Alaska News Nightly: February 16, 2011

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Alaska Delegation Fears Proposed Budget Hurts Oil, Gas Industry
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Despite sober warnings by President Obama that federal spending must be reigned in, he actually wants to boost funding for the Energy Department.

The new budget blueprint would give it more than $29 billion, nearly a 12 percent increase from current appropriation levels.

But it would eliminate subsidies to oil companies and dramatically cut the budget for fossil fuel energy by 45 percent.

That’s not sitting well with Alaska’s Congressional delegation, which fears it will hurt the oil and gas industry.

Wednesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu testified before the Senate Energy Committee, where Lisa Murkowski is the top Republican.  Chu talked about the President’s goal of having 80 percent of America’s electricity coming from “clean energy” by 2035.  That includes natural gas and hydropower, good news for Alaska.  But Murkowski pointed out that other forms of energy are getting more financial support.

Secretary Chu responded that natural gas and hydropower are part of the Clean Energy Standard the White House wants to pursue, but he says fossil fuels are considered “mature” technologies, and received plenty of money in decades past.  He says the real need for funding is in renewables like solar and wind that are cutting edge.

The budget laid out by Secretary Chu is just a proposal, and will be hashed out by Congress in the coming weeks.

After Wednesday’s committee meeting, Senator Murkowski journeyed to the White House to talk with President Obama.  Her spokesman says the Senator asked to meet with the President on, quote “a range of Alaskan issues.”  He would not be more specific, and would not say what the Senator’s reaction was.

Murkowski is seen as a Senator the White House wants to court on energy issues.

Indian Affairs Committee Meets for First Time in New Congress
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee met Wednesday for the first time this year, in a short session to officially get the new Congress underway.  Hawaii Senator Daniel Akaka took the gavel as chairman, and Wyoming Senator John Barrasso is the top Republican.  Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski held on to her committee seat.

But one voice is noticeably absent: that of recently retired Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.  As APRN’s Libby Casey reports, Dorgan led the Committee through one of Congress’s most significant eras of progress on Native issues.

Crews Cleaning Up Unalaska Fuel Spill
Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
About a dozen crewmen and contractors are working to clean up a spill that occurred in Unalaska Tuesday.

The F/V Aleutian Lady was moored at the dock when the fuel spill occurred. Approximately 800 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the Bay.

Petty Officer First Class Jason Moonyos is helping oversee the cleanup.

No hydraulic oil or lube leaked into the bay.

The Coast Guard conducted an assessment of the damage. A shoreline clean-up was conducted yesterday. Workers continued with the efforts to contain and remove the fuel Wednesday.

Oil Industry Supporting Parnell’s Proposed Tax Reduction
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Representatives of the oil industry were at the state capitol Wednesday to offer general support for Governor Sean Parnell’s bill reducing their taxes in an attempt to increase production on the North Slope.

With a recognition that oil production is declining – and will continue to decline over the years – Conoco-Philips’ Vice President for external affairs, Wendy King,  said that Alaska still has very high possibilities for finding and producing more oil.  But, she says there are problems to overcome.

King told the House Resources Committee that a lot of factors come into play when her company is deciding to invest in a project – and the biggest concern is uncertainty in the return on their investment.  In considering the risk-versus-rewards of an investment, she says the state’s “progressivity”  surtax on profits from high oil prices takes away from the rewards side of the equation.

Governor Parnell’s proposed changes to the state’s tax regime would effectively lower the progressivity feature – by an estimated $1 billion in state revenue per year.

$1 Million Federal Grant Available to Help Start State-Run Health Exchange
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Governor Sean Parnell has until Friday to decide whether to accept a $1 million federal grant to help set up a state-run health insurance exchange that would give Alaskans and small businesses access to competitive information they can use to develop health insurance coverage.

Seven Democratic members of the Senate Majority Wednesday wrote the governor urging him to accept the federal money.  In their letter, they remind him of the alternative – if there is no state system in place, a federal information exchange will be established for Alaskans to use.

Anchorage’s Johnny Ellis was one of the letter’s signers.   He says Alaska is the only state that hasn’t started setting up an exchange – even among states that have challenged the overall federal Affordable Care Act.

Ellis says establishing a way for the public to compare health insurance policies was designed to encourage competition – calling it one part of the federal law that is market-driven. No legislation would be needed to accept the money or to set up the exchange.

Hearty Wild Herb May Be Next Cash Crop
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
A hearty wild herb that grows well in the Arctic could become the next big cash crop for Alaska. Farmers are learning more about Rhodiola Rosea at the Alaska Growers Produce Conference in Palmer this week. The high value medicinal plant is used to make a supplement aimed at reducing stress and increasing productivity.

Dallas Seavey Becomes Youngest Yukon Quest Winner
Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks
Rookie Dallas Seavey won the Yukon Quest last night.  The 23-year-old Willow musher is the youngest person to win the Quest.  Seavey crossed under the finish banner on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks at 11:05 p.m. with 10 dogs to claims the $28,000 first prize.

Biologist Discusses Georg Steller’s Legacy
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The name Steller comes up a lot in Alaska. There are Steller Sea Lions, Steller’s Eiders and of course, Steller’s Jays. But just who was the explorer Georg Steller and what is his legacy in the state? Russ Andrews, a biologist at the Alaska SeaLife Center has been studying those questions. And as for the legacy, he says it could be more accurately described as a curse.

Russ Andrews is speaking tonight at 7pm at the Campbell Creek Science Center in Anchorage. His talk is titled: “Steller’s Curse-The Unfortunate Fate of Alaska’s First Naturalist and the Marine Animals That Bear His Name.”