Dan Joling

Nome gets fresh review as possible US Arctic port

Federal officials will take another look at the historic Alaska community of Nome as a possible port serving ships heading for the Arctic. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it has signed an agreement with the city of Nome to examine whether benefits justify costs of navigation improvements, said Bruce Sexauer, chief of civil works for the Corps' Alaska District. "The study will look at economic and social reasons to see if expanding the port is in the federal interest," he said. The study process generally takes three years and could culminate in a Corps' recommendation to Congress to authorize port improvements, Sexauer said. Alaska lacks deep-water ports along most of its west and northwest coast. The nearest permanent U.S. Coast Guard station is Kodiak more than 800 miles away. Arctic marine traffic continues to grow and Nome, though south of the Arctic Circle, is well situated south of the Pacific chokepoint to the Arctic, the Bering Strait, Sexauer said. A joint federal-state study started in 2008 looked at alternatives for Arctic ports in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Nome became the top choice because of infrastructure already in place, including an airport that handles jets, a hospital and fuel supply facilities. "It just needed to be bigger and deeper," Sexauer said However, economic justification for the port diminished in late 2015 when Royal Dutch Shell PLC drilled a dry hole in the Chukchi Sea and suspended its U.S. Arctic offshore drilling program. "The benefits for a project at Nome went away, at least the oil and gas benefits," Sexauer said. The Corps paused its study with the state and officially terminated it last month, Sexauer said. The study with the city will again look at how a Nome port would aid marine traffic for petroleum development, mining and regional delivery of fuel and other products. Federal law changed in 2016 to allow the Corps to also consider social benefits, such as support of search and rescue operations, national security and aid to communities to help them be sustainable. The Port of Nome remains too shallow to handle large ships. Fuel tankers stay anchored in deep water and fuel is lightered to Nome. Nome's inner harbor in 2014 was just 10 feet deep and its outer harbor was less than 23 feet deep. The Corps that year looked at constructing docks up to 1,000 feet  long and dredging to 35 feet. The Corps in late April has scheduled a planning meeting in Nome to detail the scope of the new study.

Interior official blasts resignation of parks advisory board

A U.S. Interior Department official on Wednesday blasted the resignation of most members of a board that advises it on national parks, suggesting the move was politically motivated and their work was flawed. Todd Willens, associate deputy secretary of the department, brought up investigations that uncovered sexual harassment at national parks such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and an internal investigative report of a guidebook written by former National Park Service leader Jonathan Jarvis. "We welcome their resignations and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at national parks and praise a man as 'inspiring' who had been blasted by the inspector general for ethics and management failures," Willens said. Nine members of the 12-member National Park System Advisory Board, including chairman Tony Knowles, a Democratic former Alaska governor, resigned Monday in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, saying their requests to meet were ignored. The Washington Post, which first reported the resignations, said a 10th member stepped down Wednesday. It's the latest hit to committees that advise the Trump administration. Half the expert members of a board that advises the Environmental Protection Agency on the integrity of its science were not reappointed last May. At the same time, the Interior Department said it launched a wide-ranging review of more than 200 boards and advisory committees, including some that had not met in years. The congressionally authorized National Park System Advisory Board must meet twice per year by law but has not been called into session by the Interior Department since President Donald Trump took office. "Our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new department team are clearly not part of its agenda," Knowles wrote in the letter. Willens said that was "patently false" and that department officials were working to renew the board's charter, schedule a meeting and fill vacancies as recently as last week. "Their hollow and dishonest political stunt should be a clear indicator of the intention of the group," he said. Knowles, the board chairman, said no one at the department contacted him or other board members this month about future meetings. The idea of a political statement by board members, made up of national experts in natural resources, financial management, geography and other fields, was disingenuous, he said. Most of the board had worked together for seven years. "We're all a bunch of wonks," Knowles said. "There's absolutely nothing political about any person on it. We have a lot of different backgrounds and were all brought together because we want to do something really important for the national park system of America and build it for the 21st century." The board has collected comment from more than 100 experts, including Nobel Prize winners, to offer advice on challenges the system faces, including climate change, attracting more diverse visitors and employees, and protecting natural diversity of wildlife. As for sexual harassment within the parks, Knowles said, "We had complete confidence that Jon Jarvis, a person of integrity and strong control of the park system, was taking care of it." Jarvis is now executive director of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley. He did not immediate respond to an email request for comment. Knowles said he had no knowledge of a report on Jarvis by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. It investigated a guidebook that Jarvis wrote without consulting the department's ethics office. The book was published by a nonprofit group that operates stores and sells merchandise in national parks. The report determined that Jarvis worked on the book outside office hours and directed royalties to the National Park Foundation, which raises money for the National Park Service.

Interior Dept. eyes land swap for road in Izembek refuge

The Interior Department will explore a land exchange that could lead to construction of a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska. An agreement expected to be signed this month calls for the King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation, to identify up to 0.8 square miles of its land that could be swapped for equal-value land within Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge encompasses internationally recognized habitat for migrating waterfowl in southwest Alaska. The road would connect the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport needed for emergency medical flights. An evaluation of lands of equal value would "ideally" culminate with a land exchange and a road through the refuge, said Laura Tanis, spokeswoman for the Aleutians East Borough. "As we've said before, this is about health, safety and quality of life for the King Cove residents," she said in an email response to questions. King Cove is a village of more than 900 people near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, the body of land in Alaska's southwest corner that juts toward the Aleutian Islands. Strong winds and mountains frequently prompt cancellation of flights into the village. Residents for decades have sought a road link to Cold Bay, site of the airport built during World War II. Supporters say the one-lane, gravel road would carry medical patients and private traffic but would be closed to commercial uses such as transporting fish. Congress in 1997 addressed the King Cove transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The Aleutians East Borough took it out of service after deciding it was too expensive and unreliable to operate. Environmental groups strongly oppose a road, which would split a narrow isthmus separating ocean lagoons that provide important habitat for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. The isthmus is the southern border of the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon, holding one of the world's largest beds of eelgrass, a rich food source for Pacific brant, endangered Steller's eiders and other migratory birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 concluded that a 22-mile road through the isthmus could cause irrevocable damage to the watershed. Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell agreed with a Fish and Wildlife analysis that found a land exchange could not compensate for the special qualities of existing refuge lands. Environmental groups vow to challenge any road-building because of the harm and the precedent it would set in opening up other federal wild lands. King Cove officials a year ago said they were optimistic that their request for a road would fare better under President Donald Trump than under the Obama administration. King Cove has the backing of the state of Alaska and its congressional delegation. The new agreement of an exchange of up to .8 square miles, or 500 acres, of corporation land is far less than previous proposed exchanges. In 2013, the proposal rejected by Jewell would have swapped 0.3 square miles from Izembek refuge and 2.5 square miles from a federal refuge south of Kodiak for 67 square miles of state land and 21 square miles of land belonging to King Cove Corp. In July, the U.S. House approved legislation proposing a swap of 0.3 square miles in Izembek for 67 square miles of state land. An Interior Department spokeswoman did not return an email seeking comment.

