Andrew Jensen

AJOC EDITORIAL: No news is bad news for AK LNG Project

It was the Seinfeld of press conferences. One might think that a gathering of the five most influential figures in the massive Alaska LNG Project would have had more news to share, but in the end it was a press conference about nothing. And that’s bad news for everyone involved. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the state’s project partners whose taxes he’s proposing to raise dramatically at a time when their costs are nearly double the price per barrel, Gov. Bill Walker had no answers for where AK LNG is headed. As the Journal first reported Feb. 10, the project is now officially off schedule and most likely delayed from undertaking the more advanced work for at least two years. The state and its producer partners will finish the preliminary-front-end engineering and design, or pre-FEED, this year as planned but there will be no vote on a constitutional amendment in November because there will be no fiscal contracts to present to the Legislature for approval. The next time the state’s residents could vote on an amendment to set tax policy for the project will be 2018. Ostensibly, the delay in the project is related to the failure among the three North Slope producers who own differing shares of the gas at Prudhoe Bay and Point Thomson to reach the lynchpin gas balancing agreement governing offtake from the two fields once the project goes into production. But the “elephant in the room,” as Walker put it, is the price per barrel that has hovered in the mid-$20s or low $30s since the start of the year. As anyone who’s been following along knows, the oil companies on the Slope and around the world are hemorrhaging cash in the current price environment. Contemplating a spend of $2 billion or more among the state and its three partners for the full front end engineering design, or FEED, stage is simply not a viable option. ConocoPhillips, for example, burned through $2.7 billion of its $5 billion in cash during 2015 and was compelled to slash its dividend by two-thirds from 74 cents per share to 25 cents per share. From this vantage, then, the best way to slow-walk the project without obviously slow-walking the project is to hold off on sealing the deals that would force the companies to make the FEED decision sooner than is fiscally responsible to their shareholders. That is certainly disappointing to Alaskans who have seen the concept of commercializing North Slope gas advance further than it ever has, but with the state in deficit spending with a budget hole approaching $4 billion it doesn’t exactly have a lot of cash to throw around either. Between the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act subsidies to TransCanada, the subsequent buyout of that company’s interest in AK LNG this past November, and the state’s obligations for its share of pre-FEED spending, Alaska is blowing past a half-billion dollars spent on its last two efforts to monetize North Slope gas. The state does have more to show for its money in the current effort, with export permits in hand and a refined cost estimate to result from pre-FEED, but anything would look good compared to what Alaska got out of AGIA. With a desperate need to hold this project together through a brutal price cycle nobody saw coming, Walker must rethink his proposals to hike taxes on our project partners. Walker wants to raise the tax floor from 4 percent to 5 percent, and restructure the system so that producers are always paying taxes even when they are losing money. Walker cannot have it both ways. He cannot endlessly repeat that Alaska should act like an owner state while expecting to be insulated from depressed markets. It has always been well known that such a capital-intensive project with much thinner margins would require a healthy oil business to support it, yet Walker is proposing to drain the Slope producers’ cash at a time when they have none to spare. With or without AK LNG, the state and the Slope producers are in this boat together. We shouldn’t be the ones trying to sink it by weighing our partners down with more taxes.

AJOC EDITORIAL: Moda’s big Obamacare bet goes bust

Moda Health went all in on Obamacare, and it is now short-stacked and heading for the rail. On Jan. 29, the Alaska Division of Insurance followed suit of its counterpart in Oregon by suspending Moda from operating in the state due to its rapidly deteriorating financial condition caused by massive losses incurred operating in the health insurance exchanges created by the ill-named Affordable Care Act commonly known as Obamacare. Moda’s suspension leaves Alaska with only Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield offering individual health insurance policies. The Oregonian reported this past October on Portland-based Moda pulling out of the insurance markets in Washington and California after the company announced it would receive only $11 million of the $90 million it was expecting from the federal government to cover its losses from the exchanges. As the company sought a 25 percent premium increase in Oregon, it had also asked for and received a 39.6 percent increase for its Alaska policies. Premera received approval for a similarly large increase of 38.7 percent for 2016, citing losses from the policies sold in the state. In 2014, Premera lost $9 million serving the individual Alaska policyholders, and a similar loss of $9 million was projected for 2015 based on claims cost data in the first three months. “The bottom line is that we see another year of significant losses,” Premera spokeswoman Melanie Coon told the Journal last August. “It’s not getting any better.” Insurers across the country are warning they will consider pulling out of the insurance exchanges next year if the situation does not improve. The nation’s largest, UnitedHealth Group, is among those, and Aetna recently reported that it lost $100 million last year from its exchange business. Herbert Stein’s Law states: “That which cannot continue, won’t.” Insurers are not going to sit back and continue to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, which should be of grave concern in a state with one company that is currently losing money in the Obamacare exchanges. So what’s going on here? It starts with the way the Obama administration got insurance companies to buy in to the law in the first place. The ACA created a “risk corridor” by which the companies agreed to pay the government for profits in excess of their estimates for the year and if they lost money, the government would bail them out. Remember, Obamacare was sold as deficit-neutral at worst, and a deficit-reducer at best. Over and over we heard the pitch that it was going to save the country money (part of those “savings” came from the government taking over the student loan business, but that’s a whole ‘nother column). Well, Republicans in Congress led by presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio inserted language into the 2015 and 2016 spending bills that prohibited the Department of Health and Human Services from using discretionary funds to bail out insurance company losses from the exchanges. In other words, they held the Obama administration to its pledge that the ACA would not add to the deficit. Here’s how the Fiscal Times reported the results in December: “Last year, the insurance companies paid just $362 million into risk corridor program while submitting $2.87 billion in claims for reimbursement … The fiscal 2015 budget package approved last year specified that payments made to insurers under the risk corridors could not exceed collections. That is why the (DHHS’s) payouts this year were equivalent to just 12.6 percent of the claims.” President Barack Obama signed every bill with these spending restrictions, so while he may have vetoed the bill to repeal his namesake law, he did sign the bills that may have started its death spiral. Moda entered the Oregon market with the lowest premiums in 2014, betting on getting its losses covered by the federal government and gaining 100,000 customers in the process. It even signed a 10-year, $40 million naming rights deal for the basketball arena in Portland just a couple years after only clearing $10.4 million in net income. Barely two years later its bet went bust. Moda may be one of the biggest losers so far to gamble on Obamacare, but it will surely not be the last. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Market slide shows risks of counting on Fund earnings

