Elwood Brehmer

State asks to join King Cove's lawsuit over road access

Alaska is again looking for a fight with the feds, this time over the King Cove access road. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Lenhart filed a motion June 30 to intervene on behalf of the tribes of King Cove in the tribe’s federal District Court lawsuit against Interior Secretary Sally Jewell over Jewell’s rejection of a proposed emergency access road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Also listed as plaintiffs in the case is the Aleutians East Borough and King Cove Corp., the Native village corporation. At the heart of the case is a land exchange that would shift approximately 43,000 acres of state land in the region and 13,000 acres of King Cove Corp. land to the federal government in exchange for 206 acres of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — land that would be used as the right-of-way for the road. “After years of putting birds over the well-being of Alaskans, it’s time for the Obama administration to agree to this exchange,” Gov. Sean Parnell said in a release from his office. On April 7 Parnell announced in a statement from his office the state’s intent to sue the Interior Department to get the road built on a separate claim — a right-of-way claim under the federal Mining Act of 1866. The disputed 11-mile section of road would connect segments of current road on state land. At the time, Attorney General Michael Geraghty sent a letter to Jewell that served as notice to the state’s intent to sue the department. According to federal statute, the state must wait 180 days after issuing the notice before it can take the feds to court on the right-of-way claim, making the earliest date it could sue Oct. 4. Supporters of the road effort claim the one-lane link is essential for the safety of residents of King Cove, as it would provide them reliable access to the all-weather airport with a 10,000-foot runway in Cold Bay. The villages on the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula sit across the water of Cold Bay from each other and are terrestrially separated by the Izembek Refuge. In an official statement from her office, Jewell said in December that she would uphold the no action alternative preferred by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the environmental impact statement, or EIS, process required for the land swap. At the time Jewell said critical waterfowl habitat would be disrupted by the road and said Interior would work with King Cove residents to find a safe travel alternative. Currently, people in King Cove that are in need of extensive medical attention must be flown out by U.S. Coast Guard medevacs to receive treatment in Anchorage during bad weather. The State of Alaska claims it should be allowed to intervene in the suit because Jewell is preventing the state from managing its lands and ignores its role as a cooperating agency in the EIS process. The state cannot fulfill its duty to keep its residents safe without the land swap. Also, the state is prevented from managing its land in the best interest of its residents if it is not allowed to make such deals, according to the court filing. “Finally, the state has an interest in ensuring that its citizens and communities are provided reasonable access across the vast federal land holdings in the state. In this case, the health and safety purposes of such access over the Izembek Refuge are literally of life and death importance,” the motion states. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has ranted at length over Jewell’s decision, calling it “offensive” and “insulting” on multiple occasions. Congress and the state in a 2009 omnibus land management bill approved the land exchange, but is contingent upon the Interior secretary’s approval based on the EIS. The road, estimated to cost about $21 million, would be paid for by the state. Opponents have said the road would not only harm wildlife, but could be used by fish processors in the area, would not always be passable during hazardous weather conditions and would set a precedent of development in federally protected wild areas. As of June 30, the Department of the Interior had not responded in court to the original lawsuit. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

State asks to join King Cove suit

Alaska is again looking for a fight with the feds, this time over the King Cove access road. State Assistant Attorney General Thomas Lenhart filed a motion June 30 to intervene on behalf of the tribes of King Cove in the tribe’s federal District Court lawsuit against Interior Secretary Sally Jewell over Jewell’s rejection of a proposed emergency access road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Also listed as plaintiffs in the case is the Aleutians East Borough and King Cove Corp., the Native village corporation. At the heart of the case is a land exchange that would shift approximately 43,000 acres of state land in the region and 13,000 acres of King Cove Corp. land to the federal government in exchange for 206 acres of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — land that would be used as the right-of-way for the road. “After years of putting birds over the well-being of Alaskans, it’s time for the Obama administration to agree to this exchange,” Gov. Sean Parnell said in a release from his office. The state is also at odds with the federal government over the Environmental Protection Agency’s procedure in its ongoing attempt to block the Pebble copper-gold mine on state land near Iliamna and lost a case in 2013 to overturn strict emissions laws for ships traveling along the U.S. coast. Supporters