Group files notice it will sue over walrus protection

A national environmental organization filed notice Thursday that it will sue the Trump administration over its rejection of Pacific walrus as a threatened or endangered species. The Center for Biological Diversity called the action last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "an unlawful, politically motivated decision" that deprives walruses of needed protections in the face of climate change and melting sea ice. "There's no question Pacific walruses are endangered, so denying them protection is absurd and dangerous," Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a prepared statement. Gavin Shire, chief of public affairs for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency could not comment on the pending litigation. The agency in 2011 said walruses deserve the additional protection of being declared threatened because climate change has diminished much of their primary habitat, sea ice. The agency delayed a listing because other species were a higher priority. Under a court settlement requiring a final decision, however, the agency announced last week that it had reversed its conclusions from six years ago. While acknowledging climate models showing the Chukchi Sea between northwest Alaska and Russia could be ice-free in summer by 2060, agency officials said they could not conclude with certainty that walruses would be affected because they have shown an ability to forage from shoreline resting areas. "Walrus demonstrated much more ability to change their behaviors than previously thought," said Patrick Lemons, the agency's marine mammals management chief in Alaska. Walruses, especially mothers with calves, use sea ice as a platform to rest, nurse, dive for clams and move to new foraging areas. In recent years, sea ice in summer has melted far beyond shallow water to parts of the Arctic Ocean too deep for walruses to dive. Without ice over shallow water, walruses have gathered by the thousands on the Alaska and Russia coasts where calves are vulnerable to predators or stampedes. About 100 mostly young animals have been killed this year near the Alaska village of Point Lay. In the lawsuit notice, Monsell said the case for listing walruses had only grown stronger since 2011, with Arctic sea ice reaching record lows and projections of ice trending downward. "The sea ice these animals need to survive is melting away," she said. "This ridiculous, about-face decision reflects the Trump administration's hostility to wildlife, science and the rule of law."

Federal government: No threatened species listing for walrus

The Trump administration announced Oct. 4 it will not list the Pacific walrus as a threatened species based on diminished Arctic Ocean sea ice, concluding that the marine mammals have adapted to the loss. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they cannot determine with certainty that walruses are likely to become endangered “in the foreseeable future,” which the agency defines as the year 2060. The decision could be challenged in court by environmental groups, who say a decline in Arctic Ocean sea ice due to climate change is a threat to the walruses’ future. The Fish and Wildlife Service said in 2011 that walruses deserve the additional protection of being declared threatened, but delayed a listing because other species were a higher priority. The agency revised the decision based on new information, said Patrick Lemons, the agency’s marine mammals management chief. “Walrus demonstrated much more ability to change their behaviors than previously thought,” Lemons said. Their ability to rest on shorelines before swimming to foraging areas makes the threat of less sea ice uncertain, he added. Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, who wrote the listing petition filed in 2008, called the decision “disgraceful.” “Today’s decision grossly misrepresents the science showing the walrus is threatened by climate change,” she said by email. “The administration downplays the dangers of climate change, and claims without basis that the walrus will somehow adapt to the devastating loss of sea ice.” Older male walruses spend summers in the Bering Sea. Females with calves, however, ride sea ice north as it melts in spring and summer all the way through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. The ice provides a moving platform, giving walruses a place to rest and nurse, and protection from predators. In the last decade, however, ice in the Arctic Ocean has melted far beyond the shallow continental shelf over water too deep for walruses to reach the ocean floor. Walruses instead have gathered by the thousands on beaches in northwestern Alaska and Russia, where smaller animals are vulnerable to being trampled in stampedes if the herd is spooked by a polar bear, hunter or airplane. In the last six years, Lemons said, protections put in place in Alaska and Russia have greatly reduced trampling deaths. Walruses also have shown a willingness to swim great distances of 130 miles or more from coastal haulouts to prime foraging areas. Arctic sea ice this summer dropped to 1.79 million square miles, about 610,000 square miles below the 30-year average. Lemons said the Fish and Wildlife Service used climate models showing the Chukchi Sea between northwest Alaska and Russia could be ice-free in the summer by 2060. But he said information collected in the last six years makes predicting the walruses’ fate uncertain beyond then, so the decision was made not to list the species. Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation hailed the decision. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young said in a release that there hasn’t been a reduction in the walrus population. “I welcome this action by the USFWS, a decision that recognizes the health and stability of Alaska’s walrus population and ignores the extreme political pressures often associated with new Endangered Species Act listings,” Young said. Wolf said last week that her group likely would sue if walruses were not listed as a threatened species.