Since oil first started gushing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System nearly 40 years ago, the Alaska has repeatedly failed to learn the lessons from the troughs in the price cycle. Now facing a yawning budget gap nearing $4 billion annually with crude collapsing to less than $27 per barrel as of Jan. 20, there is near-unanimous support to shift from oil income to tapping the investment earnings from the Permanent Fund to bridge the gap. Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to use a so-called “sovereign wealth model” using the Earnings Reserve where the Fund income flows anticipates an annual rate of return of 6.7 percent essentially in perpetuity allowing yearly draws of more than $3 billion to pay for state government. At the beginning of the fiscal year, the value of the Permanent Fund was just more than $55 billion. As of Jan. 18, the value of the Fund was $49.2 billion. Rosy predictions of future returns are how governments get into trouble, particularly when they are facing looming unfunded liabilities such as pension obligations — of which the state has more than $12 billion — or budget deficits. After yet another rout on Wall Street Jan. 20 as the markets are off to their worst ever start to a year, we are now officially in a correction, which is defined as a drop of 10 percent or more from the high point in the indices. It wasn’t that long ago, back in 2009, when the Permanent Fund lost money for the year as the Dow dropped into the 6,000 range. The markets nearly tripled since then, creating a situation where the state was earning more money from its investments than from its oil income. Now that the bulls ran for more than half a decade, the bears are roaring back. Multiple investment firms are forecasting oil could keep dropping to less than $20 per barrel, some as low as $10 according to a Jan. 12 article in The Telegraph, as OPEC refuses to cut back production and Iran has stated it intends to start pumping 500,000 barrels per day into the market now that it has been relieved of sanctions. While there is consensus that oil prices will keep falling, whether the United States will enter a recession is still being debated. There can be no doubt, though, that the reeling energy sector that fueled so much of the economic expansion will drag down growth. More than 70,000 oilfield workers have been laid off — including hundreds so far here in Alaska — and more pink slips are coming. Hundreds of rigs have been idled and the ripple effects through the broader economy will be felt from everyone to contractors to homebuilders. There is also no doubt that lower fuel prices benefit multiple sectors of the economy, but industrial output is dropping as well. This from a Dec. 16 Reuters  report: “U.S. industrial production saw its sharpest decline in more than three and a half years in November as utilities dropped sharply, a sign of weakness that could moderate fourth-quarter growth. “Industrial output slipped 0.6 percent after a downwardly revised 0.4 percent dip in October, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday, marking the third straight month of declines.” Alaska’s great gasline hope for economic growth and new revenue will also face major hurdles beyond the enormous cost. Prices in Asia have been halved since 2013, and current demand forecasts are being revised downward. Since shutting them down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan has restarted nearly all of its nuclear reactors and is actually reselling LNG shipments; ditto for China amid its own economic growth slump. Korea is also lowering its demand forecasts as nuclear power is still a cleaner alternative when it comes to meeting lower carbon emission commitments. To say it’s rough out there would be the understatement of the year. Strong leadership from the governor and legislators is critical right now, but even if the competing sides can come together with a fiscal plan they must do so knowing that the fight for Alaska’s future is far from over — and that putting our faith in investment earnings may be just as risky a bet as counting on oil prices.