of the road effort claim the one-lane link is essential for the safety of residents of King Cove, as it would provide them reliable access to the all-weather airport with a 10,000-foot runway in Cold Bay. The villages on the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula sit across the water of Cold Bay from each other and are terrestrially separated by the Izembek Refuge. In an official statement from her office, Jewell said in December that she would uphold the no action alternative preferred by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the environmental impact statement, or EIS, process required for the land swap. At the time Jewell said critical waterfowl habitat would be disrupted by the road and said Interior would work with King Cove residents to find a safe travel alternative. Currently, people in King Cove that are in need of extensive medical attention must be flown out by U.S. Coast Guard medevacs to receive treatment in Anchorage during bad weather. The State of Alaska claims it should be allowed to intervene in the suit because Jewell is preventing the state from managing its lands ignores its role as a cooperating agency in the EIS process. The state cannot fulfill its duty to keep its residents safe without the land swap. Also, the state is prevented from managing its land in the best interest of its residents if it is not allowed to make such deals, according to the court filing. “Finally, the state has an interest in ensuring that its citizens and communities are provided reasonable access across the vast federal land holdings in the state. In this case, the health and safety purposes of such access over the Izembek Refuge are literally of life and death importance,” the motion states. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has ranted at-length over Jewell’s decision, calling it “offensive” and “insulting” on multiple occasions. Congress and the state in a 2009 omnibus land management bill approved the land exchange, but is contingent upon the Interior secretary’s approval based on the EIS. The road, estimated to cost about $21 million, would be paid for by the state. Opponents have said the road would not only harm wildlife, but could be used by fish processors in the area, would not always be passable during hazardous weather conditions and would set a precedent of development in federally protected wild areas. As of June 30, the Department of the Interior had not responded in court to the original lawsuit. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Building sector maintains gains from 2013

Crews are busy across Alaska as the summer building season is in full swing. With the exception of Fairbanks, year-to-date building activity in the state’s largest cities has been comparable to the first months of 2013, a rebound year for construction in much of Alaska when employment returned to its pre-recession peak. In the Municipality of Anchorage, more than $301.6 million worth of residential, commercial and government property building permits were applied for through May 31, nearly identical to the $302.8 million in permits through May of last year. Of that, roughly $160 million was commercial permit applications, compared to $187.8 million for the same period of 2013. While the value of commercial applications in Anchorage declined so far this year, the number of permits has increased by 11 percent from 457 to 508 for new construction and existing alterations or additions combined. The municipality received building permit applications valued at about $240 million through the first five months of 2012, making the last two years a 25 percent improvement. Activity bottomed out in recent years in 2010 when permits totaling $144 million were applied for through the spring. One of the bigger projects in Anchorage, Cook Inlet Region Inc.’s new home, the Fireweed Business Center, is ahead of schedule, CIRI real estate project director Chad Nugent said. “We took advantage of last year’s Indian fall,” to get early digging work done, he said. The eight-story, 110,000 square-foot glass-encased office complex valued at $23.8 million according to its building permit should be move-in ready by early spring 2015, according to Nugent. CIRI will occupy about 40 percent of the building at the intersection of Fireweed Lane and the Seward Highway, leaving about 60,000 square feet of class A office space available for lease, he said. The CIRI office development, along with other office construction in Anchorage — namely JL Properties’ 100,000 square-foot office building at C Street and International Airport Road — could help alleviate a tight commercial real estate market in the city. The class A vacancy rate in Anchorage was at 4.3 percent at the end of 2013 and expected to remain that way until the new developments are on the market, according to commercial brokers in the city. Mat-Su Elsewhere in Southcentral, 18 commercial permits valued at $8.23 million were applied for in Palmer through May 31. The largest application was for a $4 million Matanuska-Susitna Borough project. Through May, 45 building permits were sought in the City of Palmer totaling about $11 million. In 2013, the same period had 24 applications for just less than $6 million. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the City of Wasilla do not track building permit valuations. Kenai Peninsula A slow start to the year in Kenai has put permit activity well off the pace of 2013. As of June 7, there had been 31 combined residential and commercial permits applied for totaling $2.25 million. The commercial portion of that was 12 permits for $786,000 worth of construction. In 2013, Kenai had accepted 44 total permits valued at more than $4.57 million, of which 20 were commercial work for an estimated $1.71 million. A single $600,000 project at the Homer Electric Association headquarters in Kenai contributed to the valuation spike last year. Just down the road in Soldotna, city building official Ralph Linn wrote in a report that 2014 so far has been a steady building year for the City of Soldotna. By June 23, a total of 41 permits valued at $24.27 million had been applied for. Comparatively, $9.47 million worth of permits were sought in all of 2013. Expansion at the Kenai Peninsula College and the city library in 2012 pushed permit values beyond $25 million that year, up from just more than $9 million in 2011. This year, planned expansion at the borough’s Central Peninsula Hospital, remodels of the Kenai Peninsula College library and nursing buildings, and a remodel of Soldotna’s city hall are driving permit values, according to Linn. Fairbanks Permit activity in Fairbanks was down for the first five months of 2014 when compared to 2013. There were 36 commercial permit applications valued at $11.38 million in the Golden Heart City through May 31, less than half of the estimated permit value of $24.8 million applied for last year. Residential construction in Fairbanks continued to slow, a trend that has established itself in recent years due in part to high home heating costs, local real estate agents have said. Through May 31, residential building permits valued at $862,000 had been applied for among 31 permits. For the full year of 2007, the near-term peak of residential construction in Fairbanks, 981 residential construction permits were sought. Juneau Bigger budget projects in Juneau have pushed the value of commercial work to nearly $39 million on 97 permit applications as of June 23, up from $26.7 million on 98 permits for the same time in 2013. Combined residential and commercial construction has remained fairly steady in the capital city since a low of 385 permits for $26.4 million of work in 2011 year-to-date. In 2012, those figures rebounded to 398 permits valued at $56.5 million; last year it was 402 permits for $40.8 million, and so far in 2014 it has been 414 permits for an estimated value of $51.3 million. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Bill to simplify vehicle registrations signed into law

WASILLA — Gov. Sean Parnell signed legislation June 20 aimed at simplifying vehicle registration for Alaskans with older cars. House Bill 19 gives individuals the option to permanently register their personal vehicles that are at least eight years old. It also gives personal trailer owners the option to permanently register their trailers. Stoltze, R-Chugiak, the bill’s sponsor, said HB 19 would encourage compliance with state vehicle registration laws. “This is just a simple government bill that makes it easier — less trips to the DMV,” Stoltze said. “It was an expression of, OK, after so many years you’ve paid enough in taxes on the vehicle and it was a value judgment.” When HB 19 takes effect Jan. 1 2015, Alaskans with qualifying vehicles can choose to pay the $100 biennial state registration fee plus a $25 permanent registration fee, which will cover registration for as long as the vehicle remains under the same ownership. The permanent registration is non-transferable. Similarly, trailer owners can pay the $30 fee plus a $25 permanent surcharge to register their trailers for as long as they own them. As a compromise with local governments that draw revenue from motor vehicle registration taxes, Stoltze said boroughs and municipalities can choose to opt in to the plan. The state’s tiered tax plan calls for most personal vehicles owners that qualify for permanent registration to be levied a one-time $16 tax. Those that don’t opt in can continue with current vehicle tax systems. Many local governments across the state, such as the Municipality of Anchorage, tax such vehicles at a higher rate. In Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough a qualifying vehicle owner is taxed $70 for every registration. The Fairbanks North Star Borough and the City of Fairbanks do not tax vehicle registration. HB 19 also provides registration fee exemptions for those who are disabled or least 65 years of age on one vehicle. “(HB 19) is what good government is about,” Parnell remarked before making it law. “It’s about removing barriers and just getting out of your way so you don’t have to worry about paperwork. That’s one of the reasons we’re here to serve you.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Parnell signs state-led plan to advance Knik Arm Crossing

WASILLA — Gov. Sean Parnell officially approved a state-led financing plan for the Knik Arm Crossing June 20 when he signed House Bill 23 into law. A day prior, there was a sentimental feel at the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority board meeting. With HB 23 becoming law July 1 at the beginning of the state fiscal year, the bridge project bantered about for decades is closer to becoming reality than ever before. “Everything my administration has worked to pursue has been about creating a climate of economic growth, a place where we can have a future together as Alaskans; a place where our families can be strengthened. The Knik Arm Crossing, that bridge is one sure way to assure a future of opportunity. It is a bridge of opportunity; it is a bridge to our future,” Parnell remarked prior to signing the bill at a MatSu Business Alliance luncheon. Parnell reiterated a stance taken by nearly all bridge supporters — that it will help alleviate an extremely tight and pricey housing