Walker proposes head tax to boost state revenue

Gov. Bill Walker's latest proposal for closing the gap between state revenue and spending is a limited tax on payroll wages and self-employment income. Walker, an independent, is calling the proposal a modified "head tax." The matter will be addressed at an Oct. 23 special session, the fourth this year, that Walker announced Friday. A crime bill is also on the agenda. The Republican-led Senate earlier this year rejected a House-passed income tax. The state is grappling with a multibillion-dollar deficit amid continued low oil prices. Walker's proposal would partially close the gap. It calls for a 1.5 percent tax on wages. The tax would be capped at the higher amount of $2,200 or double the amount of the previous year's Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend check. Under the tax plan, if the dividend was $1,100, no one would be taxed more than $2,200. To reach that level of tax, person would have to earn $147,000. "In effect they would be returning their dividend and adding $1,100," said Sheldon Fisher, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue, at a briefing for reporters. A person earning $25,000 would have a tax obligation of $375 but would net $725 by receiving the permanent fund check. A person earning $50,000 would have a tax obligation of $750 and would keep $350 from a dividend check. State Sen. President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said the Senate Majority supports meeting to address a crime bill but believes fiscal problems are best addressed by reducing government budgets and instituting a spending limit. "We want to make it clear that any 'complete plan' to address our fiscal problem cannot solely reach into Alaskans' pockets for more government money, but must include budget reductions," he said in prepared statement. Walker in his announcement said Alaska state spending has fallen 44 percent over four years and the state has spent more than $14 billion from savings. "With the downturn in oil prices, however, it's clear that we must find a new source of revenue to pay for troopers, teachers, transportation and other essential services," he said. Fisher said the governor sees great benefit to taking up one piece of potential future revenue because it would give confidence to investors and enhance Alaska's credit rating. Walker's proposed tax would be paid by nonresidents, who earned more than $2.7 billion in 2015. Tax collection would be the responsibility of employers much as they now withhold money for Social Security or unemployment insurance, Fisher said. The self-employed, such as commercial fishermen, would pay an amount based on their earnings. For the fiscal year ending June 30, the state is forecasting a budget gap of $2.6 billion. Lawmakers in recent years have filled the budget gap by spending state savings accounts. Tapping the Constitutional Budget Reserve and the Statutory Budget Reserve will not be an option in the future, Fisher said. They hold a couple of billion dollars, he said, which is needed for cash-flow purposes and emergencies. "They're essentially, effectively done," Fisher said. Alaska Gov. Walker proposes head tax to boost state revenue   By DAN JOLING,  Associated Press ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Gov. Bill Walker's latest proposal for closing the gap between state revenue and spending is a limited tax on payroll wages and self-employment income. Walker, an independent, is calling the proposal a modified "head tax." The matter will be addressed at an Oct. 23 special session, the fourth this year, that Walker announced Friday. A crime bill is also on the agenda. The Republican-led Senate earlier this year rejected a House-passed income tax. The state is grappling with a multibillion-dollar deficit amid continued low oil prices. Walker's proposal would partially close the gap. It calls for a 1.5 percent tax on wages. The tax would be capped at the higher amount of $2,200 or double the amount of the previous year's Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend, the annual checks sent to Alaska residents from a savings account created from the state's oil earnings. Under the tax plan, if the dividend was $1,100, no one would be taxed more than $2,200. To reach that level of tax, person would have to earn $147,000. "In effect they would be returning their dividend and adding $1,100," said Sheldon Fisher, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue, at a briefing for reporters. A person earning $25,000 would have a tax obligation of $375 but would net $725 by receiving the permanent fund check. A person earning $50,000 would have a tax obligation of $750 and would keep $350 from a dividend check. State Sen. President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said the Senate Majority supports meeting to address a crime bill but believes fiscal problems are best addressed by reducing government budgets and instituting a spending limit. "We want to make it clear that any 'complete plan' to address our fiscal problem cannot solely reach into Alaskans' pockets for more government money, but must include budget reductions," he said in prepared statement. Walker in his announcement said Alaska state spending has fallen 44 percent over four years and the state has spent more than $14 billion from savings. "With the downturn in oil prices, however, it's clear that we must find a new source of revenue to pay for troopers, teachers, transportation and other essential services," he said. Fisher said the governor sees great benefit to taking up one piece of potential future revenue because it would give confidence to investors and enhance Alaska's credit rating. Walker's proposed tax would be paid by nonresidents, who earned more than $2.7 billion in 2015. Tax collection would be the responsibility of employers much as they now withhold money for Social Security or unemployment insurance, Fisher said. The self-employed, such as commercial fishermen, would pay an amount based on their earnings. For the fiscal year ending June 30, the state is forecasting a budget gap of $2.6 billion. Lawmakers in recent years have filled the budget gap by spending state savings accounts. Tapping the Constitutional Budget Reserve and the Statutory Budget Reserve will not be an option in the future, Fisher said. They hold a couple of billion dollars, he said, which is needed for cash-flow purposes and emergencies. "They're essentially, effectively done," Fisher said.

Repair halts Cook Inlet gas leak

Divers have placed a clamp over a hole in an underwater Alaska pipeline, stopping the flow of millions of cubic feet of natural gas into Cook Inlet, home to endangered beluga whales. Hilcorp Alaska LLC, a subsidiary of Houston-based Hilcorp, announced Friday that divers Thursday night covered a gash at the bottom of the 8-inch (20-centimeter) diameter line in 80 feet (24 meters) of water. They measured the hole at less than 0.5 square inches (32 sq. centimeters). “A total of 12 dives were completed on the fuel gas line in order to locate the leak, then properly position, stabilize and prepare the pipeline for repair,” said Hilcorp spokeswoman Lori Nelson by email. Cook Inlet covers 180 miles (290 kilometers) from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage. A Hilcorp helicopter crew spotted gas bubbling from the line Feb. 7 about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) off shore. The pipeline carries processed natural gas to four production platforms, where it’s burned to generate electricity. Analysis of gas flow indicated the pipeline probably started leaking in mid-December and initially spewed up to 310,000 cubic feet (8,780 cubic meters) of natural gas per day. Hilcorp lowered pressure in the line to reduce the daily flow to 85,000 to 115,000 cubic feet (2,407 to 3,257 cubic meters). The inlet is notorious for extreme tides that produce strong currents. Hilcorp held off on repairs until the additional threat to divers of floating ice had diminished. Divers found the leak where the pipeline rested on a boulder in the seafloor. “After proper cleaning and preparation, a steel and rubber clamp was installed over the leak,” Nelson said. “The clamp assures a gas tight, liquid tight seal that will reinforce the pipeline.” The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had ordered repairs to be completed by May 1 or shut down. The agency later called for inspection of a nearby crude oil line subject to the same stresses as the natural gas line. As weather permits, more inspection and stabilization of both lines will be completed, Nelson said. “Neither pipeline will be returned to regular service until Hilcorp, along with state and federal regulators, agree it is safe to do so,” Nelson said. Hilcorp owns 15 of the 17 production platforms in Cook Inlet. Fourteen platforms were built in 1968 or before. The Center for Biological Diversity has formally petitioned the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for state and federal inspections of the aging infrastructure. Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the organization, said Thursday that the gas leak shows that self-policing does not work.