AJOC EDITORIAL: Time for Penney to drop vendetta against setnetters

Bob Penney is now 0 for 2 at the Alaska Supreme Court in his efforts to reallocate Cook Inlet salmon stocks at the ballot box, but he’s not giving up the fight against commercial fishermen. It’s past time that he did after some three decades of dividing the community with his nonstop efforts to drive his neighbors out of business and turn the Kenai River into his personal playpen. After the court emphatically rejected his ballot initiative that would ban setnetting from Cook Inlet beaches on Dec. 31, Penney released a statement that, “Maybe it’s time the federal government looked into this issue.” Later, Clark Penney, the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance started by his grandfather to push the initiative back in November 2013, said the group is looking into pursuing an Endangered Species Act listing for Kenai River king salmon. Anyone can petition for such a listing, but AFCA will have no better luck with the ESA than it had at the Alaska Supreme Court. Abundance of the late run of Kenai River kings is no doubt at a low point, but the stock has never failed to meet its escapement goal and in fact returned in strong enough numbers to allow all user groups more liberal harvest opportunity in 2015. The early run of Kenai River kings, on the other hand, has failed repeatedly in recent years to meet minimum escapement goals and was closed to all sportfishing in the past two years. Notice it hasn’t been closed to commercial fishing. That’s because commercial fishermen haven’t been in the water during the early run for decades as the stock abundance cratered under heavy pressure from the guided angler industry. That’s something Penney and his like-minded friends don’t ever talk about because they can’t blame it on commercial fishing. Oh, but they can spin a fish tale, though, and never was Penney’s win-at-all-costs mentality more evident than last legislative session when his advocacy outfit led a misleading smear campaign against a well-respected member of the Kenai Peninsula community who’d been nominated to the Board of Fisheries. The successful effort by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association to defeat Soldotna habitat advocate Robert Ruffner by a single vote based on a made-up criteria about not living in Anchorage and a ridiculous accusation that he was some kind of Manchurian candidate of the commercial fishing industry was the last straw for many in the community who saw his candidacy as an opportunity to break up what had become a polarized board dominated by factions instead of facts. KRSA, which is based in Soldotna, claims to be a conservation organization. The words “Kenai River” are in its name. Yet they waged a public relations war against a neighbor and conservationist despite his widespread endorsements from the local legislative delegation, municipal governments, and chambers of commerce. And they won, as they often have in the Cook Inlet fish wars they keep fueling. A similarly dishonest campaign was waged two years earlier, and succeeded in getting board member Vince Webster booted by an identical 30-29 vote. At both the 2011 and 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meetings, KRSA was able to essentially write the management plan for the Kenai River. In 2011, the group’s proposal severed the historical split between setnetters and drifters, turning what had typically been a 50-50 ratio into a 2-1 gap amounting to millions of dollars in reallocation. In 2014, KRSA was able to go further, getting the board to adopt a plan that removed almost all discretion from the day-to-day fishery managers in favor of the arbitrary hours and so-called “paired restrictions” designed to render setnetting uneconomic. One of the most damaging provisions KRSA was able to push through was a rule that after Aug. 1 the Department of Fish and Game must still restrict commercial fishing if the king salmon escapement is projected to be less than 22,500. That is the mid-point of the escapement goal, or 50 percent above the minimum. Last year, with the king salmon escapement goal ensured of being met, the sockeye run showed up in force at record late dates, and millions of dollars worth of fish went unharvested in August because of a rule in the management plan that has no basis in science but instead reflects the political muscle of KRSA to get what it wants at the Board of Fisheries. Penney couldn’t influence the Supreme Court with campaign donations and a Kenai River Classic perk package, though, and this time he’s going to have to take “no” for an answer. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Time to put up or shut up for Legislature

