Alaska News Nightly: July 12, 2011

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Obama Creates Inter-Agency Coordination Group for Oil and Gas Development in Alaska

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

President Obama created Tuesday a new inter-agency group to coordinate oil and gas development in Alaska. It pulls together top officials from agencies like the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency and calls upon them to meet periodically to share information, get on the same page with permitting, and look to long term planning.

Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes will lead the new group.  His goal is to get the federal agencies on the same page.

“First we are going to facilitate orderly and efficient decision making processes by making sure agencies working together as we evaluate permits and conduct rigorous environmental reviews for onshore and offshore energy development projects in Alaska.”

President Obama first announced plans for an inter-agency coordination group on Alaskan development this spring, an idea that Senator Mark Begich had pushed. On Tuesday the White House released an executive order, making it official. Hayes says it gives the federal departments an organized way of working together.

“This means communicating on schedules, progress on different pending decisions, sharing application project information, developing jointly scientific and environmental data that are needed for good decision-making, pulling together cultural and traditional knowledge across our agencies that are relevant.  It means making sure that we’re working together as a federal family collectively to have the best information available to make the best decisions possible.”

Other agencies at the table include deputy-level staff from the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Defense, and Homeland Security, and the Office of the Federal Coordinator for gas projects, Larry Persily.

Persily says there’s certainly no downside to working together.

“Coordination is good, there’s no doubt about that. And certainly that’s what this office has been doing since it was set up. So I think we can bring that knowledge, that skill to the table, we’ve been living that for the past year and a half or so.”

Who’s not at the table?  The state of Alaska. The Executive Ordercalls for the group to designate a point of contact to work with the state, local Alaskan communities, tribes, and other stakeholders. But Governor Sean Parnell released a statement expressing concern that the state isn’t part of the actual working group.

However, the state did just let die the program that gives it a voice with the feds.  The Coastal Zone Management Program guaranteed Alaska input into federal actions on coastal development.

Joe Balash with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources says the programs are different.

“What we’re talking about here is in this case is an interagency work group that is actually charged with finding a way to get to yes as opposed to imposing additional hurdles on activities.  And so its offense verses defense I guess is probably the best or easiest way to describe it.”

Just how much the inter-agency coordination will change things inAlaskan oil and gas development is anyone’s guess, but with the Executive Order, President Obama and his team fulfill requests that have come in from the Congressional delegation and oil and gas officials.  They’ve complained that permits are given out too slowly.

But Hayes says this is not a one-stop-shop for oil and gas companies to get the go-ahead on development.

“I think what this is a one stop shop for coordination of permitting, which is extremely important. As I said before this is not a new super permitting group. Each department will continue to be responsible for instituting its statutory obligations. But will have a one stop shop for coordinating permitting of oil and gas in the arctic, and this group will ensure there is good coordination in that regard.”

Environmentalists welcomed Hayes statement that the coordination group won’t be fast-tracking development permits. Andrew Hartzig is the Anchorage-based director of the Arctic program at the Ocean Conservancy. He points out that the executive order calls for a safe and responsible approach to development.

“In the end, federal agencies still need to do their homework, especially with respect to science and spill response and ensure that they’re making no regrets decisions in arctic waters.”

The Interior Department’s David Hayes announced the new interagency group Tuesday at a conference on Arctic oil and gas development in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He took questions from the audience and other experts speaking at the event, including Fran Ulmer, head of the Arctic Research Commission.

She voiced concerns that responsible oil and gas development requires costly infrastructure and environmental investments, Ulmer used as an example the need for a new Coast Guard icebreaker, which is nowhere near becoming a reality.

“It does take investment, at the very same time that Congress seems totally preoccupied with the debt, not that that’s important, but there are counterbalancing interests. Could you comment please?”

Hayes admitted that some members of Congress have tried to punish the Obama Administration departments with budget cuts for what they see as permit delays. He says that actually slows things down.

“We’re concerned about that, we’re very concerned about that. And the arctic is a very good example of an area that could be affected in significant ways by budget implications.”

That talk about the budget gets to the heart of the situation in Washington, which is in gridlock over spending.

CSIS Holds Conference on Arctic Oil and Gas Development

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

In Washington D.C. on Tuesdaay, the Center for Strategic and International Studies or CSIS held a one day conference on Arctic oil and gas development. CSIS is an international security think tank. David Pumprey is the deputy director of energy and national security for CSIS. Senator Murkowski gave the opening speech this morning. Also on the panel was Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell, oil industry officials, environmental watchdogs and deputy director of Interior David Hayes.

Pumprey says CSIS pulled the conference together in an effort to provide more information on the political debate about how quickly arctic development should or should not happen.

House Bill Could Put Limits on ‘Biometrics’

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The state legislature could take another major step toward protecting personal privacy during next year’s session as the House prepares to take up a Senate bill putting limits on the collection of what is called “biometric” identification data.

Kohring Requests Outside Trial

Associated Press

A former Alaska lawmaker caught in a wide-ranging corruption probe has asked to have his retrial moved out of state.

Attorneys for Victor Kohring question whether he can get a fair trial given the publicity that his case and others like it have generated. In court papers, filed late last week, they say there is “more than an adequate foundation to presume prejudice,” and note what they call inflammatory pieces and commentary on Kohring’s case.

They also say moving the trial to the Lower 48 – to another state within the 9th Circuit – will make it easier for witnesses to be called.

The government has not yet responded to Kohring’s request.

Earlier this year, an appeals court panel overturned Kohring’s conviction and ordered a retrial, citing prosecutorial errors.

Young’s Sealaska Bill Goes to Natural Resources Committee Wednesday

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Sealaska land-selection legislation will be before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday. The panel is the bill’s final stop before heading to the House floor.

The measure, authored by Alaska Congressman Don Young, is scheduled for mark-up.

Young’s office says it’s expected to pass out of the committee with bipartisan support. The bill was introduced in April, and had a hearing in May before the Indian Affairs Subcommittee. The office says only minor changes have been made since that hearing.

Young’s measure would designate Tongass National Forest timberlands that Sealaska could select and harvest. Most are on Prince of Wales Island. It also proposes economic development zones.

The lands are outside boundaries set by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which created Native corporations.

Sealaska says making addition selections within current boundaries and logging them could damage habitat and watersheds. Critics, including environmental groups, say the new selection areas include key habitat for fish and wildlife and should be protected.

Senator Lisa Murkowski has her own version of the bill. It has significant differences, including some of the timberland locations. It also had a hearing in April. Her office says it hopes for a markup this summer.

Troll Fleet Finishes First King Salmon Opening

Joe Viechnicki, KFSK – Petersburg

Southeast’s commercial troll fleet finishes up their first summer king salmon opening just before midnight tonight.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game expects trollers will reach the target harvest of nearly 102,000 Chinook salmon by the end of the day. The opening started July 1.

Trollers can head back out and fish for other salmon after offloading any kings caught in the opening. They’ll have another king opening sometime in August after a closure designed to let coho salmon return to the inside waters.

Pelican Struggles with Absent Fish Economy: Part III

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

Today, we conclude a three-part series on the Chichagof Island city of Pelican. In the first two parts, KCAW reported on the city’s economic troubles, which center around the closure of its massive cold storage plant, and on how residents feel about some of the community’s struggles.

In this last of three reports, KCAW’s Ed Ronco reports on the future of the city and those who see hope and promise in Lisianski Inlet.