Hilcorp estimates leak at 3 gallons of crude; unified command stands down

An underwater pipeline that sprung a leak in Alaska's Cook Inlet, an area known for diverse marine life, probably dumped less than three gallons of crude oil into the ocean, the pipeline's owner said Monday. The spill between two production platforms owned by Hilcorp Alaska LLC was spotted Saturday. Cook Inlet stretches 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage and is home to an endangered population of beluga whales. Hilcorp by Sunday had removed all oil from the 8-inch diameter pipeline. Cook Inlet is also habitat for humpback whales, the western population of Steller sea lions and northern sea otters. Harbor seals, killer whales and porpoise use the inlet. The Kenai Peninsula makes up the eastern side of the inlet and draws thousands of anglers every summer seeking halibut in the inlet or salmon in ocean water and streams. The spill volume was estimated from the size of sheens that were seen, said company spokeswoman Lori Nelson in an emailed response to questions. The sheens dissipated, Nelson said. In three flyovers Sunday and a final one Monday morning, no additional sheens were spotted from the air. Hilcorp, the Coast Guard and state environmental authorities over the weekend formed a unified command in response to the spill that was suspended Monday, said Candice Bressler, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The leak's cause was unknown. The leak is the second in Cook Inlet this year for Hilcorp Alaska, a subsidiary of Houston-based Hilcorp. In an unrelated incident, processed natural gas continues to spew into the inlet from an underwater pipeline that supplies four other production platforms. The platforms burn natural gas for power. That leak was discovered in February and company officials estimate it has been leaking since mid-December. Hilcorp says the gas leak will be repaired after floating ice no longer poses a threat to divers who would perform repairs. The oil leak was discovered Saturday, April 1, when workers on the Anna Platform "felt an impact," according to the DEC. They spotted an oil sheen and bubbling in the water near one of the platform's legs. The suspected leaking line connects Anna Platform with Bruce Platform in 75 feet of water. The 1.6-mile line has a capacity of 19,362 gallons and was full. Hilcorp Alaska shut down the platform and lowered pressure in the pipeline to zero. Overflights spotted six sheens. The largest was 10-by-12 feet. Bressler said Hilcorp used a polyurethane "pig," a device inserted into the pipe, to push remaining crude oil toward the Bruce Platform. It was processed and moved to a tank farm. Hilcorp has detected no harm to wildlife, Nelson said. Story from Sunday, April 2 (AP) — Alaska officials say an oil leak has been discovered in the Cook Inlet and a major oil and gas producer has shut down two of its platforms there. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says Hilcorp Alaska LLC workers first noticed an oil sheen and bubbling from underwater near the company's Anna platform at about noon Saturday. The spill is on the west side of Cook Inlet, to the southwest of Anchorage. Officials say leak is from a underwater pipeline that is carrying more than 19,000 gallons of crude oil. It's not clear how much oil is spilling into the inlet. Hilcorp lowered the pressure in the line and has hired a diving contractor to investigate the leak. "It has been less than a week since Hilcorp agreed to temporarily shut down oil and gas production as part of its response to a leaking gas supply line," Gov. Bill Walker said in a Sunday statement from his office. "Now, Hilcorp has reported a seperate leaking oil line — which is significantly more harmful than natural gas. I am deeply concerned about the potential impact to the environment. The oil line has been shut in. Our (DEC) Spill Prevention and Response team has immediately responded, and is keeping me apprised of developments." Natural gas has been leaking from another Hilcorp pipeline in the Cook Inlet since mid-December.

Agency wants review of second Hilcorp pipeline

A federal agency investigating an underwater pipeline leaking natural gas in Alaska’s Cook Inlet is expanding its review to a nearby oil pipeline. In a proposed safety order issued March 17, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the 8-inch oil pipeline owned by Hilcorp Alaska LLC is subject to the same stresses as Hilcorp’s 8-inch natural gas pipeline and must be quickly inspected. The natural gas pipeline since mid-December has spewed hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of processed natural gas into the inlet, home to endangered beluga whales. The PHMSA called for inspection of the oil pipeline, which moves crude oil and water to shore for processing, by side-scan sonar or divers within 21 days of a final safety order. If Hilcorp cannot complete the inspection, the pipeline must be shut down, the agency said in its proposed order. Hilcorp has 30 days to respond. Spokeswoman Lori Nelson said by email the company will work with state and federal and state agencies to ensure a timely response to concerns. “Hilcorp continues to focus on addressing the natural gas pipeline leak and ensuring the safety of our responders in the field,” she said. The leaking line supplies gas to four petroleum platforms. Hilcorp started looking for a leak in January, and on Feb. 7, a helicopter crew spotted gas bubbling to the surface about 4 miles offshore in 80 feet of water. Hilcorp lowered the pressure in the line March 20 and estimates the leak is down to 193,000 to 215,000 cubic feet daily. Hilcorp purchased the pipeline and other oil and gas facilities from XTO Energy, Inc., in September 2015. Divers repaired two leaks for XTO Energy in the same line in summer 2014. Floating pans of ice make immediate repairs too dangerous, according to Hilcorp. The PHMSA on March 3 issued an initial proposed safety order requiring the gas line to be repaired by May 1 or shut down. The safety agency in its new proposed order said the crude oil pipeline is subject to the same threats as the leaking gas line: vibration, excessive bending in pipe that’s not supported by the sea bed, and contact with rocks. A rupture of the oil pipeline could cause far greater environmental damage than the gas leak, the safety agency said. The proposed safety order calls for high-resolution side-scan sonar inspection. For areas where the oil pipe is not supported by the ocean floor or more than 10 feet, the safety order calls for inspection by divers or their equivalent. Hilcorp has said it has observed “no significant impacts to wildlife or the environment” from the natural gas leak. Environmental groups say processed natural gas will create a low-oxygen dead zone threatening beluga whales, other marine mammals and fish. Two groups have given required 60-days’ notice that they intend to sue Hilcorp over the release.