With just a couple weeks to go until the next legislative session begins, Alaska’s elected officials have a hefty to-do list. In no particular order, here it is: • Restructuring the Permanent Fund earnings in order to use a portion to pay for state government, and possibly reducing the annual citizens’ dividend. • Considering whether to raise or institute new taxes. • Cutting spending. • Reaffirming approval for the sale of pension-obligation bonds; and deciding whether to fund the capital budget with general obligation bonds subject to voters’ approval. • Allocating $15.7 billion in payments-in-lieu-of taxes, or PILT, between the state and municipalities for the Alaska LNG Project. • Reforming the oil tax credit program, and possibly raising or hardening the production tax floor. • Dealing with the Anchorage Legislative Information Office hot potato. • Funding the expanded class of Medicaid recipients that the House and Senate majorities are currently suing the governor to overturn. • Approving Alaska LNG Project fiscal terms, commercial agreements and a constitutional amendment securing those terms to be presented to voters in November. Any one or combination of the above items would bog down a Legislature that has gone down to the last minute or overtime just to pass budgets in healthy fiscal years. Taken in total mere months from a statewide general election, it would be wildly optimistic to expect a series of profiles in courage to be written from the halls of the Capitol in Juneau. Both sides are going to have to be realistic. Republicans should know they can’t cut enough, and Democrats should drop their incessant insistence on raising oil taxes. Reforming the credit program or hardening the tax floor is one thing; pretending that there’s some vast supply of money on the Slope that can be tapped at $35 per barrel is not. Republicans have stated Gov. Bill Walker’s budget doesn’t cut operating spending enough, by only $100 million compared to their desire for a $400 million reduction. If they can cut operating spending by another $300 million compared to Walker’s budget, it would eliminate the need for $200 million in revenue from a state income tax. Whether they have a plan or the wherewithal to execute such a reduction remains to be seen. If the Republicans can’t propose a budget that balances, or choose to move some of the Constitutional Budget Reserve into the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve as part of the restructuring to fund government, then the House minority Independent Democrat caucus will still have the same leverage it exerted last session to protect its members’ funding priorities such as education or Medicaid expansion. Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, has said some in the majorities could be comfortable with a budget that doesn’t fully close the $3.5 billion gap, which could be a preferable compromise between not slashing state spending to the bone while reducing the annual draw from the CBR to a much smaller level. With a 15-5 advantage in the Senate, Meyer can pass such a plan without Democrats; such is not the case in the House. If the Republicans don’t want to raise or create taxes to fully close the deficit, the House majority is going to have to work far more constructively with the minority than it did last year when, at an impasse, the leadership proposed to transfer the entire Earnings Reserve into the Permanent Fund to eliminate the requirement for a three-quarters vote to pull from the CBR. Democrats are correct to be concerned that new taxes, higher taxes and a reduced dividend will impact low income Alaskans disproportionately. Taken in total, Walker’s fiscal plan would remove some $1.15 billion — $500 million in taxes, $650 million from the dividend payout — from the private economy to help fund government. But funding government is also a Democrat priority, and they’re not going to be able to have it both ways. Republicans are also correct that taking money out of the private sector and disrupting the oil tax system for the fifth time in 10 years is likely to chill investment and economic output at a time when state government can least afford it. None of the options are good, but legislators will have to remember what Hyman Roth said in The Godfather Part II: “This is the business we’ve chosen.” If they’re not ready to make the hard choices and compromise, the voters may send them into another line of work. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Breaking LIO lease will signal state can’t be trusted

Legislators were rightly concerned when Gov. Bill Walker, without warning, vetoed $200 million in appropriations from the current fiscal year budget designated for the oil and gas tax credit program. Walker noted at the time — and his Revenue Commissioner Randall Hoffbeck had to spend a lot of time in the aftermath reiterating to the financial community — that the State of Alaska was not reneging on its obligation to pay the credits. The consequences of not honoring its debts would be terrible for a state trying to protect its top-notch AAA credit rating as it faces multi-billion deficits and now plans to finance its $13 billion share of the Alaska LNG Project. Yet here the Legislature is, through its Legislative Council that handles out-of-session affairs for the body, contemplating breaking a 10-year lease for its downtown Anchorage office building. Like all leases the state government enters, payment is “subject to appropriation,” meaning it can break the lease simply by refusing to pay the rent.  The Senate passed an operating budget last session that withheld the rent payment while the House passed a budget that did. That early April action by the Senate was so concerning that it spurred the Alaska Bankers Association to convene a meeting of its seven member institutions on Easter Sunday to craft a letter to the budget conference co-chairs Sen. Pete Kelly and Rep. Mark Neuman. The language was not ambiguous. ABA President Steve Lundgren of Denali State Bank wrote that, “We alert you that this action will likely impact the State’s credit worthiness and the cost of borrowing in the future.” Lundgren closed with this: “Alaska should not put itself in the position of having to react to a narrative that it will not live up to its commitments. How long creditors would remain accommodating is a great question to which we do not have the answer. What we do know is that some ideas have unintended consequences, and the current funding proposal would be as a good a bellwether as any signaling a risk aversion to the greater credit markets.” Thomas F. Klinker of the law firm Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, was similarly blunt, citing Moody’s Investor Service guidance that states that “depending on the circumstances involved in a lessee’s decision to not appropriate, this risk could be reflected in that entity’s other debt ratings, including its general obligation and other tax-supported debt.” Klinker noted that while it is true the lease on the Legislative Information Office is not securitized, “a decision to not appropriate rent for the lease without a specific justification, such as the lessor’s failure to perform, could have a similar adverse effect.” He further stated that breaking the lease — which in this case is being contemplated for no reason other than public scrutiny, not because the state lacks the ability to pay — “could be considered material to investors in future state financings, and a required subject of disclosure to prospective investors in such financings under federal securities law, particularly financings based on a lease that is subject to annual appropriation.” Not only is the state considering financing its capital budget for the next two years with general obligation bonds, but Walker has also proposed issuing pension obligation bonds to help cover the 11-figure unfunded liabilities of the public employee and teachers retirement systems. Pension obligation bonds are also “subject to annual appropriation.” Hoffbeck said in a recent interview that while the Legislature has previously approved the issuance of such pension bonds in 2008, a new vote would reassure investors the state would make good on payment if the bonds are sold. “If the Legislature is not willing to voice support of it, we don’t want that kind of noise going into the market when we try to sell bonds,” Hoffbeck said. In other words, if the Legislature won’t pay what it owes on something as small as a $3.3 million annual appropriation, investors aren’t going to lend the state money to finance billions of dollars in bonds or they will do so at much greater interest rates. It is irrelevant at this point whether the decision to renovate and improve the downtown office space was right or not. The fact is the Legislature signed a contract and it should live up to it. If the Legislature can’t make what’s a difficult but necessary decision to pay its debts, how in the world will its members find the intestinal fortitude to do what needs to be done to put the state on a more sustainable fiscal path? A shortsighted action bowing to political pressure or just the optics of the whole thing will signal to private investors that the state can’t be trusted when times get tough, and they sure aren’t getting easier any time soon. Given the circumstances we find ourselves, that should be the last way the Legislature wants to ring in the new year. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska, British Columbia sign transboundary MOU

