Alaska News Nightly: April 16, 2012

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Gov. Parnell Calls Special Session To Review Oil Tax Reform

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Governor Sean Parnell plans to introduce a new oil tax bill for state lawmakers to consider when they gavel into special session Wednesday afternoon. Parnell called a special session early this morning after lawmakers failed to pass an oil tax reform bill. He says he doesn’t know if lawmakers will be able to come to agreement, but the special session is worth a try.

“There’s a new dynamic now at work that I think might lead to a compromise that could produce new production both now and also in the future,” Parnell said.

In the final days of the session, the Senate passed a bill giving tax breaks to producers that develop new oil fields. The House killed the measure.  Parnell says he likes the idea, but wants to include existing fields as well.

“So my concern there is that vast resources in our legacy fields will remain untapped. They’ll remain locked in the ground not being maximized for Alaskans,” he said.

Parnell says he wants to encourage companies to develop hard to reach oil in their existing fields that could add 100 thousand new barrels of oil a day to the pipeline in a few years.  House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Republican from Kenai, says the House agrees with the Governor. He says it isn’t enough to fix just one piece of the pie.

“We’re here to continue working to try to craft a tax regime in this state that brings investment into the state in order to fill the pipeline. That’s our revenue stream. That’s our blood,” Chenault said.

But Senate leaders called the House’s original approach a “major giveaway” to the oil companies. Senate President Gary Stevens says his chamber did the heavy lifting on oil tax reform during the regular session, only to see that work fail.

“Now it’s time, if others don’t like our approach simply on new oil, then its time for someone else, either the Governor or the House to come forth with a bill and prove it. Show us how its good for the people of Alaska,” Stevens said.

Senators in the bipartisan working group expressed dismay that the house failed to pass their oil tax reform legislation. But Senator Johnny Ellis, a Democrat from Anchorage, says the special session may help foster an agreement.

“I think we’re eternal optimists. And we can deal with public policy in a fresh light going forward. I mean we are the same people and there’s the same big issues before us but there’s an opportunity to begin again and to put a renewed focus on the things the Governor is calling us to do,” Ellis said.

Besides oil tax reform, the special session will address a bill meant to further advance an in-state natural gas pipeline project and a bill to strengthen penalties for people convicted of sex trafficking.

In the final hours of the session, the legislature also passed a two-point-nine billion dollar capitol budget. Governor Parnell says he’s not likely to veto many community projects included in the bill. But Representative Mike Doogan, a Democrat from Anchorage, criticized his Republican colleagues for spending too much money.

“They just can’t seem to commit to saving any money for the future which is  not going to be a good thing for us because sometime in the not too distant future everything that goes up must come down,” Doogan said.

Doogan proposed an amendment that failed that would have added two billion dollars of the state’s savings into the Permanent Fund.

Bills Offer Potential For New Natural Gas Access

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

There’s no short term energy relief from the state legislature, but two bills approved by state lawmakers offer potential for new access to natural gas.

Legislation Requires Insurance To Cover Medically Necessary Autism Treatment

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Legislators have passed a bill to require insurance companies to cover medically necessary treatment of autism, a disorder that affects sensory perceptions and the ability to communicate and interact with others.

Few Details Released On ComSta Kodiak Shootings

The Associated Press

An FBI spokesman says there’s little new that can be released in the investigation of a double homicide at a Coast Guard air station on Kodiak Island.

Eric Gonzalez said Monday that agents are not releasing details because it could affect the integrity of the investigation.

The FBI is the lead agency in the shooting deaths of 41-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard Belisle.

Hopkins was an electronics technician from Vergennes, Vermont.

Belisle was a retired Coast Guard chief petty officer who worked at the base as a civilian employee.

Gonzales says he can’t comment on whether investigators have recovered a weapon or why law enforcement officials continue to say there is no direct threat to the community even though no suspect is in custody.

Stevens Prosecutor Heads To Private Sector

The Associated Press

The prosecutor who headed the Justice Department unit that bungled the corruption case against Sen. Ted Stevens is leaving the government.

In court papers filed in a case in Virginia, the department says William Welch is departing for a job in the private sector.

Recently, Welch has overseen efforts to crack down on officials who leak government secrets. He stepped down as chief of the public integrity section in 2009 amid the controversy over the botched Stevens prosecution. A court-ordered investigation of that case concluded that prosecutors failed to turn over to Steven’s lawyers some information they had that was favorable to the defense.

UA Regents Meet On Kenai Campus

Shaylon Cochran, KDLL – Kenai

The University of Alaska Board of Regents held their spring meeting at the Kenai River Campus in Soldotna late last week.  Each year, the Board travels to one of the University’s satellite campuses for their April meeting.  In addition to conducting regular business, these spring gatherings give the local campuses an opportunity to showcase their facilities and programs to the entire Board.

