Alaska News Nightly: January 24, 2012

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Buccaneer Alaska Working To Bring Jack-Up Rig To Cook Inlet

Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer

Buccaneer Alaska is nearing its goal of bringing a jack-up rig into Cook Inlet later this year – to join a rig owned by Escopeta Oil and Gas Company that arrived last year. But where will the rig be stored during the winter months? One plan is for the 300-foot-tall rig to be docked at the harbor near the end of the Homer Spit. The plan is already drawing controversy in Homer.

Chenault Renews In-State Gas Line Push

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

State House Speaker Mike Chenault – a Republican from Nikiski – is renewing his push for a small diameter in-state gas line with a new bill that streamlines previous legislation. House Bill 9 combines three bills that passed the house last year, but not the Senate. It gives the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation more funding and more authority to develop a small diameter pipeline that would bring gas to Southcentral Alaska. He says Alaska’s goal should still be a large gas pipeline for export, but the state can’t wait indefinitely for that to happen.

“This is not about picking a winner. This is about getting gas to Alaskans,” Chenault said.

He says allowing the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation to move ahead on a small line will be invaluable even if a large export project is built. Anchorage Republican Mike Hawker helped Speaker Chenault write the bill. He says the legislation does not compete with the state’s framework to build an export gas line- the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, or AGIA.

“This legislation allows AGDC to be both compatible and sympathetic with the AGIA process. We frankly hope all these people come together, start working together and move the largest possible project forward,” Hawker said.

The gas would likely come from the North Slope, but the bill allows flexibility in case a major gas find is discovered in another part of the state. There has been skepticism that an in-state line could provide gas to Alaskans at a reasonable cost. But Hawker says preliminary studies on the price Alaskans would eventually pay are promising.

“Those initial tariff estimates were quite viable for getting gas to Alaska. In fact I think some of us were really quite surprised at how efficient and effectively it appeared this pipeline project could be developed,” Hawker said.

The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation is working with a timeline that would have the first gas flowing in the fall of 2018.

Study Describes North Slope Employment As A Roller Coaster

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

A new study describes employment on the North Slope as a roller coaster. In a report to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee Tuesday, Jim Calvin, President of the McDowell Group, presented the results of a study ordered by the Senate to determine what factors influence jobs in the oil patch. His research shows a level of jobs that are interrupted by volatile changes based on oil price and national economic factors.

“There was a period of time in 2009 and 2010 when no one seemed to be sure what was going on. You’d hear reports of people losing their jobs on the North Slope, there were employers who were no longer active and weren’t sure why.  On the other hand you’d hear reports of No No employment’s growing, it’s at the highest level ever.  All that is kind of right. There was a very, very dynamic environment,” Calvin said.

The report will become part of the record for a bill that would reduce oil company taxes.  Original arguments for that measure sponsored by Governor Parnell indicated that low oil production was responsible for high rates of unemployment within the industry.

Sea Ice Delays Bering Sea Snow Crab Season

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

The Bering Sea snow crab season is on hold.  Rapidly advancing sea ice has left crabbers scrambling to get their gear out of the water or stuck in port, waiting for better weather.

More Federal Charges Filed Against Fairbanks Militia Group

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Additional federal charges have been filed against members of a Fairbanks based militia group.  The U.S. Attorney’s office in Anchorage has indicted Peacemaker’s militia leader Schaefer Cox, and members Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon on charges of conspiracy to kill federal officers and employees.  The offense is punishable by up to life in prison. Cox, Barney and Vernon already face federal charges for possessing illegal weapons, including grenades, related to their militia activities.

State charges against the militia members were dropped last fall after it was ruled the state did not have the proper search warrants for use of F.B.I. recordings as evidence.

Senate Opens Crime Summit

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The State Senate opened its Crime Summit Tuesday – a series of meetings bringing lawmakers up to date on statistics, trends and options available to the criminal justice system.

In opening the two days of meetings, Judiciary Chairman Hollis French asked observers to keep in mind a few basic facts:   the state now has more non-violent prisoners than those who committed violent crimes; the Department of Corrections shows the newest prison, Goose Creek in the Matsu, cost $238-million to construct;  and the average cost of a new high school in the state is $60-million.

“That’s the good news.   The bad news is that DOC tells us we will be overcapacity in 2015.   July 2015. We can’t just keep building prisons. I am still a prosecuting attorney at heart. I was a prosecuting attorney for six years. I am perfectly okay with sending deserving individuals to prison for longs periods of time. But we ignore these costs at our peril,” French said.

French said the purpose of the Summit is to explore ways to, “bend the line” to delay the arrival of that declaration of overcapacity. He said a recent study of Alaska-based criminal system programs showed little balance between program costs and effectiveness.

“For example,  electronic monitoring systems saved lots of money,  but they don’t keep people from committing new crimes.  On the opposite side, sex offender programs do reduce recidivism, but they’re so expensive they produce no savings.  These are important things you have to keep in mind as you construct responses to a burgeoning prison population,” French said.

He said the study did show that Head Start – early childhood education – is one of the options that saves the most money over time – and has the most long-lasting result.

Annie Pennucci, a senior research associate with the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, presented data backing up those studies.  She called early education as one of those events with an Enduring Impact.

“You’re three years old, you’re getting something.  You wouldn’t think that twenty years later that’s changing the course of your life.  But the research shows that it really can,” Pennucci said.

She pointed to studies showing a 20 percent reduction in crime rates among low-income people who have participated in early education programs.  And that’s where she finds the return on what is a $7,300 – per student – investment by the state.   The payback is in lower criminal justice system costs, lower costs to victims. There are also benefits in such fields as health care costs, higher salaries, and lower education costs.

“So you sum those up and you have almost $22-thousand in benefits per individual over their lifetime.  And the payoff we estimate is about three dollars per dollar invested.   So that’s a pretty good return,” Pennucci said.

The Crime Summit will continue through tomorrow afternoon at the Capitol in Juneau.

Subsistence Board To Review Rural, Non-Rural Status Decision Process

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

The Federal Subsistence Board last week voted to review the process for deciding a community’s rural or non-rural status, which determines eligibility for subsistence priority on federal lands. They also voted to review determinations made using that process.

Bristol Bay, Unalaska Papers Returning Next Month

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

The local newspapers for the Bristol Bay and Unalaska regions will be back next month.    However, the 2 papers are being combined into one publication.

Powerful Solar Flares Surging

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

Recent days have seen a surge in powerful solar flares.  The sun’s energized particles are now hitting the earth’s atmosphere and leading to disruptions in amateur radio communication and a boost in northern lights displays.