Gov. Bill Walker and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a Memorandum of Understanding Nov. 25 committing to cooperation on transboundary issues, particularly related to concerns in Southeast over mines on the Canadian side of the border. The MOU will create a Bilateral Working Group on the Protection of Transboundary Waters that will facilitate the exchange of best practices, marine safety, workforce development, transportation links and joint visitor industry promotion. It will also explore other areas for cooperation such as natural resource development, fisheries, trade and investment and climate change adaptation. The neighboring U.S. state and Canadian province will work together on water quality monitoring, scientific information exchanges, resource sharing and facilitating access to information and soliciting input from First Nations, Alaska Native Tribes, and other stakeholders. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will lead the Alaska side of the working group and the Minister of Environment and Minister of Energy and Mines will lead the BC side. “As our next door neighbor, Canada plays a significant role in many Alaska industries, including trade, transportation, and tourism,” Walker said. “This MOU underscores that connection, and I thank British Columbia Premier Clark for her support and cooperation in advancing this important relationship “As we work to improve our state’s economy, it is important that we actively reach out and foster good relationships with our trading partners and neighbors with whom we share so much in common.” In an interview with the Journal, British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said the MOU signifies a “change in how we do business” between Alaska and BC. “How we were doing business was the state and province cooperated on mine approvals and permitting that takes place in British Columbia that has potential to impact Alaska,” he said. “But there wasn’t very much public awareness of that relationship and it was incredibly difficult for Tribes and conservation groups and fishing groups to get information on our processes. “We realized that was a shortcoming of our approach and Alaska realized they needed to communicate more with Alaskans on the opportunities the state has to be involved in our process. It’s a matter of opening our doors to acquiring information and making it easier. We’re adding to the opportunities for them to be involved. “This is sealing the deal by having the two leaders sign a deal that says ‘we’re going to do a better job on issues between the jurisdictions.’” There was initially some confusion among the Southeast stakeholders who have been pushing for action on transboundary issues. They had been presented the draft of a statement of cooperation on Nov. 16 by Mallott and told they had two weeks to provide comments to the state. After the announcement, Salmon Beyond Borders, a coalition of Southeast stakeholders representing Tribes, fishing and conservation groups, released statements blasting the timing of the signing and the nonbinding nature of the agreement. A spokesperson from the governor’s office clarified to the Journal that the MOU signed Nov. 25 was not the one presented to the stakeholders for comment Nov. 16, and that the comment period has been extended to Dec. 11. The MOU signed Wednesday is the “umbrella agreement,” Bennett said, which creates the working group that will facilitate the access and cooperation between the two jurisdictions. Southeast stakeholders have repeatedly called for the involvement of the International Joint Commission, which regulates disputes under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. “Since day one, the fishing industry has called on the state and Congress to secure legally binding agreements between the U.S. and Canada with substantial habitat protection and mitigation requirements to ensure the state’s interests are protected,” said Dale Kelley, Executive Director of the Alaska Trollers Association, in the Salmon Beyond Borders press release. “Alaska has instead signed non-binding agreements with British Columbia that offer no visible means of holding Canada, or the mining companies, accountable for mitigating our losses should accidents like the one at Mt. Polley occur in the region.” Kelley was referring to the Mount Polley mine tailings disaster on Aug. 4, 2014, that spilled millions of gallons of mine waste into the Cariboo region of British Columbia, polluting several lakes and watersheds. Concerns over mine waste polluting Alaska watersheds have been elevated by several proposed cross-border mines, particularly the proposed KSM mine near the Unuk River watershed that will also require a large tailings dam structure; there is also ongoing acid rock drainage flowing into a tributary of the Taku River from the abandoned Talsequah Chief Mine. R. Brent Murphy, vice president of environmental affairs for Seabridge, the owners of the proposed KSM mine, wrote in an emailed statement that, “Seabridge wants to clarify that our proposed TMF (tailings mine facility) associated with the KSM Project is not situated in the Unuk watershed or a watershed that drains into Alaska, contrary to the assertions of those who are the most vocal with regards to transboundary development. Our TMF will be situated within the Nass watershed, a watershed that drains entirely into Canadian waters.” Murphy also wrote that naturally occurring acid rock drainage is currently occurring in a Unuk tributary. “We also want to highlight that the water quality within the Unuk River is currently being impacted by naturally occurring acid rock drainage originating from the exposure of the Mitchell Deposit within the head waters of Mitchell Creek (which is a tributary of the Unuk River),” he wrote. “This naturally occurring acid rock drainage results in naturally elevated concentrations of many metals within the river, including copper, iron and zinc. These elevated concentrations have been identified during our extensive baseline sampling of the Upper Unuk River and associated watersheds, which has been ongoing since 2008.” After Bennett visited the Talsequah site in August, government agencies issued a letter to the owners of the mine Nov. 10 that they have 90 days to come up with a plan to stop the acid rock drainage. Although the drainage has been ongoing for years, tests by several government agencies have found that fish in the Tulsequah River are not being affected by the discharge. Regarding the Tulsequah mine, Bennett said the company has told the province it will have a plan to improve the site but that it will stop short of reopening the water treatment plant because the small exploration company doesn’t have the financing. “We think we have some opportunities here to have the company improve the site,” he said. “The best thing would be to develop the site, create cash flow for the company that can open the treatment plant, operate the mine, then close the site, remediate the site, and stop the leaching. That would all be paid for by company as opposed to the public. “That’s what BC has been trying to see happen for 20 years.” He said the fact no harmful effects have been measured by agencies on either side of the border affects how the province is approaching the mine, but that could change if damage was being done. “If the scientists in Alaska and British Columbia were saying that the drainage was harming the water, harming the fish, we’d obviously have a different reaction,” he said. “I think we should do more study, more monitoring, to make sure about the impacts. “If it was determined that there is a negative impact, I think BC would have to take more dramatic action and we’d be responsible for that site. The government would probably have to take it over. I don’t see it happening any time soon, but I acknowledge that it’s a possibility in the future.” Bennett also said there is a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what role the International Joint Commission, or IJC, could play on Alaska-BC transboundary issues. As sub-national jurisdictions, Alaska and BC cannot sign legally binding documents, and the IJC could only get involved if both the U.S. and Canada agreed to it, and if there was a complete breakdown in communications between the nations. He noted that there is a “tremendous amount of pressure on both jurisdictions” related to preserving watersheds from mining impacts and the signing of the MOU is a strong public commitment to working together. “It’s there for the world to see,” he said. “It’s shortsighted to say it won’t impact BC or Alaska.” Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Tax credit program would benefit from transparency

