Alaska News Nightly: December 20, 2011

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TransCanada, Exxon Mobil Hold Off On Filing Resource Reports

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

TransCanada and Exxon Mobil are deferring filing the next step in paperwork to get a natural gas pipeline built to the Lower 48, and they’re assigning responsibility for that to Governor Sean Parnell.

The companies are supposed to file draft Resource Reports this month on the potential Alaska Pipeline Project or APP, but told federal authorities Tuesday that they’re holding off on that for now.

TransCanada Vice President of Alaska Development Tony Palmer says that’s because in October, the Governor recommended looking at a liquefied natural gas project instead.

“The resource reports are complete and ready to be filed.  But as you will recall earlier this fall Governor Parnell encouraged the North Slope producers to work with the APP to evaluate an LNG option,” Palmer said.

Palmer says TransCanada and Exxon are discussing that with the North Slope producers, and so while an LNG option is on the table, they’ll wait to release the resource reports.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC expected the reports this month, and already planned the next step, which is scoping meetings scheduled to start Jan. 18 in Anchorage.

The Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects, Larry Persily says the scoping process could still go forward if TransCanada and Exxon submit the reports in early January.

“Look it’s an unfortunate delay certainly from a federal agency perspective, everyone was looking forward to reviewing those resource reports.  It may only be temporary.  If they turn in the reports in a few weeks everyone may start reviewing the data that will be used in the EIS.  There’s certainly more time, not much, but still time to stay on schedule for a complete application to the FERC in October 2012,” Persily said.

October of next year is when the companies are supposed to file their finished application and TransCanada executive Tony Palmer says that’s still the plan.  He says the company is by no means giving up on a Lower 48 gas line through Canada, or the “Alberta route” as Palmer calls it.

“I would say that Alberta remains a viable option for us, just as the LNG does.  The parties that will make that ultimate decision as to where the gas will be delivered are customers.  That has always been the case.  In order to succeed w pipeline project you need regulatory approvals, but you must also have commercial underpinnings, which means contracts with customers,” Palmer said.

Palmer says interest in LNG has risen because of an increase in natural gas supplies in the Lower 48, and growing overseas markets.  Federal Coordinator Larry Persily says the companies will go where the buyers and money are.  He says if that ultimately takes a different form, so be it.

“If the decision is made that rather than build a gas pipeline to the Lower 48, if the discussions with North Slope producers result in a pipeline to serve and LNG export terminal in Nikiski or somewhere else in Alaska, if that produces jobs, gas, investment, public revenues for Alaska, I’m going to be just as happy as 700,000 other Alaskans to see a project go ahead,” Persily said.

FERC is still planning the gas pipelinee scoping meetings in January.  Parties involved say if TransCanada and Exxon do not file the resource reports in the coming weeks, it will change the timeline of the next year.

Mysterious Seal Disease Gets ‘Unusual Mortality Event’ Designation

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The puzzling illness that’s affecting ringed seals in the Arctic is now officially an Unusual Mortality Event – or UME. The designation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will free up more federal resources to investigate the cause. Walrus have also turned up with similar lesions and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to declare its own UME soon.

NPS Banned From Spending Money On Yukon Charley Law Enforcement

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A provision in an omnibus spending package passed by Congress last week bans the National Park Service from spending money on law enforcement on the Yukon River inside the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve.  The ban inserted by Representative Don Young stems from conflicts between local boaters and rangers in the preserve, including the much publicized confrontation between rangers and Central resident Jim Wilde last year.  The state and the park service disagree about the federal agency’s authority to do law enforcement on navigable waterways owned by the state of Alaska.  Representative Don Young says the ban is specific to the Yukon.

Young had originally pushed to ban all on water law enforcement inside the Yukon Charley Preserve, but the agency objected citing federal mining and subsistence fishing enforcement responsibilities.  The Park Service stopped doing on water boat safety checks this spring due to local opposition.  Agency spokesman John Quinley says the new restriction will further ratchet back the park Service’s approach.

Quinley says the Park Service remains concerned about boat safety on the Yukon and will try to get its message out in other ways.   Jim Wilde is awaiting sentencing on charges stemming from the shore side scuffle he had with rangers, which ensued after he failed to obey their orders during a boat safety check on the Yukon River in September 2010.

Ethics Committee Clears Rep. Young Of Alleged Violations

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

The House Ethics Committee has cleared Congressman Don Young of violations, but it’s changing the rules to prevent the type of fundraising he did.

Young received a dozen donations of $5,000 each to his legal defense fund, which were all tied to the same Louisiana businessman. The donations came from 12 different companies owned by Gary Chouest and his family.

He runs Edison Chouest Offshore, a marine transportation company that has made sizeable campaign contributions in the past to both Young and Senator Lisa Murkowski.

If the $60,000 had come from a “single source,” it would have greatly exceeded the $5,000 limit on donations to legal defense funds.  But the Ethics Committee found that the companies are officially different entities, despite their ties.

The Committee said in a statement it’s concerned that the incident, while legal, “challenges the principals” of contribution limits.  So to prevent similar cases in the future, the Ethics Committee is changing the rules on Jan. 1.  Now the owner of a company will be tied to its contributions, rather than the company alone being responsible.

Young has not returned requests by APRN for comment.  He put out a written statement saying he is “pleased” that the Ethics Committee confirmed he did not violate House rules.

APOC Issues Decision On RBG Bush Planes Investigation

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

The Alaska Public Offices Commission has issued a decision regarding their investigation into RBG Bush Planes for alleged illegal campaign contributions.   The questionable contributions were made to two candidates running for seats on the Lake and Peninsula Borough Assembly in 2010.