market in Anchorage that is “punishing” families in the city, he said. The prospect of thousands of acres of developable land across Knik Arm from Anchorage has helped swell support for the bridge “across the pond,” Parnell said while in Wasilla. HB 23 sponsor Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, said the bridge has “tremendous support” throughout the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and that it would be critical as a corridor to transport supplies and workers north from Anchorage if a prospective large trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline is built. He estimated future development made feasible by the bridge could bring $4 billion to $5 billion of economic development to the borough. “I worked closely with (Department of Natural Resources) Commissioner (Joe) Balash and Rep. (Bill) Stoltze in House Finance to get an amendment in Senate Bill 138 that would allow for the roads that are being built to build the pipeline to also be designed by DOT for a new transportation corridor to move north,” Neuman said June 20. The bridge would also be a first step towards accessing prospective coal and mineral resources in the West Susitna basin, he said. How the 1.7-mile bridge from northeast Anchorage to Point MacKenzie and associated connections will be paid for has been a topic of much debate in recent months. The proposed two-lane toll bridge was viewed for years as a prime candidate for a public-private partnership, or P3, financing scheme, with the state chipping in bond money and private investors counting on toll revenue for their returns. In December of last year, Parnell’s administration deemed the private markets had soured to the point where the P3 option wasn’t feasible, and the Department of Revenue unveiled a public financing plan broken into thirds. With a contingency cap on the project of $894 million in HB 23, the governor’s financing plan calls for a roughly $300 million contribution from federal highway dollars appropriated to the state, revenue bonds and the remainder coming from Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans, or TIFIA, issued by the Federal Highway Administration. Toll revenue would be used to pay first the federal loans and then the state bonds. HB 23 as a P3 plan had been approved by the House in its 2013 session and was awaiting Senate approval when it got its financial overhaul. The other major change to the project came in the last days of the most recent session. When it left the Senate, HB 23 shifted the onus of delivering the bridge to the Alaska Department of Transportation and left the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, or KABATA, as the toll operator once DOT completes the bridge. At the June 19 KABATA board meeting, authority chair Mike Foster downplayed the about-faces the mega-infrastructure proposal has endured. “It has evolved like any major project should evolve,” Foster said. KABATA spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said the multiple changes could slow some of the ongoing processes, such as applying for the TIFIA loan, but that overall the authority and DOT still plan on beginning construction in 2015, with the bridge opening in 2020. Since the session ended in late April, KABATA and DOT have been collaborating on how to best transfer the 10 years worth of “intellectual property” — environmental permits, engineering and design — the authority has gathered since its inception in 2003, KABATA Executive Director Judy Dougherty told the board. “We’ve met several times and it’s been like blasts from a fire hose for DOT,” she said. To keep on track, KABATA has drafted a letter of interest to the Federal Highway Administration, the first step in a TIFIA loan application, with DOT as the borrower, according to Dougherty. “All environmental permits are either in hand or awaiting issuance of the letter of authorization from (the National Marine Fisheries Service),” she said. An agency under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NMFS must approve the project’s construction plan, which cannot adversely impact the endangered Cook Inlet Beluga whales that frequent Knik Arm during summer to feed. Dougherty has said bridge building would be done around the Beluga’s time in the area. In-water construction work at the nearby Port of Anchorage has been halted at times when whales were spotted within a mile of the port. McCarthy said a meeting was held June 20 between officials at Parnell’s Washington, D.C., office and NMFS officials to see where the agency stands on the construction proposal. KABATA staff did not know what the results of the meeting were as of June 24, McCarthy said. Authority officials have said issuance of the project’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permit is contingent upon NMFS approving the construction plan. While KABATA and the DOT wait to hear from NMFS, Dougherty said all of the other agencies have agreed to a transfer of permits from the authority to DOT. The two state groups have identified that integrating the automated toll system, which is KABATA’s role, into the design-build contract will likely be a challenge, Dougherty said, but she is confident that and other difficulties can be overcome. KABATA Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hemenway told the board that a draft socioeconomic study of the bridge’s potential impact on the region should be out in late July. The authority commissioned the study approximately a year ago and at the time said it would be available in fall 2013. McCarthy has said the original timeline was aggressive and Dougherty has downplayed the importance of the