right reasons.”

Senator Mark Begich threw his support to President Obama’s draw down plan and said he wishes more troops could come home but thinks the decision was based on strategy rather than politics.

To hear Congressman Don Young talk, disentangling from Afghanistan is necessary – the sooner the better – a unique opinion among Republicans.

“But eventually we’re going to have to get out of there. I mean I just don’t see it being successful. Like I said you go back through history and you’ve never been successful. I feel sorry for those that lost their lives, families that lost their loved ones for effort put forth. But when it first started it was a lot different than Iraq, this is a different war entirely.”

Army wife Nikki Withington knows that in modern history no one has conquered Afghanistan, and no outsider tamed it.  But she disagrees that the war cannot be won, although she says it’s hard to know exactly what victory would be. She says it’s not like World War II which ended with definitive winners and losers.

And Withington says it’s hard to know just who to listen to from Washington, and who will do the best by the soldiers.

“There’s going to be so many drastic claims and promises made over this next year from potential candidates for the presidency and Obama himself that I’m not sure what to expect from them as far as defense spending and the draw down is concerned.  I don’t know what to believe. Because some things they claim just aren’t possible.”

For now Withington looks forward to her husband’s updates from Kandahar, and makes time to listen to the policy discussions that affect them both.

Draft Legislation Being Written to Extend Coastal Management Program

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Legislative leaders Thursday began distributing draft legislation that, if enacted before the end of the day next Thursday, would extend the state’s coastal management program. The next step is a poll of all members to see if forty House and Senate members agree to call themselves into special session to deal with the issue.

Complaint Filed Against Unalaska for Violating Clean Water Act

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB  – Unalaska

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint today against Unalaska and the State of Alaska on the Environmental Protection Agency’s behalf, charging that the city repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act between 2004 and 2010.

The complaint lists over 4,800 violations. The Department of Justice alleges that the city frequently exceeded its discharge permit and released pollutants, including partially treated sewage, into Unalaska Bay. According to the complaint, the city could be held liable for over a $100 million — more than $30,000 per violation per day.

The city is right now in the process of securing funding for a new wastewater treatment plant in order to comply with federal regulations. While the current plant is only 11 years old, it doesn’t conduct secondary treatment of wastewater. Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt says that at the time of construction, that plant was covered by an amendment to the Clean Water Act that set more relaxed requirements for some Alaskan villages.

But Marquardt says that when the city applied for a new discharge permit in 2004, they did not receive another waiver.

The EPA would not discuss the pending litigation. The Department of Justice could not be immediately reached for comment.

Pebble Partnership Challenges ‘Save Our Salmon’ in Court

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

The Pebble Limited Partnership challenged the Lake and Peninsula Borough’s approval of the “Save Our Salmon” Initiative in an Anchorage court this morning. The hearing is just the latest in a battle over the development of a massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine in Southwest Alaska.

Two Hikers Rescued from Mt. Healy

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Two hikers are safe after getting lost on Mt. Healy near Denali National Park. The Park Service reports that the women headed out Tuesday night from the Parks Highway with plans to head up Bison Gulch, to the top of Mt. Healy and possibly on to Savage River. Park spokeswoman Kris Fister says the pair of 22-year-olds ran into trouble when the weather soured above tree-line.

Fister says the hikers, seasonal tourism employees from the lower 48, were able to alert authorities they needed help Wednesday morning via cell phone.  She says a search that included a ground team, plane and a National Guard helicopter, was unable to locate the pair on the mountain.

Fister says the hikers struggled down several miles through heavy brush to a creek bed where they were found and flown out by the National Guard helicopter crew early Thursday morning, in good condition.

Critics Concerned about Decrease in Ocean Rangers This Year

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Alaska has fewer environmental monitors on cruise ships this year. State officials say enough Ocean Rangers remain to do the job. But critics are worried.

Australian Cruise Ship Stops in Unalaska Despite Landing Decreases

Jacob Resneck, KUCB – Unalaska

An Australian cruise ship on its inaugural voyage stopped over in Unalaska this week on its way to Russia and Japan. Cruise ship landings are becoming more and more rare in the remote Aleutian community.