Alaska News Nightly: August 16, 2011

Individual news stories are posted in the Alaska News category and you can subscribe to APRN’s news feeds via email, podcast and RSS.

Download Audio (MP3)

Shell Working to Contain North Sea Spill

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Shell is working to contain an oil spill from one of its pipelines in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. The crew on an oil platform there first observed a light sheen in the water last Wednesday. Around 1,300 barrels of oil have spilled so far into the sea. The company was able to shut down the main leak but oil is still flowing from a small valve at the rate of about one barrel of oil per day. Curtis Smith is a spokesperson for the company in Alaska.

The company is hoping to drill several exploration wells in the Arctic Ocean this summer. The federal government gave conditional approval earlier this month to Shell’s plan to drill in the Beaufort Sea. But environmental groups have been critical of the plan, saying Shell isn’t ready to clean up a potential oil spill in icy Arctic waters. Rebecca Noblin, with the Center for Biological Diversity says the company isn’t doing an adequate job cleaning up the North Sea spill.

Shell says the impact to wildlife from the spilled oil in the North Sea has been minimal. And the company points out its Arctic Ocean wells are nothing like the production well that is leaking in the North Sea. Smith says the company is confident it can operate safely in Alaska.

Smith says he can’t speculate on when the oil spill in the North Sea will be contained.

TransCanada Says State Partially to Blame for Lack of Potential Shippers

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

TransCanada, the state’s license-holder for a large-capacity natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to North American markets, told a legislative committee Tuesday that the state is partially responsible for the lack of potential gas shippers willing to sign contracts to use the project.

Legislators meeting this week in Anchorage are looking at the state’s long-term energy future – particularly gas supplies that will become available for the Railbelt and Southcentral.  They’re finding that the high-volume TransCanada project has no customers yet – and lawmakers are giving serious consideration to shifting their support to a lower capacity Bullet Line to supply the Railbelt and SouthCentral.

TransCanada is a year behind its original expectations on commercial negotiations – and it’s limited by confidentiality agreements to discussing details of the arrangements that have been made.  However, TransCanada Vice President Tony Palmer told the Senate Resources Committee that three unresolved issues face decision-makers among the gas suppliers, gas supply uncertainty such as availability of gas from the Point Thomson field,  a state gas tax system that is unlikely to change,  and better pricing projections for the world marketplace. Of those, the first two need the state’s attention.

“When we obtained the license two years ago – three years ago now – we assumed Pt. Thomson and fiscal would be resolved between the state and the producers by the time our open season was concluded a year ago.  That’s turned out to be wrong.  That was our assumption, nothing more than that.  I’m not suggesting you were obliged to do that, but that was our assumption.  We thought that in two years those things would have been resolved.  They have not been,” Palmer said.

Palmer said that if those involved in the project are not optimistic the supply and tax issues will coalesce, TransCanada would have reached what he called a “decision point” on the continuation of the project. However, he said he’s still holding out hope for a positive resolution.

“If there continues to be optimism that they will be resolved in a timely fashion, then we’re going to let the game play out, I would suggest,” Palmer said.

However, Palmer did not hang possible shippers’ decisions entirely on the state. He said there’s no reason to have a supply or fiscal solution if companies believe market prices will remain at $3 – as they now are.

“You may find yourself having resolved these issues with producers and still have no project.  That’s not where we are today.  We think resolution will finally reach a conclusion and we remain optimistic this can occur.  But I can’t pinpoint one or the other. Now if gas prices were ten dollars and it were guaranteed it would be ten dollars forevermore in North America or Asia,  perhaps you don’t need to resolve these issues.  But they’re not there today,” Palmer said.

Palmer said gas explorers are sophisticated investors – and they can live with changes in prices and market conditions. That was a caution that Anchorage Senator Hollis French picked up on.

“He was careful to say these are necessary conditions, but not sufficient.  Meaning you could solve Pt. Thomson, you could solve the fiscal issues, and still be left with no project if the producers look long term and don’t see it as being economic given supply issues worldwide,” French said.

There has been no indication of negotiations ongoing to settle the state-related issues.

Forum Highlights Need for Multi-National Oil, Gas Development Regulation

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A forum in downtown Anchorage Tuesday highlighted the need for a new look at multi-national regulatory systems which deal with oil and gas development. Dr. Betsy Baker, with the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment, addressed the Institute of the North as part of  the Institute’s Week of the Arctic program.  Dr. Baker authored a paper focusing on U.S. and Canadian oil and gas regulations – with an emphasis on  how they compare with one another and how they line up with the Arctic Council’s  Arctic Offshore Oil and Gas Guidelines. Dr. Baker and her colleagues began their research into the differences in regulations before the disastrous Deepwater Horizon spill of last year.