Natural gas leaks from Cook Inlet pipeline

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published Feb. 16 to include further detail as it is a developing story.) Natural gas has leaked since at least Feb. 7 from an underwater natural gas pipeline in Cook Inlet and floating ice has prevented divers from reaching the site. The gas is bubbling from an 8-inch pipeline in 80 feet of water about four miles off shore. The pipeline belonging to Hilcorp Alaska LLC, moves processed natural gas from shore to four drilling platforms in the inlet. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is investigating the leak. In an email response to questions, spokeswoman Candice Bressler said the agency is assessing public health and environmental risks. "We believe the risk to public health and safety is small," the agency said. "Environmental risk is less easy to quantify since a monitoring and assessment program is not yet in place." The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also is investigating. Processed "dry" natural gas is nearly 99 percent methane. The U.S. Coast Guard warned mariners to stay at least 1,000 feet from the bubbling gas. Another federal agency expressed concern over possible adverse effects on marine mammals. "Our greatest concern is for endangered Cook Inlet Beluga whales and impacts to their critical habitat," said Julie Speegle, spokeswoman for the fisheries section of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by email. The natural gas discharge is within the winter foraging area for the white whales, she said. The cause of the leak is unknown. Stopping the leak is not as simple as shutting down the gas supply line, the state agency said. "There are significant issues associated with shutting down the pipe, including the safety and safety systems of the crews on the four platforms that the pipeline supplies," Bressler said in the agency's prepared statement. The agency concluded there was low risk to public safety because there are few people in the area this time of year, the incident is far off shore and there is minimal boating because of ice. Hilcorp spokeswoman Lori Nelson in an email said platform crews have shut down non-essential equipment to reduce natural gas flow to the minimum gas pressure possible without jeopardizing employee safety or the environment. "If a minimum pressure is not maintained in the pipeline it could fill with water which would allow for the escape of residual crude oil, as this line was previously used as a crude oil pipeline," Nelson said. The company estimates the pipeline is emitting 210,000 to 310,000 cubic feet of gas per day. The Department of Environmental Conservation has not made an independent estimate. Hilcorp hired a diving company to assess damage when the leak was discovered, the state agency said. Diving was determined to be unsafe because of ice in the inlet. Environmental groups say the gas leak will harm the inlet. Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said natural gas spills are highly toxic to marine life, including the prey needed by Beluga whales. Cook Inletkeeper, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed, gave formal notice Wednesday that it intends to sue Hilcorp under provisions of the Clean Water Act. The 60-day required notice said the discharge of methane is displacing oxygen in the water column and creating a "dead zone" of unknown expanse that could harm or kill fish and wildlife. The group called for an immediate halt to illegal discharges of natural gas. Cook Inletkeeper Director Bob Shavelson said in an interview that any lawsuit would be a “backstop” if Hilcorp does not resolve the situation within a reasonable time or if regulatory agencies don’t take appropriate measures to force the company to do so. “It’s fairly unbelievable that there’s not a plan in place to address (the ice) contingency because it’s completely foreseeable,” Shavelson commented. He added Inletkeeper is exploring other legal options to protect wildlife, but declined to provide further detail on that front. DEC is primarily concerned with the effects dissolving methane — as the bubbles rise in the water column — could have on aquatic species, according to Bressler. The solubility of methane, similar to most gases, increases as surrounding water temperatures decrease. That said, “only a tiny fraction of methane being released dissolves into the water column,” DEC states. “The vast majority escapes into the air above the water. All, over 98 percent, of the turbulence we see at the water surface on Hilcorp’s video represents methane escaping into the atmosphere.” A Hilcorp helicopter flying to a drilling platform on Feb. 7 spotted gas bubbling to the surface. Hilcorp reported the leak to the National Response Center, the federal point of contact for all spills, and the Department of Environmental Conservation.   Journal reporter Elwood Brehmer contributed to this report.

Critics say polar bear recovery plan lacks teeth

ANCHORAGE(AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its plan Monday for the recovery of threatened polar bears, acknowledging it will take no direct action for addressing the primary threat — greenhouse gases that contribute to the decline of sea ice habitat. Polar bears, the first species to be declared threatened or endangered because of climate change, rely on sea ice for hunting seals and raising their young. Climate models project that rising temperatures will continue to diminish sea ice throughout the century. The plan calls for reduced greenhouse-gas emissions but focuses agency actions only on other conservation strategies, such as preventing contamination from spills, protecting dens or reducing conflicts with people. Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the petition to list polar bears in 2005, called the recovery plan toothless. She said it acknowledges that polar bears will not survive without cuts in large-scale greenhouse-gas pollution and shows the need to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius. But the agency’s job was to call out the steps needed for polar bears to survive, Wolf said. “It acknowledges the problem but fails to put the solution in the core strategy for the bear,” she said. The agency said in its plan that addressing increased greenhouse gases that result in Arctic warming will require global action. Until that happens, the focus of recovery will be on efforts by U.S. wildlife management that contribute to polar bear survival in the interim “so that they are in a position to recover once Arctic warming has been abated,” the plan said. Dirk Kempthorne, who was secretary of the U.S. Interior Department under President George W. Bush, announced in 2008 that polar bears would be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But he said that law would not be used to set climate policy or limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

King Cove residents to get another shot at road to Cold Bay

A remote Alaska village that has been rebuffed in efforts to build a road through a national wildlife refuge will try again when President-elect Donald Trump takes office. The community of King Cove, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, for decades has sought a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally recognized haven for migratory waterfowl. Flights into King Cove are notoriously unpredictable because of strong winds and mountains. Community leaders in the village of 900, backed by the state, want a road through the refuge so sick or injured residents have land access to an all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay. The Obama administration rejected the road plan. "We are optimistic that a change of administration will mean we will finally get to the finish line," Della Trumble, spokeswoman for the King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation, said in an announcement. "This issue is and always has been about saving lives." Congress in 1997 addressed the King Cove transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The Aleutians East Borough took it out of service after deciding it was too expensive and unreliable to operate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 concluded that a 22-mile road over a narrow isthmus in the refuge could cause irrevocable damage to the watershed of nearby ocean lagoons. They include the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon, which provides one of the world's largest beds of eelgrass, a rich food source for Pacific brant, endangered Steller's eiders and other migratory birds. Environmental groups submitted thousands of comments opposing the proposed single-lane, gravel road for the effect on the refuge and the precedent it would set for tearing into other national refuges or parks. Their opposition remains. "The proposed road would bisect a designated wilderness and cause irretrievable damage to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge," said Patrick Lavin, Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife. Three years ago, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a proposed land swap that would have traded refuge lands for thousands of acres of state and private land. The trade would have given the federal government 97.5 square miles for less than 3 square miles of refuge. However, Jewell agreed with a Fish and Wildlife analysis that found the exchange could not compensate for the special qualities of existing refuge lands. Jewell's decision enraged King Cove leaders and the Alaska congressional delegation, who vowed to fight on, and who will bring the battle to the next administration. "Unlike Secretary Jewell, we believe President-elect Donald Trump and interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke value human lives as well as birds," King Cove Mayor Henry Mack said. According to the borough, 17 people were medically evacuated this year, including three who had to be flown out by the Coast Guard because fog, high wind or blizzard conditions prevented private air-ambulance companies from reaching the city. The three were a woman in her 70s suffering heart issues, a woman in her 20s with an obstructed airway and an infant with respiratory problems. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in a statement called Jewell's action heartless. Like the Obama administration's decision last week to designate most U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean indefinitely off-limits to future oil and gas leasing, Murkowski vowed to reverse the road decision. "I will do everything I can to work with our new president to end the years of suffering and injustice that King Cove has faced at the hands of our own federal government," Murkowski said.

