Alaska News Nightly: November 1, 2011

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Alaska Soldier Arrested on Suspicion of Espionage

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

An Alaska soldier has been arrested on suspicion of spying, the Anchorage Daily News is reporting. 22-year-old William C. Millay was arrested and booked in the Anchorage jail on Friday.  Millay is based at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.  Millay is being held without bail.

Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesman Eric Gonzalez says Millay was arrested after an investigation conducted by the FBI, and the Army military intelligence.  Gozalez says the case will be prosecuted through the military justice system.

‘Minibus’ Bill Passes Senate

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska’s Senators say the bi-partisan passage on Tuesday of a slimmed-down bundle of spending bills is a good step for a Congress best known for gridlock. The $182-billion appropriations bill is called a “minibus” because it bites off a chunk of the federal budget, rather than trying to fund everything through an “omnibus” spending package.  Among the highlights say Alaska’s Senators are increases in funding for fishery stock assessments and to the Essential Air Service Program.

The mini-bus puts together three spending bills that tackle Agriculture, Commerce, and Transportation and Housing.  It does make cuts to local governments’ community development grants that help low-income communities.  And housing for the poor, law enforcement, and scientific research also take hits.

But Congress agreed in August that next fiscal year’s spending bills would be smaller… and that’s what this one delivers. Democratic Senator Mark Begich says $67 million for fishery stock assessments would mean better updated quota numbers. That’s an increase in spending by more than $15 million.
“For Alaska and for all fisheries, I mean the stock assessment is the critical piece that determines how much we can fish, what our minimum amounts are, and if you don’t do these accurate stock assessments, they have a direct impact in the amount of fish Alaskans can catch. And usually what happens is they lower the amounts that are available because they don’t’ have good stock assessments,” Begich said.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski says ensuring there’s enough money to make regular and good stock assessments was a big priority. She’s also touting money for complying with the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, and for the FAA in the form of Airport Improvement Program funds, with an added $10 million going to upkeep and maintenance of the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage.

And the mini-bus includes half a million dollars for a newly created National Clearinghouse on Sexual Assault of American Indian and Alaska Native Women.

Murkowski is also pleased at $143 million in funding for the Essential Air Service program – which only months ago was threatened with major cuts by other members of Congress.

“This is welcome news because not only were we able to survive the direct attacks that came at Essential Air Service, but we actually see an increase over the FY11 levels for EAS funding. This is going to be important for our Alaska airports.  We’ve got 40 airports in the state that see the benefits of Essential Air Services so this was an important win for us in Alaska,” Murkowski said.

The spending package passed the Senate 69 to 30, Murkowski and Begich both prefer this technique of tackling a few spending bills at a time rather than trying to pass one giant spending bill.

“The last thing we need as a Congress is to be dealing with a multi-thousand page omnibus appropriation bill that members just don’t know what’s included in it. By breaking it down to smaller legislative vehicles we can spend the time debating and amending and making a better work product,” Murkowski said.

Begich says biting off the smaller group of spending bills lets Senators examine them carefully and talk with one-another about their individual priorities.  He expects more to come in the next few weeks – but warns that there’s no time to waste.

“The challenge will be we’re running out of time before the end of the year.  We’ll have another which will be introduced shortly, then my guess is before year’s out we’ll have remainder in 1 block that will include defense funding.  That’s important obviously for Alaska,” Begich said.

Just because the mini-bus passed the Senate on Tuesday doesn’t guarantee it will become law. It has to go to conference with the House’s versions of spending bills, and receive the President’s approval.  But Alaska’s Senators say they hope Tuesday’s vote kick-started the process of hammering out spending agreements.

Young Pushes for Loosening of Sea Otter Pelt Sale Restrictions

Deanna Garrison, KRBD – Ketchikan

Congressman Don Young lashed out at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during a hearing last week on legislation that would loosen restrictions on the sale of sea otter pelts in parts of Alaska. Young is hoping the bill will stem the growth of sea otters in Southeast and Southcentral.

Great Bear Petroleum Won’t Make Decision on Continuing Work Until Next Year

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The company with the largest stake in future development of shale oil on the North Slope says a decision on whether to proceed with work there will not be made for another year.

Great Bear Petroleum surprised the state’s oil industry a year ago when it leased – for shale exploration — approximately a half-million acres just south of the Prudhoe Bay and Kaparuk fields.  On Tuesday morning, President Ed Duncan told the House Resources Committee that the company has spent about $1 million in getting permits – and plans to drill its first exploratory wells this winter.  He says the project is in its “Proof of Concept” phase.

“While we’re all optimistic and all very excited,  until we get these wells drilled, tested and flowed back and actually calibrate the rocks – the rocks will tell us what they’re going to be able to do for us – much of what we talk about is well-founded theory,  but nothing in hand,” Duncan said.

The theory he refers to could lead to drilling about 200 small, shallow shale oil wells per year for 10 years.   He said it would take a workforce of thousands of people trained to use the new equipment.  And he says their output would feed directly into the TransAlaska Pipeline System from the North Slope to Valdez.