When the Legislature finally adjourned after a second special session to pass a budget this past spring, about 20 percent of the approximately $3.5 billion deficit was related to payments from the state’s oil and gas tax credit program. Unlike deductions, which the large producers use on a per-barrel basis to reduce their tax liabilities, the credits are direct payments from the state to mostly independent companies exploring for oil and gas in Cook Inlet and the North Slope. Gov. Bill Walker roiled the industry and lending circles with his move in late June to use his line item veto authority to reduce a $700 million appropriation for the credits by $200 million, deferring the payments to future fiscal years. The short-term effect was a credit freeze between lenders and explorers that required damage control by the state Revenue Commissioner Randall Hoffbeck to assure financial institutions and private equity firms that Alaska would make good on the payments owed. That’s according to the report released Dec. 1 by the Senate Oil and Gas Tax Credit Working Group formed among members of the Senate Majority and Minority member Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. The report was short on recommendations to actually reduce the annual outlays and focused more on going slow with any changes so as not to disrupt projects in the development stage, protecting the state’s interests should a company go into bankruptcy as Buccaneer Energy and Cook Inlet Energy have, and firming up the tax “floor” on production taxes so companies cannot use a net operating loss, or NOL, deduction to reduce their liability to less than 4 percent. Cementing the tax floor seems to be a no-brainer and should be an easy fix by requiring companies to spread the NOL out over multiple years if necessary to ensure a minimum production tax is received. Ultimately, though, there is no silver bullet to fix Alaska’s revenue problem at the current oil prices under any current or prior tax system. Without question the oil and gas credits, or rebates, require examination along with every expenditure the state is making. There is also no question that the state’s oil and gas credit system has major successes to tout. The Cook Inlet gas supply resurgence led by Hilcorp would not have happened absent the credit system, nor would the recent start of gas production by Furie Operating Alaska that is now delivering gas to Homer Electric Association at a lesser price than some of Hilcorp’s customers from the first new production platform seen in Cook Inlet in more than three decades.  Looking to the North Slope, the independent Caelus is currently developing the Nuna prospect it acquired from Pioneer Natural Resources in 2014, and is scheduled for production in 2017. Hilcorp has entered also the fray by purchasing some smaller BP assets and has now submitted a development plan for the Liberty offshore field that could produce 60,000 to 70,000 barrels per day by 2020. The majors are also spending money on the Slope despite the price crash. ConocoPhillips has spent $1.5 billion developing Drillsite 2S in Kuparuk and the CD-5 field in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. It also just sanctioned a billion-dollar project at Greater Moose’s Tooth-1, also in the NPR-A. When companies continue to spend money in the current price environment and bid on acreage as many independents did at the recent state Slope lease sale, something is working. While we can piece together a rough picture of how credits may be benefitting the state economy, the credit program needs to be more transparent. The public has a right to know how much in credits is being paid out and for what projects. That is the only way to tell if the state is getting something back for what it is spending. The working group reached a rather strange conclusion in its recommendations to disclose the amount of credits paid by project, but not the recipient of the credits. It is hard to understand what difference it would make to withhold the recipient of the credit while disclosing the project for which it was paid. Under the since-discontinued film tax credit program, the public was able to see the project, the recipient, the amount of the credit and the qualifying expenditures that led to the credit. If the oil and gas industry really wants to see this program continue, they should be disclosing how much they’re spending, what they’re spending it on, and how many people in Alaska are being hired as a result. A simple return on investment analysis of credits relative to production taxes does not capture things like local wages, their multiplier effects or the economic impact of ratepayers in Homer or elsewhere benefitting from lower utility costs. The best way to ensure a stable credit system continues — and it must continue — is to make it more transparent.