Alaska Railroad prepares for first U.S. shipments of natural gas

ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Railroad is making final preparations for the first U.S. rail shipments of liquefied natural gas, a fuel that could be used to alleviate air pollution problems in the state’s second-largest city. The railroad Tuesday will send two loaded 40-foot LNG containers from Anchorage to Fairbanks as part of a demonstration. Seven more round-trips over four weeks will follow, said Tim Sullivan, manager of external affairs. “We’re going to take the information that we get in terms of our efficiencies, the logistics of moving this stuff, find out where we can improve, what we can improve, and the things we can’t improve, and start making decisions as to whether we can make this a line of business,” he said. It will also depend on whether Fairbanks Natural Gas LLC, a company providing Cook Inlet natural gas to about 1,000 customers in Fairbanks, will want to use the railroad as a shipper. Expansion of natural gas use is a longtime hope of Fairbanks residents looking for a cheaper alternative to fuel oil to heat homes. Natural gas also is part of a state plan to clean up some of the worst winter air pollution in the country. The Fairbanks area regularly exceeds allowable federal fine particulate levels. Microscopic particulate inhaled deep in the lungs is linked to heart attacks, decreased lung function and premature death in people with heart or lung diseases. Particulate is emitted by cars and coal-fired heating systems but especially by wood stoves, which some in Fairbanks use as an alternative heat source to fuel oil. A pipeline carrying North Slope natural gas past Fairbanks for shipment to out-of-state markets has been an unfulfilled dream for Alaska for decades. In the absence of a pipeline in the petroleum-rich state, Fairbanks Natural Gas moves LNG by truck. Alaska Railroad workers this week are offering LNG safety training to emergency responders in Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks. The railroad on Friday will send cars north with empty containers takes to demonstrate the equipment. The two 40-foot containers are on loan from Hitachi High-Tech AW Cryo, one of several tank-makers interested in Alaska’s LNG market, according to the railroad. LNG is shipped regularly in Japan and Europe. “LNG is considered to be a lower risk hazardous material than other petroleum products that are moved,” Sullivan said. Planning and applying for a Federal Rail Administration permit was a task that covered several years, Sullivan said. “We had to put in quite an application to do so,” Sullivan said. “I believe it stood several feet tall.” The FRA in October issued a two-year permit that runs through December 2017. It authorizes three roundtrip trains per week. Each could carry 12 tanks per train. That’s beyond the current need in Fairbanks, Sullivan said. The containers can carry up to 7,024 gallons or 27,546 pounds of LNG chilled to minus 260 degrees. After unloading at the Fairbanks rail yard, the containers will be driven 4.5 miles to the Fairbanks Natural Gas storage facility. Lois Epstein, a licensed engineer who works as Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society in Anchorage, said Tuesday she has concerns about safety where trains carrying LNG cross roads. “I think that’s one of the weak links,” she said, and the state-owned railroad may want to consider additional overpasses.

Senators file lawsuit over Walker's PFD veto

Gov. Bill Walker illegally vetoed Alaska Permanent Fund earnings that were required to be transferred to dividends, a lawsuit filed Friday by a state senator and two former state senators claims. Facing a multibillion-dollar deficit, Walker in June cut in half the annual checks that give all residents a share of the state's oil wealth. He kept enough money in place to award qualified Alaskans a $1,000 payout rather than an anticipated $2,100 check. That simply is not legal under the legislation that created the fund, said Democratic state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, of Anchorage, and former Republican state Sen. Rick Halford, of Chugiak. They sued along with former Republican Sen. Clem Tillion, of Halibut Cove, like Halford a former Senate president. Wielechowski said he took it for granted Walker acted properly until he spoke to Alaskans who amended the Alaska Constitution in 1976 to create a permanent fund. There was no intent to give a governor an exclusive ability to set the dividend, he said. "That was clearly not what was intended by the framers of the amendment," Wielechowski said. The Alaska Legislature could have reduced the amount placed in the account from which dividends are paid, Wielechowski said, but chose not to. The lawsuit seeks a court order for the Permanent Fund Corp. to transfer the full amount into the account for distribution. Halford, who spent 24 years in the House or Senate, agreed. Walker's decision puts both the amount of the dividend and its effects on the economy at risk, Halford said, and the issue is potentially Alaska's biggest conflict between the haves and the have-nots since statehood. "The millions of dollars coming out of the dividend stream this year — almost half of it comes either from retired senior citizens or children," he said. "It is the last place we should be going to get money while we're continuing to pour money out in tax credits and benefits that are in the hundreds of dividend to individuals at the top the economic spectrum." Arguments on both sides are quite clear, Wielechowski said. He wants a decision by Oct. 6, when the first dividends are expected to be paid out, but said it could take much longer. Walker in a statement Friday said he stands by his difficult decision. "As most Alaskans realize, and as stated by the legislature's own financial adviser, our state is in the midst of the gravest financial crisis in our history," he said. "We are in a $3.2 billion deficit now." A $1,000 dividend is close to the historical average paid Alaskans since 1982, he said. It can be sustained as part of a larger fiscal solution, he said, and the amount vetoed remains in the fund for future distributions. "I'm disappointed that an incumbent legislator who failed to work towards a solution to our fiscal crisis — a solution that would protect the long-term viability of the PFD — has decided instead to pursue this lawsuit eight weeks prior to his re-election bid," Walker said. "This suit detracts from the real issue: solving Alaska's fiscal crisis so we can then begin to grow Alaska."

