Alaska News Nightly: August 9, 2011

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ConocoPhillips Extends Natural Gas Plant Operations Until October

Associated Press

ConocoPhillips has extended operations at its Kenai liquefied natural gas plant until October to fill an additional order.

The plant was to have been mothballed earlier this year, but they were able to fulfill four orders, three to Japan and one to China.

The plant was to have been mothballed after the last shipment, which went out last week.

But ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Natalie Lowman says that the plant will be open an additional two months because of this latest order.

Details of that order were not immediately released. She says the plant is still scheduled to be mothballed after this order is shipped.

Jack-Up Rig in Kachemak Bay May Violate Federal Law

Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer

Kachemak Bay sees all manner of strange vessels large and small, but the appearance this week of an enormous jack-up drilling rig caught many local residents by surprise. Some folks are wondering if the rig’s owner – Escopeta Oil and Gas – is violating federal and state law by moving it into the bay.

Legislators Expect Bill to Lower State Oil Taxes Next Session

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Among the issues legislators anticipate dealing with during next year’s session is a revived effort by the Parnell Administration to lower the state’s taxes on oil production. The House passed House Bill 110 that lowered taxes last year. But the Senate refused to advance it until the administration and the oil industry provided more information on the taxes’ effect on production and employment. The Senate this week contracted for a study to get some of that information – particularly to determine who is working in the industry, what they are doing, and if they are Alaskans. Jim Calvin is president of the McDowell Group Consultants – the company that will do the study. He says the job is to assemble a look at all the information available on the labor force for the state’s oil industry.

Much of the data the study will need is confidential, and some will have to come from private companies and will require voluntary cooperation. Calvin says a complete labor picture for the industry includes such support activities as camp services, transportation and security. He says the work force also includes professional services that take part in North Slope oil fields.

The McDowell Group has extensive experience in oil industry research in the past – a fact recognized by Anchorage Republican Representative Mike Hawker. Hawker was skeptical of the study when it was first proposed, but says he now anticipates a valuable return from McDowell. However, Hawker cautions, the employment study will not address the issue of oil production – and that is the heart of the tax reduction case.

The final report is due to the Senate Finance Committee on December first for use during next year’s session.

Southcentral Moth Outbreak Devastates Berry Crops

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Berry crops in Southcentral Alaska, along with many shrubs and trees, have suffered this year from a widespread geometrid moth outbreak, causing defoliation in many plant species.

According to Michael Racy, an integrated pest management technician for UAF Cooperative Extension Service, this type of moth is native to Alaska, but this particular behavior hasn’t been documented in the state before.

Though many plant species are currently struggling, Racy says that many should survive.

Racy says this outbreak began in 2009 on the southern Kenai Peninsula, and this year it has spread up as far as Hatcher Pass…and residents can expect it to affect berry crops in many areas along the way:

Racy says that areas on the southern Kenai Peninsula should see a significant decrease in moth activity within the next year…but the northern Kenai Peninsula will likely have another year or so of heavy defoliation.

According to Racy, the best way for people to help their plants survive is to keep them watered and growing as healthy as possible.

Alaska Food Policy Council Creates Anti-Obesity Program

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Obesity is a national problem. Diane Peck is a public health specialist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Obesity Prevention and Control Program. She’s just working with a panel called the Alaska Food Policy Council which is putting together  a program  aimed at both reducing the number of overweight Alaskans, and in pointing them toward eating healthy, local foods.

Federal Judge Dismisses Suit Against Local Hotel Employees Union

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A federal judge has dismissed a suit filed against a local hotel employees union.

Judge H. Russel Holland threw out the Sheraton Hotel’s claim that Unite Here Local 878 actions had cost the hotel thousands in business losses, while upholding the union’s First Amendment rights.

The dispute started almost a year ago, when Sheraton Anchorage hotel filed suit in federal court in Anchorage, charging that Unite Here, the union that represents many of the hotel’s hourly wage employees, had defamed the hotel and cost it more than $638,000 in lost revenue. Unite Here conducted a boycott of the hotel, picketing and urging hotel guests to join the boycott.

Earlier this month, Judge Holland ruled that the union’s actions were protected by the U.S. Constitution and the National Labor Relations Act.

Matt Fennell is a staff worker for Unite Here.

A similar suit filed by the Sheraton against the National Labor Relations Board last year was also dismissed by a federal district court judge.

The union’s unfair labor practice charges against the hotel include the unfair firing of four union leaders, according to Fennell. Unite Here is still awaiting a administrative law judge’s decision on those charges.

Local Sheraton Anchorage hotel management had no comment on the issue. Texas-based Ashford TRS Nickel LLC owns and operates the Anchorage hotel. The company’s attorney,   Karl Terrell, said in an email that the court committed an error in dismissing its lawsuit against the union.

Apple to Open First Retail Store in Alaska

Associated Press

Apple says it’s opening its first retail store in Alaska.

The Apple Store will open Saturday at the 5th Avenue Mall in Anchorage.

There were months of speculation on company-related blogs, fueled by a covered storefront under construction at the mall, that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company was coming to Alaska.

Tuesday’s announcement came the same day as the iPod, iPad and iPhone maker surpassed Exxon Mobil Corp. as the most valuable company in the U.S.

Portugal. The Man Loses Gear in Chicago Heist

Associated Press

Oregon-based rock band Portugal. The Man has lost all of its equipment after its touring van and trailer were stolen from a Chicago parking lot.

Reports are that the band lost dozens of items including vintage guitars and amps, keyboards, effect pedals, drums and microphones. The band’s Ford van and trailer were taken from an attended parking lot Monday. They were in Chicago to perform at the city’s Lollapalooza music festival.

Lead singer John Gourley says the band had only recently acquired all the equipment they needed to make the music they want and put on the live show their fans have come to expect.

The band hails from Wasilla.

Anchorage Releases AYP Report to Help Parents Choose Schools

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Childhood Development won’t release this years statewide Adequate Yearly Progress Report until this Friday.  But partially to give some parents a chance to choose a different school if they like, Anchorage released its result Monday.

It showed Anchorage graduation rates were up, but fewer schools met the new Adequate Yearly Progress standards.  KSKA’s Len Anderson reports on the district’s 2010-2011 “No Child Left Behind” results.

Russian Group Traces Route of 19th Century Explorers to Dillingham

Melati Kaye, KDLG – Dillingham

A unique set of visitors showed up recently in Dillingham. The group of Russians is retracing the routes of late 19th century Russian explorers. KDLG’s Melati Kaye stopped in on their pre-trip blessing ceremony at the local Russian Orthodox Church in Dillingham to find out more.