Petersburg Drops Redistricting Challenge

Matt Lichtenstein, KFSK – Petersburg

Petersburg will give up its legal challenge over redistricting. While they were not happy about losing their long-time legislators next year, the Mayor and the majority of city councilors Monday voted not to appeal the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Pacific High Plans Include Commons, Roof Garden

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

Plans to renovate Pacific High School include classrooms with moveable walls, a garden on the roof, and more common areas for students to spend time.

The Sitka School District unveiled plans earlier this week for the 30-student alternative high school. The renovations are funded, in part, by money voters approved during the 2010 municipal election.

School officials say the changes will not only improve the building, but also the learning that takes place inside.

CLICK HERE to view the plans (PDF file).

Once a week, Pacific High School co-principal Phil Burdick calls everyone in the building together for a meeting.

The 30 or so students cram into one of the classrooms here, where they sit at chairs or on the floor, or on exercise balls. Burdick stands at the front of the room with a stack of flyers, announcing events, and then it’s the students’ turn.

One of the students suggests that they be allowed to play with hackey sacks in class again. Not yet, one teacher says, because one of the small beanbags hit a ceiling tile and spread dust all over his computer. Maybe after the break.

Another student, senior Rikki Biggs, mentions that she saw a segment on Good Morning America the day before about a coat drive, and by the end of the meeting, the students are talking about collecting coats and other winter gear for a local charity.

The All-School meeting is one of the ways Pacific High School differs from traditional schools. This is an alternative high school – a place for students who don’t learn the way most others do. A place for them to belong.

“There’s nothing worse than an alternative student being stuck in a traditional model. It is stifling. It is soul-numbing,” Burdick said. “Students who come here and buy into the program, and get excited about what they’re learning about realize that they can accomplish anything.”

The school day here includes hot meals, and small group meetings called “crew,” and large group meetings, like the all-school.

“If you don’t have good food, if you don’t have a warm place to stay, and if you don’t feel connected and loved, then you cannot learn. It has been proven over and over and over again,” Burdick said. “So we feed our students, we give them a warm place to be for six or eight hours, and we love them, and they learn.”

The program is designed to meet those needs, but the building is not. As we walk around inside, Burdick points to water damage on the ceiling tiles. There are three square classrooms built for students to sit and listen all day, not for students to collaborate and work and move around – something the alternative education model demands.

School district officials hope renovations scheduled to begin this summer will change that. The narrow hallway that cuts the building in two will disappear, replaced with an oval commons area. Classrooms will have walls that can open up to join them to each other. And the kitchen, where lunch is prepared fresh every day, will move next door, to the Southeast Alaska Career Center. Burdick said students can learn cooking skills in the current kitchen, and graduate with a food handler’s card.

“We’d like to grow the program, too. There’s an entire career and tech-ed strand around culinary arts,” he said. “Right now we’re staffing it with AmeriCorps volunteers. Lauren is fabulous, but she is only one person and she is a volunteer.”

The plans for the remodel were approved by the Sitka School Board earlier this month, and also were presented to the Sitka Assembly. The city owns the school buildings. Some Assembly members have been lukewarm on the idea of renovating the school. Pete Esquiro asked whether the district has considered building the school at another site. Superintendent Steve Bradshaw told him the idea was discussed, but that renovating the building entitles the district to state money.

The State of Alaska is picking up about two thirds of the $2.2 million bill.

Assembly member Terry Blake thought the amount – which works out to roughly $440 a square foot – sounded steep. And the Assembly had questions about the timeline. Does this need to be done right now? Bradshaw told the Assembly that the district did not embark on the project lightly.

“Believe me, I understand what $2.2 million is,” Bradshaw told the Assembly. “But that’s why we took it to the taxpayers of this community – to say ‘Are you willing to spend this?’ The taxpayer said ‘Yes, we’re willing to spend it and we’re willing to back it.’ To me, it’s critical to keep moving on this, because we would like to get it done. Is a timeline going to impact us? No. If this Assembly says ‘We need you to back off,’ we will listen to that. I’m not sure we will agree with it.”

Burdick says he’s aware some people might consider the remodel a waste of money, but he says $2.2 million dollars is a small amount to improve a program that he believes ultimately helps the taxpayers.

“Our students stay in Sitka. They get a better job, they pay more taxes,” he said. “If we have high school dropouts who can’t get a job and have to be on welfare, then they pull from the tax roll.”

Biggs, the student who wanted to start the coat drive, says the renovation has been discussed since she was a freshman.

“And we talked about it for a really long time,” she said. “None of us thought it was going to happen. I’m a senior now.”

The students wrote letters to politicians, talked with architects about what they wanted to see in the new school, and hoped it would actually happen.

“It’s pretty awesome,” she said. “I’m happy, even though I’m not going to be here, I’m really happy that it’s happening.”

And she hopes that a new building will help foster the same sense of community she’s felt in the last four years at Pacific High.

“We’re all close. All of us. We don’t have our own cliques. We all hang out with the people we like the most, but we’re all pretty much friends,” Biggs said. “If you look at the lunch line, everyone’s cool with each other. We’re all talking. It’s been really nice to have everybody care about someone. If one person’s not here, everybody’s like, ‘Where is that person? Why are they not here?’ We try to call that person and see why they’re not in school. It’s cool.”

Bids on the Pacific High School renovation are scheduled to go out in the spring, with work to begin soon after. The hope is that the work will be done by this time next year.

Bethel Volunteers Raise $2,000 Towards Swimming Pool

Mark Arehart, KYUK – Bethel

Volunteers in Bethel raised nearly $2,000 selling Christmas cookies. Proceeds are going to a swimming pool fund, something their group—the Y-K Lifesavers—has been after for 18 years.