BOEM seeks comment ahead of possible Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sale

The federal agency that oversees offshore petroleum development took a step Friday toward a possible 2017 lease sale in Alaska’s Cook Inlet with the release of a draft environmental review. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will consider a handful of alternatives, including no sale or various conditions to protect wildlife, ahead of a possible lease sale in the inlet southwest of Anchorage in June. A 45-day public comment period opens July 22 and BOEM will collect testimony on the draft environmental impact statement through Sept. 6. The agency will conduct public meetings in Anchorage, Homer and Kenai. Cook Inlet has potential oil and gas deposits and sensitive marine resources that Alaska Natives depend on, said BOEM director Abigail Ross Hopper in the announcement. “We look forward to discussing this draft EIS with the public and representatives from Cook Inlet communities, and getting meaningful feedback,” she said. The sale could include 224 blocks covering 1,700 square miles from south of Kalgin Island to an area west of Seldovia. The area is near existing leases in state waters. The draft environmental review is in two volumes covering more than 1,100 pages. It discusses sale alternatives that could reduce effects on wildlife. Cook Inlet is home to one of five beluga whale populations and the only one that is endangered. Measures to protect the white, salmon-eating whales are included in the draft, as are measures aimed at northern sea otters. An alternative for 105 tracts north of Anchor Point is designed to reduce interactions with commercial fishermen who use drift nets to catch salmon. The BOEM announcement said the agency recognizes that interest in exploration and development in Cook Inlet may be limited at this time. Attorney Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity, who last month asked federal fisheries authorities to block Cook Inlet offshore fracking because of the threat to belugas, said a lease sale would be a “mind-bogglingly irresponsible act by the federal government.” “Oil drilling in these environmentally sensitive waters creates the risk of oil spills or chemical pollution that would harm critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales,” she said by email. “There’s also been no industry interest in several previous Cook Inlet auctions, so moving forward with this sale makes zero sense.”

Unmanned vessels deployed for Arctic research

ANCHORAGE (AP) — Researchers in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast will get help this summer from drones, but not the kind that fly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and private researchers are gathering data on marine mammals, fish and ocean conditions from two “autonomous sailing vessels” built by Saildrone, an Alameda, California, company. “Think of a 20-foot outrigger canoe with an airplane wing sticking up from the middle,” said Chris Sabine, director of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, at a press teleconference June 3. They hold great appeal for researchers because they’re far cheaper to operate than research ships and they can work in dangerous conditions of the North Pacific. “Imagine the TV series, ‘Deadliest Catch,’ and you can imagine why we would like to remotely gather this information,” Sabine said from Seattle. Operating by solar and wind power, the vessels can carry 200 pounds of instruments. Two were deployed last week from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Part of their payload will be acoustic gear that can pick up the sounds of North Pacific right whales, one on the most endangered animals on the planet. Scientists estimate just 30 North Pacific right whales remain in the eastern stock of the population. Their numbers were decimated by whalers starting in the 1800s. The population may have numbered as many as 20,000, but whalers found them to be highly desirable prey — big, slow, and still buoyant after they’re killed. Finding right whales has been a challenge. The Alaska Fisheries Science Center has sent out research vessels at $25,000 per day trying to find them by sight or acoustic survey, said Doug DeMaster, science director. “At that cost, we can’t afford to be out there very long,” DeMaster said. “The Saildrone should provide us a much more efficient, cost effective way to at least try to identify areas and times of year where we’re hearing right whales, and then we could reliably design surveys to take advantage of that information.” Jessica Crance, a marine mammal biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center said the acoustic recorders could pick up the whales’ sounds if they pass within a few miles. Researchers will use the vessels to gather information on pollock, an important species for commercial fishermen and the main prey of northern fur seals, a species that has declined. Instruments on board also will collect oceanographic data used to track environmental changes. Saildrone developer Richard Jenkins, who in Dutch Harbor for the May 24 launch, said extreme weather is the main threat to the vessel. “Big seas and big winds are the real physical hazards but it’s designed to cope with that,” he said. “It’s self-righting. It’s incredibly durable. We’ve had it for 50,000 nautical miles of testing so far.” The longest mission has been eight months and 10,000 miles. “We haven’t seen a threshold or limit to how long it can stay out there,” he said. “I think the limit is going to be marine growth, rather than fatigue or failure. You just can’t stop the weed growing on the vehicle.” The vessels will be picked up in September after sailing back to Dutch Harbor. They can be steered with any web-enabled device. “I’m controlling the two drones in the Bering Sea right now with my iPhone,” Jenkins said. “I’m in California.”

Shell relinquishes nearly all offshore leases in Chukchi Sea

The only company to drill an exploratory oil well in Alaska's Chukchi Sea following a 2008 federal lease sale confirmed May 10 it has relinquished nearly all of its leases. Royal Dutch Shell PLC formally relinquished all but one of its leases in the waters off Alaska's northwest coast, spokesman Curtis Smith said. The news was not a complete surprise. An exploratory well drilled in 2015 did not find commercial quantities of oil. Shell announced in September it was suspending exploration in Alaska waters. The decision also reflects the high cost of drilling off Alaska, Smith said by email. "While we support regulations that enforce high safety and environmental standards, the unpredictable federal regulatory environment for the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf also made it difficult to operate efficiently," he said. Shell will retain the lease for the site on which it drilled its exploratory well. "We are holding onto it because we believe there is value in the data gathered during our exploration efforts there," Smith said. The company will separately evaluate its leases in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast, Smith said. Those expire in 2017. Shell spent $2.1 billion on 275 Chukchi Sea leases in 2008 and $7 billion overall on Arctic offshore development. Shell officials had called drilling there "a potential game-changer," a vast untapped reservoir that could add to America's energy supply for 50 years. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 26 billion barrels of conventionally recoverable oil in U.S. Arctic waters. But Arctic drilling is fiercely opposed by environmental groups, which said a major spill would devastate habitat of whales, ice seals and polar bears. The challenges of Arctic drilling were evident after the 2012 season when a Shell drilling vessel, the Kulluk, broke loose from its tow vessel in a fierce Gulf of Alaska storm and ran aground near Kodiak Island. Shell faced stiff regulatory oversight, including a requirement for two rigs in a drilling area in case one was damaged in a blowout. After Shell announced it was suspending exploration, the Interior Department said it would not extend Shell leases when they expired in 2020. Shell initially said lease terms should be extended. By relinquishing the leases, the company avoids millions in annual payments. A drilling opponent, Oceana, filed a freedom of information request and learned leases had been formally relinquished by Shell, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Iona Energy. The environmental group announced its findings Monday night and applauded the decision. "Hopefully, today marks the end of the ecologically and economically risky push to drill in the Arctic Ocean," said Mike LeVine, an attorney with the group. ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said May 10 the company already had "taken an impairment," or written off, the Chukchi leases in its 2015 annual report. "Given the current environment, the prospects in the Chukchi aren't competitive," she said.