Dr. Baker is the lead on a white paper series which compares regulations for offshore development in Canada, Greenland, the U.S. and the Russian federations. She says there’s a number of areas in which the U.S. and Canada can coordinate or “harmonize” their regulations, but in other areas they have opposite approaches.

Dr.Baker says “harmonization” does not mean making all regulations identical, but aims to make selected rules on both sides of the US-Canada boundary more uniform. Her paper is aimed at offering tools to regulators to help them identify which areas are the best candidates for harmonization.

She says the role of industry standards is an important component in reaching more uniform oil and gas regulation, but that the U.S. and Canada have differing ways of incorporating those standards into a regulatory regime.

Suspicious Packages Sent to Alaska Delegation Contained Concrete Material Sample

Associated Press

The FBI has determined a white powder contained in packages sent to members of Alaska’s congressional delegation was not a hazardous substance but a sample of concrete material.

Authorities say the offices of Alaska’s two U.S. senators and congressman had received suspicious packages through the mail Monday, prompting the evacuation of the federal building in Fairbanks and the closure of the sixth floor of an Anchorage office building.

At least two of the packages contained a white powder.

It remained unclear Tuesday why the concrete mixture was mailed to the lawmakers’ offices, but a statement from a Begich spokeswoman cited the FBI in saying “the sender had no criminal intent.”

Supreme Court Grants Emergency Review of Pebble Partnership, Lake and Peninsula Borough Case

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

The Supreme Court of Alaska has granted a motion by the State of Alaska for emergency review of the Case of the Pebble Partnership versus the Lake and Peninsula Borough, as well as the State’s motion for leave to appear and participate in the case as a ‘friend of the court’.

Yukon River Law Enforcement Conflict Dates Back to 1996

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The conflict between the state and federal government over National Park Service law enforcement on the Yukon River dates back to a regulatory change in 1996. At a forum on jurisdiction over navigable waters, held in Fairbanks Monday, State Attorney General John Burns cited the policy change as the root of recent tensions between the state and the Park Service.

Burns said the Park Service’s expansion of authority in Alaska defies the U.S. and state constitutions, the federal submerged lands act, and the Alaska National Interest lands Conservation Act.  The most publicly visible conflict between the state and the Park Service has been in the Yukon Charley River’s Preserve, where National Park Rangers, doing boat inspections, handcuffed uncooperative locals on two occasions last year. Yukon Charley superintendent Greg Dudgeon said the authority to police boating, within parks, also stems from federal law.

The state is seeking legal clarification on the issue of Park Service authority on Alaska’s navigable waters. Monday’s roundtable discussion was organized by Senator Lisa Murkowski.   Murskowski says she’ll be pressing for an answer when she returns to Washington next month.

Murkowski says a provision inserted into an appropriations bill on the U.S. House side by Representative Don Young that would prevent the Park Service from doing law enforcement in the Yukon Charley Preserve is a band aid approach, adding that it’s tough to address the jurisdiction issue in a funding bill.  In the meantime, Dudgeon and state officials stressed that the situation is not all bad, and that there’s a lot of cooperation between state and federal agencies when it comes to law enforcement. Dudgeon says the Park Service has also modified its approach.

It was during last fall’s moose hunting season that Preserve rangers arrested Central resident Jim Wilde, who failed to cooperate during boat safety check. His case was tried in federal court this spring, and a judge’s decision is expected at any time. Wilde’s attorney Bill Satterberg, says if his client is found guilty, he plans an appeal based on jurisdiction over navigable waters.

Wind Power Cuts State Subsidy, Not Residents’ Bills

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Powering Rural Alaska is nothing if not complicated. You might think that wind energy would lower bills to residents who live in villages with turbines. But that’s not entirely the case. The alternative energy that many communities are pursuing is more about stabilizing costs for the long term future.

Wet Weather Good News for Interior Berry Crops

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

There a good chance those of us around the state may be in for more wet weather, before September rains begin in earnest.  If all the recent rain is getting you down, it might help to know the moisture is good for blueberries and cranberries in the interior.

Friend Remembers Plane Crash Victim

Amanda Randles

An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board is looking into the fatal plane crash that killed two people near McGrath. Clint Johnson says one of the four survivors told him the small aircraft struck the side of a mountain in fog so thick, it created whiteout conditions.

The plane was carrying all three teachers for the tiny village of Anvik when it went down Saturday night, killing one of the teachers just days before classes were set to begin.

The pilot – Ernie Chase – also died. Talkeetna resident Amanda Randles knew Chase her whole life, as a pilot and a friend, as has this remembrance.