Alaska, BC sign transboundary MOU

This story has been updated with clarification and a comment from Seabridge Gold Inc. Vice President of Environmental Affairs R. Brent Murphy. Gov. Bill Walker and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark signed a Memorandum of Understanding Wednesday morning committing to cooperation on transboundary issues, particularly related to concerns in Southeast over mines on the Canadian side of the border. The MOU will create a Bilateral Working Group on the Protection of Transboundary Waters that will facilitate the exchange of best practices, marine safety, workforce development, transportation links and joint visitor industry promotion. It will also explore other areas for cooperation such as natural resource development, fisheries, trade and investment and climate change adaptation. The neighboring U.S. state and Canadian province will work together on water quality monitoring, scientific information exchanges, resource sharing and facilitating access to information and soliciting input from First Nations, Alaska Native Tribes, and other stakeholders. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will lead the Alaska side of the working group and the Minister of Environment and Minister of Energy and Mines will lead the BC side. “As our next door neighbor, Canada plays a significant role in many Alaska industries, including trade, transportation, and tourism,” Walker said. “This MOU underscores that connection, and I thank British Columbia Premier Clark for her support and cooperation in advancing this important relationship “As we work to improve our state’s economy, it is important that we actively reach out and foster good relationships with our trading partners and neighbors with whom we share so much in common.” In an interview with the Journal, British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said the MOU signifies a “change in how we do business” between Alaska and BC. “How we were doing business was the state and province cooperated on mine approvals and permitting that takes place in British Columbia that has potential to impact Alaska,” he said. “But there wasn’t very much public awareness of that relationship and it was incredibly difficult for Tribes and conservation groups and fishing groups to get information on our processes. “We realized that was a shortcoming of our approach and Alaska realized they needed to communicate more with Alaskans on the opportunities the state has to be involved in our process. It’s a matter of opening our doors to acquiring information and making it easier. We’re adding to the opportunities for them to be involved. “This is sealing the deal by having the two leaders sign a deal that says ‘we’re going to do a better job on issues between the jurisdictions.’” There was initially some confusion among the Southeast stakeholders who have been pushing for action on transboundary issues. They had been presented the draft of a statement of cooperation on Nov. 16 by Mallott and told they had two weeks to provide comments to the state. After the announcement, Salmon Beyond Borders, a coalition of Southeast stakeholders representing Tribes, fishing and conservation groups, released statements blasting the timing of the signing and the nonbinding nature of the agreement. A spokesperson from the governor’s office clarified to the Journal that the MOU signed Wednesday was not the one presented to the stakeholders for comment Nov. 16, and that the comment period has been extended to Dec. 11. The MOU signed Wednesday is the “umbrella agreement,” Bennett said, which creates the working group that will facilitate the access and cooperation between the two jurisdictions. Southeast stakeholders have repeatedly called for the involvement of the International Joint Commission, which regulates disputes under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. “Since day one, the fishing industry has called on the state and Congress to secure legally binding agreements between the U.S. and Canada with substantial habitat protection and mitigation requirements to ensure the state’s interests are protected,” said Dale Kelley, Executive Director of the Alaska Trollers Association, in the Salmon Beyond Borders press release. “Alaska has instead signed non-binding agreements with British Columbia that offer no visible means of holding Canada, or the mining companies, accountable for mitigating our losses should accidents like the one at Mt. Polley occur in the region.” Kelley was referring to the Mount Polley mine tailings disaster on Aug. 4, 2014, that spilled millions of gallons of mine waste into the Cariboo region of British Columbia, polluting several lakes and watersheds. Concerns over mine waste polluting Alaska watersheds have been elevated by several proposed cross-border mines, particularly the proposed KSM mine near the Unuk River watershed that will also require a large tailings dam structure; there is also ongoing acid rock drainage flowing into a tributary of the Taku River from the abandoned Talsequah Chief Mine. From R. Brent Murphy, Seabridge: “Seabridge wants to clarify that our proposed TMF (tailings mine facility) associated with the KSM Project is not situated in the Unuk watershed  or a watershed that drains into Alaska, contrary to the assertions of those who are the most vocal with regards to transboundary development.  Our TMF will be situated within the Nass watershed, a watershed that drains entirely into Canadian waters. "We also want to highlight that the water quality within the Unuk River is currently being impacted by naturally occurring acid rock drainage originating from the exposure of the Mitchell Deposit within the head waters of Mitchell Creek (which is a tributary of the Unuk River). This naturally occurring acid rock drainage results in naturally elevated concentrations of many metals within the river, including copper, iron and zinc. These elevated concentrations have been identified during our extensive baseline sampling of the Upper Unuk River  and associated watersheds, which has been ongoing since 2008.” After Bennett visited the Talsequah site in August, government agencies issued a letter to the owners of the mine Nov. 10 that they have 90 days to come up with a plan to stop the acid rock drainage. Although the drainage has been ongoing for years, tests by several government agencies have found that fish in the Tulsequah River are not being affected by the discharge. Regarding the Tulsequah mine, Bennett said the company has told the province it will have a plan to improve the site but that it will stop short of reopening the water treatment plant because the small exploration company doesn’t have the financing. “We think we have some opportunities here to have the company improve the site,” he said. “The best thing would be to develop the site, create cash flow for the company that can open the treatment plant, operate the mine, then close the site, remediate the site, and stop the leaching. That would all be paid for by company as opposed to the public. “That’s what BC has been trying to see happen for 20 years.” He said the fact no harmful effects have been measured by agencies on either side of the border affects how the province is approaching the mine, but that could change if damage was being done. “If the scientists in Alaska and British Columbia were saying that the drainage was harming the water, harming the fish, we’d obviously have a different reaction,” he said. “I think we should do more study, more monitoring, to make sure about the impacts. “If it was determined that there is a negative impact, I think BC would have to take more dramatic action and we’d be responsible for that site. The government would probably have to take it over. I don’t see it happening any time soon, but I acknowledge that it’s a possibility in the future.” Bennett also said there is a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what role the International Joint Commission, or IJC, could play on Alaska-BC transboundary issues. As sub-national jurisdictions, Alaska and BC cannot sign legally binding documents, and the IJC could only get involved if both the U.S. and Canada agreed to it, and if there was a complete breakdown in communications between the nations. He noted that there is a “tremendous amount of pressure on both jurisdictions” related to preserving watersheds from mining impacts and the signing of the MOU is a strong public commitment to working together. “It’s there for the world to see,” he said. “It’s shortsighted to say it won’t impact BC or Alaska.” Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Walker shakes up AGDC board again, adds Hopkins, Luiken

