Alaska News Nightly: February 17, 2012

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Federal Government Approves Shell Oil’s Spill Response Plan

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The federal government has signed off on Shell Oil Company’s spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea, clearing a major hurdle for the Houston oil giant to begin drilling vast Arctic Ocean reserves off Alaska’s coast during the 2012 summer open water season. Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh says this is a big milestone but there’s still work to be done.

Op de Weegh says one rig is in Seattle now and another will arrive next month or in April.

The well sites in the Chukchi are more than 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard base. Op de Weegh acknowledges the lack of infrastructure and says that’s why the spill plan approved today by the Interior department includes on site, near shore and on shore resources and an oil spill response fleet.

Arctic Ocean drilling is opposed by environmentalists who contend oil companies can’t clean up a crude oil spill in icy waters. Wilderness Society Alaska region spokesman Tim Woody says the decision is a disappointment. He says meeting the federal requirements for a spill plan does not translate into the real ability to recover oil in arctic and winter storm conditions.

The federal government estimates Arctic Ocean outer continental shelf reserves at more than 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Crews Set to Begin Thawing Out Rig Over Blown Out Test Well

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The North Slope exploratory well that experienced a blow out on Wednesday appears to have stopped flowing. Spanish oil company Repsol’s well hit a shallow natural gas patch that kicked mud, gas and water back up through the drill rig. Repsol shut the rig down and evacuated the area. Alaska Oil and Gas conservation Commission Engineering commissioner Cathy Foerster says the well ceased flowing at 11 p.m. last night. She says Repsol and Wild Well Control, the company hired to get the well contained are now setting up to begin the process of thawing the drill rig. Foester says the rig system is filled with fluids and because it’s been shut down for more than two days, those fluids are frozen.

Foerster says Repsol and Wild Well Control are building scaffolding to set up equipment for the thawing process. She says the thaw plan is complicated by dropping temperatures. From 8 above yesterday to 18 below today. Foerster says the immediate focus is insuring the well is completely killed and not just temporarily blocked by mud or ice.

No workers were injured or oil spilled at the well near the mouth of the Colville River. The Department of Environmental Conservation estimates about 42,000 gallons of drilling mud were released on the gravel pad and snow-covered tundra.

General Schwartz To Explain Planned Movement of Eielson F-16s

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz meets with a group of local officials in Fairbanks tomorrow.  General Schwartz is coming to explain the Air Force’s planned movement of Eielson Air Force Base’s F-16 Squadron, and as many 2,000 of the base’s 2,700 people, to Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage. The Air Force proposed a similar move in 2005 during a federal Base Realignment and Closure or BRAC process. The Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation led a campaign that stopped the move, but FEDCO CEO Jim Dodson says this time around there’s no BRAC commission to petition.

Dodson says it’s good that the borough is hiring a consulting firm to analyze cost savings the Air Force says will be realized by moving the F-16 squadron to Anchorage.  Similar studies undermined alleged savings during the 2005 BRAC.  Dodson says the focus should be on any upcoming BRACC that could target Eielson for closure.

Dodson suspects Alaska isn’t alone facing military cuts, but the state does not have as much political clout in Washington.  Dodson says he has some hope for legislation sponsored by Senator’s Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski to stop funding of the F-16 move. Following tomorrow’s session with general Schwartz, the Senators will host a community meeting about Eielson at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks.

Coastal Management Bill Introduced in State House

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

A bill re-establishing an Alaska Coastal Management Program has been introduced in the state House of Representatives.

House Bill 325 closely mirrors a citizen’s initiative that’s on track for a statewide vote later this year. Lawmakers can pre-empt the measure by passing substantially similar legislation.

For more than 30 years, the coastal management program gave the state and local communities greater input into federal permitting decisions along Alaska’s coastline. It closed last year, after lawmakers and the Parnell administration failed to reach a deal to reauthorize it. The administration and House Republicans fought efforts by rural lawmakers and Democrats to expand the role of local communities in the program.

The initiative goes beyond legislation that failed last year in terms of giving local communities more of a voice. The head of the agency that advises the legislature on legal issues has said lawmakers would have significant leeway when adopting substantially similar legislation. But at least the first draft of the bill is largely the same as the initiative.

HB 325 was introduced by seven members of the House Majority, Kodiak Republican Alan Austerman – the Majority Leader – and four Democrats from rural and coastal parts of the state.

Governor Sean Parnell this week (Tuesday) said he prefers a public vote on the coastal management initiative. Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho is a primary sponsor, and chair of the Alaska Sea Party, the group behind the initiative effort.

‘On the Ice’ Movie Set to Premiere

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Another Alaska based movie is premiering.  Like the recently released “Big Miracle, “On the Ice” is set in Barrow, but as KUAC’s Dan Bross reports the films are very different.

Iron Dog Starts Sunday

Laureli Kinneen, KNOM – Nome

The flag drops for the 2012 Iron Dog Snowmachine Race on Sunday. This year’s field may very well be the most competitive. KNOM’s Laureli Kinneen in Nome – which is the halfway point for the Iron Dog has the story:

AK: Volcanoes

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

If you’ve spent much time in Sitka, you’ve probably seen Mount Edgecumbe. It’s one of Alaska’s most-viewed volcanoes, rising 3,000 feet from the ocean, only 10 miles from the former Russian capital.

Scientists and Tlingit tradition-bearers know it last erupted about 4,500 years ago. But other volcanoes, vents and lava flows in the area have seen more recent action. CoastAlaska’s Ed Schoenfeld catches up with a dedicated group of geologists in Southeast searching for lava in the rainforest.

300 Villages: Dot Lake

Now its time for 300 villages. This week, we’re off to Dot Lake, an interior community of about 45 people. That was Bill Miller, President of the Dot Lake Village Council.