Shale oil and gas have earned a national reputation for using controversial methods to produce energy.   But the state’s Director of Oil and Gas Bill Barron says a Parnell administration task force from several different executive branch departments is looking at all the elements of extraction – and trying to prepare now for dealing with it if the exploration advances.   He indicated there are other companies in line for shale behind Great Bear.

“If we can figure out a way to work with the various companies, to have common roads, common gathering lines, a common delivery point into TAPS, common and shared power facilities,  we can minimize the overall impact to the environment.   And that’s the thrust that we’re trying to embrace,” Barron said.

The House committee told Barron and Great Bear’s Duncan that the legislature expects to be a part of the development of regulations of the new industry.   Co-Chairman Paul Seaton pointed to several sensitive aspects of shale oil and gas extraction that will have to be settled.  At the top was pollution of water sources near other U.S. deposits.  Duncan said the company plans to recycle small supplies of otherwise unusable water that is below the surface throughout the North Slope.

“That’s a really good thing for Alaska.   And it’s unique, in fact, in the major shale resource play developments in North America.  That we have a non-potable water source – limitless is a very big word, but we’ll use it – it’s an extremely large volume of recoverable, brackish water from the subsurface that may be ideal,” Duncan said.

The committee will follow the work by Great Bear and others, with further hearings planned during the session that begins in January.

Large Seafood Expo Kicks Off in China

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

One of the biggest seafood expos in the world got underway today in Qingdao China. The China Fisheries and Seafood expo includes 800 companies from 38 countries.

Bob Tkacz is an Alaska reporter covering fisheries issues. He’s attended the China Seafood Expo every year since 1997. He says it has grown in importance over the years and now attending it is a must for Alaska’s big seafood players.

Kenai Predator Control Proves to be Contentious Issue

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Predator control is being proposed for two areas of the Kenai Peninsula and it’s proving to be a contentious issue for residents there. Tuesday on the statewide call in program Talk of Alaska, members of wildlife advocacy organizations debated the issue with a state fish and game biologist and a member of the state board of game. The basic issue in 15A- on the northern Kenai- is low browse opportunities for moose and in 15C- in the south-, there are not enough large bulls. In both areas, everyone agrees there are numerous problems contributing to the lack of moose on the Kenai including highway kills, black bear predation and lack of food. Ted Spraker is a retired biologist and has been a member of the board of game for four terms. He lives on the Kenai and says in the 80s, trappers were able to take a high number of wolves.

But Alaska Wildlife Alliance director John Toppenberg also lives on the Kenai and says wolf control there is wasted effort because there’s just not enough food to support high moose populations.

The proposals for both areas will be up for a vote during the Board of Game’s Barrow meetings Nov. 11-14. Written comments can be submitted on the proposal and the meeting audio will be streamed online.

Agreement Reached for Protection of Knik, Matanuska River-Area Wetlands

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The Eklutna Native Corporation, based near Anchorage, and the Great Land Trust have reached an agreement that is expected to protect 4800 acres of wetlands near the Knik and Matanuska Rivers.

Eklutna has sold the right to develop the land to the Trust, although the Corporation keeps ownership of the actual acreage.

David Mitchell, the Trust’s conservation director, says the Native corporation land is an important wildlife corridor.

The Trust paid $1.95 million for the development rights to the property, which is still available for traditional uses like hunting and fishing.

The cost of the property is being paid with money from the Port of Anchorage project.   The port filled in 135 acres of wetlands with the permission of the US Army Corps of Engineers.  The Corps’ permit requires money to be put into a fund to offset the impact of the fill.

Eklutna CEO Curtis McQueen said in a press release that “we are honored to work the Great Land Trust to protect key habitat for our shareholders and the community. We anticipate doing more transactions of this kind in the future.”
UA Aims to Start New Program to Help Students Graduate on Time

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The University of Alaska’s operating and capital budgets will be on the agenda on Wednesday for a UA Board of Regents meeting in Fairbanks.

A university press release says UA officials have proposed an operating budget of $924 million and will seek $368.2 million of that from the state. Federal dollars, contracts, tuition and earnings would pay for the rest.

$1.4 million in the operating budget would fund measures aimed at increasing the number of students who graduate on time. The line item includes money for stepped up academic advising.  UA spokeswoman Kate Ripley says the university takes some of the responsibility for the challenge students face.

The University has already launched an awareness campaign to get information out about what it takes to get through college on schedule. Ripley says the “Stay on TRACK” campaign pushes basic steps to graduate in four years.

Tenakee Students Wade into Science

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

Tenakee Springs is a community surrounded by science, where residents here joke about whale song waking them up on their boats in the middle of the night and huge old-growth forests are just steps away.

And teachers at Tenakee School hope that a new way of learning science will better connect their students to what amounts to a giant outdoor laboratory surrounding their school.