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who replaced two members of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board of directors shortly after taking office this past January, has shaken up the board again by dismissing board Chair John Burns and swapping one of his cabinet appointments. Walker replaced Burns with former Fairbanks Mayor Luke Hopkins, who served on the board of directors of the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, which Walker led and represented as general counsel since its creation in 1999. The move comes a day before the AGDC board is to meet in Anchorage to finalize the state’s buy out of TransCanada’s interest in the Alaska LNG Project, the $45-$65 billion gas project in which the state is partnering with the three major North Slope producers ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips. “As the state transitions to play a larger role in the Alaska LNG project, it is absolutely critical that we have strong leadership in place to guide our endeavors,” Walker said in a statement. “I also plan to work on direct communication between the Governor’s office and the legislature, and I will continue to look for opportunities to include them in discussions about the project. I look forward to working with the AGDC Board and the legislature in the coming months and years as we work to bring Alaska’s natural gas to the world market.” It’s the second appointment Walker has made to the board with ties to the AGPA. Rick Halford of Dillingham, who worked as a lobbyist in 2005 for AGPA and was paid more than $100,000 by the entity, was appointed to the board in January. Two days before a scheduled AGDC board meeting in January, the governor dismissed former state legislator Drue Pearce, Al Bolea, a retired BP manager, and Richard Ranibow, a former ExxonMobil pipeline project manager, from the board. Walker replaced them with Halford, Joe Paskvan of Fairbanks and Hugh Short of Anchorage. Halford and Short were confirmed by the Legislature while Paskvan, who served in the state Senate from 2009-12, was rejected. At the time Walker said he wanted a transparent board and ordered new members from his administration — Department of Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas, and Acting Commerce Commissioner Fred Parady — not to sign confidentiality agreements. He retained public members Dave Cruz, owner of Cruz Construction Inc., and Burns. Walker eventually appointed Chris Hladick as Commerce Commissioner, replacing Parady, and has now replaced him with Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken. Walker has loaded the AGDC board and his staff with former associates from the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, which was formed to build, or cause to be built, an Alaska gasline. Among Walker’s staff are former AGPA Executive Director Jim Whitaker, now Walker’s chief of staff; former law partner and current Attorney General Craig Richards; Halford; and former authority consultants Rigdon Boykin and Radoslav Shipkoff. Boykin and Shipkoff have drawn attention for contracts paying them more than $100,000 per month, and Boykin, who was the third lead negotiator Walker has chosen in less than a year in office, was recently sent home to South Carolina by Walker for time off. Walker has since said he’d like to find another role for Boykin in the project. The seven-member board also includes Joey Merrick of Anchorage and Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Heidi Drygas.

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