Scientists Anticipate Average Fire Season

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Wild fire scientists are anticipating a normal season over much of Alaska this summer.  That would mean about 1 million acres burned. Recent years have seen an early start to fire season, but Alaska Interagency Coordination Center Fire Weather program manager Heidi Strader says that’s less likely over much of Alaska this year.

Snowpack was slightly below normal for the middle to lower Tanana Valley, and on the North Slope, but Strader says wet weather last fall means fuels had a higher moisture content going into the season.  Other factors considered in wildfire forecasting are climate patterns, like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the fluctuation of North Pacific Ocean water temperatures. It’s currently in a cold phase, and Strader says that normally correlates with winter and summer extremes.

The shorter term El Nino-La Nina southern Pacific Ocean temperature shift, also affects Alaska weather, but Strader says its impact is currently a big question mark.

Strader says lightning and rain shower activity are always major wildfire drivers, and are hard to forecast days out, let alone months prior to the season.  She says coming up with a general outlook is important as managers gear up for the season, and try to anticipate  moving resources to higher risk area in Alaska and outside. She says mangers meet this week to prepare updated forecasts for Alaska and the Western Lower 48 for release later in the month.

Caroline Cannon Wins Goldman Environmental Prize

The Associated Press

An Inupiat who is one of the leading opponents of Arctic offshore drilling is among this year’s winners of a national environmental award.

Caroline Cannon and four others on Monday won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Each winner will receive $150,000.

Cannon is the former president of the Native Village of Point Hope. The tribal council has filed numerous lawsuits attempting to block Shell from drilling this summer.

The prize was started in 1990 by the late Richard Goldman and his wife, Rhoda. The foundation says the prizes honors “ordinary individuals who take extraordinary actions to protect the earth and its inhabitants.”

Holland America Cuts Eagle Tour Route

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Eagle is facing a bleak tourism future.  Holland America has decided to eliminate the historic Yukon River community at the end of the Taylor Highway from its summer tour route.  For over 20 years the tour company brought in excess of 200 tourists a day through Eagle, generating substantial income for the remote community, that otherwise doesn’t see much traffic.  Spring flooding in 2009, followed by Taylor Highway slides and washouts the next year, kept Holland. America out.  The company delayed returning last year, and spokesman Erik Elvejord says they’ve decided to permanently cut Eagle from their Alaska and Yukon tours.

Eagle residents got news of Holland America’s pull out last week, just as the Taylor Highway opened for the summer, a year after nearly $20 million in repairs.  Eagle historical society and museum director Donna Westphal says Holland America’s move is a major hit.

Westphal says the non-profit museum organization is running about 25 to 30 thousand dollars under budget, has cut four staff positions, and she’s worried about losing her job.  The lack of tourists has also eliminated summer tour guide jobs for Eagle teens, and business for a group of locals who sell arts and crafts in downtown Eagle.  Another familiar part of Holland America’s presence in Eagle is also missing. The luxury catamaran tour boat, the Yukon Queen, which used to make daily runs between Eagle and Dawson, will remain dry docked in Dawson until the company decides what to do with it. The Eagle Historical society and Museum board met this week to talk about ways of spurring new tourism.

Budget Includes Funds For Road From Petersburg To Kake

Matt Lichtenstein, KFSK – Petersburg

Forty-million dollars of state money is included in the Capital budget to buy a gravel road linking Petersburg to Kake. State Senator Bert Stedman, added the line item in the budget. The project has drawn a mix of support and opposition from area residents. It could become a reality if Governor Parnell approves the funding.

Ken Anderson Wins Kobuk 440

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The Kobuk440 wrapped up over the weekend in Kotzebue with the first three mushers getting back to Kotzebue Sunday. Ken Anderson won at 11:47 yesterday morning, reaching the finish line with six dogs. Kobuk 440 time keeper Liz Moore says the second place finisher is the rookie of the year Scott Smith.

Ten teams ran this year. Moore says the trail conditions were good and there were no spring storms to contend with. She says the weather was great. The mushers will gather this evening in Kotzebue for the awards banquet. Moore says the purse was $50,200. Paying first place at $12,000, second at $9,000 and third at $7, 500. Mushers also get unique trophies for the race.

Moore says the Kobuk 440 has been running for 20 years and the organization is working to raise money for a larger pay out to attract more mushers in future years. She says the one of the main goals is to bring young people into the sport to teach them responsibility in dog handling, some regional history and fitness.

Gerry Riley was the red lantern finisher this year. He reached Kotzebue this morning at 8:15 with five dogs.

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