Lynch rejects state prosecution of Bill Allen

The Justice Department has again refused to allow the state of Alaska to file child exploitation charges against a businessman who testified in the corruption trial of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Attorney General Loretta Lynch rejected the state's request Tuesday to prosecute Bill Allen under federal law. Lynch says the decision not to prosecute Allen was not made because of a deal for his testimony. In a letter to Alaska's attorney general, Lynch says such a prosecution can only be brought when evidence is likely to secure a conviction. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who pushed the Justice Department to allow the state to prosecute Allen for federal human trafficking and sex crimes, criticized Lynch's decision in a statement from his office. Allen was head of Veco Corp., an oil field service company at the center of a federal investigation of corruption in Alaska politics. A jury verdict against Stevens was set aside and an indictment dismissed amid charges of prosecutorial misconduct.

Supreme Court overturns appeals court in Sturgeon case

The U.S. Supreme Court on March 22 overturned a National Park Service ban on the use of hovercraft by a moose hunter within a national preserve in Alaska, but in a narrowly focused ruling, sent the case back to a lower court for additional consideration. The justices unanimously ruled that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals erred in interpreting federal law. However, they did not rule on whether the Park Service can regulate hovercraft use, or whether the agency has regulatory authority over a river within that preserve for which the state claims ownership. Justices ruled that such state sovereignty issues should be first argued in lower courts. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker at a news conference called the decision “a step in the right direction” toward asserting control over state-owned rivers and other lands in dispute with federal agencies. “It’s a long way from over but I’d rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday,” Walker said. The ruling came in the case of John Sturgeon of Anchorage, a moose hunter who in 2007 was ordered off the Nation River within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in northeast Alaska. Sturgeon had used hovercraft since 1990, but while stopped on a gravel bar to make a repair, was told by three rangers that it was illegal to operate the noisy craft that can navigate shallow water or even mud. Sturgeon sued in 2011. Alaska also sued, hoping for a ruling that could limit the federal government’s authority over state-owned, navigable waters in national parks. The Park Service had denied the state a permit to use a helicopter to conduct salmon research on state land, a gravel bar, on the Alagnak River within Katmai National Preserve. The case focused on interpretations of Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created or expanded 19 conservation units, including Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. One provision of the law specifies that no state or private parties within the conservation units shall be subject to regulations applicable only to federal land in the conservation unit. In the 8-0 decision, Supreme Court justices rejected the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling that the Park Service could apply national regulations on hovercraft to state and private land within the conservation unit but not the Alaska-specific exceptions that apply to federal land within the unit. Roberts called that a “topsy-turvy” approach. The law carves out numerous Alaska-specific exceptions to the Park Service’s general authority over federally managed preserves, such as snowmobile and airplane travel between villages, he noted. The Supreme Court did not decide whether the Park Service has authority to regulate Sturgeon’s hovercraft on the river or whether the river was federal public land for regulatory purposes. “We leave those arguments to the lower courts for consideration,” Roberts wrote. Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of 13 conservation groups, said there are centuries of law supporting federal authority over navigable waters and other public lands. “We are optimistic that the Ninth Circuit will clarify the Park Service’s authority over navigable waters so that Alaska’s national parks are protected as Congress intended,” said attorney Katie Strong.

Appeals court upholds designation of polar bear habitat

(AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed the law when it designated more than 187,000 square miles — an area larger than California — as critical habitat for threatened polar bears in Alaska marine waters and its northern coast, an appeals court ruled Monday. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a 2013 lower court decision that the designation was too extensive and not specific. A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned to designate polar bears as a threatened species, called it a victory for the marine mammal. "The polar bear gets the full protection of critical habitat to which it's entitled, it deserves and it truly needs," Brendan Cummings said. The federal government in 2008 declared polar bears threatened under the Endangered Species Act, citing melting sea ice. Polar bears need ice for hunting, breeding and migrating. The move made the polar bear the first species to be designated as threatened under the act because of global warming. A designation of critical habitat is required as part of a recovery plan. The Fish and Wildlife Service set aside acreage along Alaska's northern coast but 95 percent is in the ocean waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the State of Alaska, a coalition of Alaska Native groups and other oil and gas interests sued, calling the designation an overreach. Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said the critical habitat designation included areas that account for almost half of Alaska's oil production, and petroleum exploration and production would be delayed or restricted. U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service's designation of sea ice as critical habitat was valid. However, he ruled the agency had not shown that areas on land and barrier islands had features making them appropriate for polar bear dens and he rejected the entire plan. Appeals court judges said the lower court decision appeared to consider denning habitat but not the need by bears to have undisturbed access to and from sea ice. The appeals court judges agreed that the agency did not have to prove that existing polar bears actually used certain designated areas, only that those areas were critical to the conservation of the species. They said the agency drew rational conclusions from the best scientific evidence available. Cummings said specificity in designating habitat is impossible given the dynamic nature of the Arctic, where polar bears move by walking or merely resting on shifting sea ice. Polar bears, he said, are not like salmon that return to the same streams every year to spawn. "You can't say the bear will take this specific path to its denning area, and therefore, let's only protect that narrow corridor," he said. "You need to protect on the scale of the ecosystem, which is what Fish and Wildlife did." Alaska Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Cori Mills called the decision disappointing. State attorneys are reviewing options for further judicial review, she said by email. "Alaska originally brought this case because of the overly broad designation of more than 187,000 square miles as critical habitat without a real connection between the area designated and the survival or recovery of polar bears," Mills said. Alaska Oil and Gas Association President Kara Moriarty said the critical habitat designation will dramatically increase costs associated with Alaska North Slope projects probably jeopardize future projects. "Each project will have to undergo an additional level of federal scrutiny that is impossible to predict," she said. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not seen the decision.

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