study results since the project has shifted away from the P3 financing model, when investors needed such information. The authority officials have been unclear as to exactly what has held up the study. Dougherty was also formerly made head of the authority when the board unanimously approved a motion to do so June 19. Prior, she had been acting executive director for the authority, having taken the role after Andrew Niemiec resigned in December following a motorcycle accident. Another motion approved Dougherty to begin transferring information and funds to DOT when HB 23 takes effect July 1. In the coming weeks the $55 million approved for KABATA in the capital budget will almost assuredly be transferred to DOT, but it’s currently unclear exactly when and how that will happen, authority spokeswoman McCarthy said. Through May 31, KABATA has spent $83.4 million to get the Knik Arm bridge project to its current point, Hemenway said. What money the authority has to spend going forward — $1.6 million has been set aside in the state budget for its fiscal 2015 operation — and what KABATA will have in terms of personnel is unclear. Dougherty will be taking a currently unformed position with DOT July 1 throughout the remainder of the project in addition to her role as KABATA chief, Deputy Commissioner Kim Rice said. Rice said she and Dougherty, a former DOT employee, worked together extensively in the past and that familiarity will help them sort out the unprecedented transition. “There is no clear path forward but we’ll get there and it will be collaborative,” Rice said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Bering Straits Native Corp. seeks land for future Arctic port

The prospect of new port facilities in Western Alaska will rely heavily on Arctic oil and gas development, according to a recent Northern Economics study. Commissioned by Bering Straits Native Corp. and marine services company Crowely Maritime Corp., the feasibility analysis released June 6 focused on Port Clarence, northwest of Nome on the Seward Peninsula. BSNC found that a “basic” port and man camp could be up and running within four years of a firm oil and gas industry commitment to engage in developing the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS, energy resources. Northern Economics Inc. is an Anchorage-based consulting firm that frequently analyzes resource and infrastructure development in Alaska. Shell was the last company to do major work in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2012, drilling partial “top holes” in leases at each. Shell was restricted to only drilling above oil-bearing zones because its spill response barge had not been approved for Arctic operations. With the 2008 Chukchi lease sale environmental impact statement now being revised by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management after a court order, it is unclear exactly when Arctic OCS oil and gas exploration will resume. The agency is targeting March 2015 to complete its work, which could allow for Shell to have a working season that year. When it does, BSNC wants to be ready. Early stage infrastructure at Port Clarence would likely cost between $34 million and $72 million, with a likely total falling in the $48 million range, the study determined. With that money, a basic, gravel-filled sheet pile dock, similar to that at the Red Dog port, and a 66-man camp could be constructed, according to the study. One of the biggest reasons Port Clarence was the focus of the study is its low projected ongoing costs when compared to other, more developed sites in the region. Operations and maintenance for the preliminary development is forecast at $1.4 million per year. When assumed debt service on the infrastructure is added, the annual revenue requirement of such a base is estimated at $4.15 million. Port Clarence is one of a handful of spots on Alaska’s western coast with naturally deep water; it would require little to no dredging. Its mean near-shore depth is about 35 feet, and the channel past Point Spencer leading into the natural harbor is more than 40 feet deep. Northern Economics concluded that oil and gas exploration and oil field support services were the only two large industry markets likely to use the port regularly. If the decision is made by the oil industry to further invest significant money into Arctic OCS exploration — Shell alone has said it has spent upwards of $6 billion there already over eight years — the critical decision to develop or not would likely come in 2018 or 2019, according to the study. An active and ready Port Clarence would be needed not long after. The study noted that Port Clarence is about 500 miles from the majority of the federal Chukchi OCS oil and gas leases. Dutch Harbor, currently the closest domestic deepwater port, is more than 1,300 miles from the lease areas, a distance that could make timely emergency or spill response difficult. Port Clarence is typically ice-free from early June through mid-October, according to the study. In the study, Crowley is cited as suggesting ice breakers could expand the operating season up to 10 months a year. The depth characteristics of the port are one of the reasons BSNC is seeking conveyance of the shoreside land, the region Alaska Native corporation has said. “The growing potential of the Arctic is a high priority for us. I believe that in addition to supporting oil and gas industry needs, Port Clarence is going to positively contribute to sustainable economic growth in the region,” BSNC President and CEO Gail Schubert said in a formal statement. In May Rep. Don Young introduced legislation to the House to transfer nearly 2,400 acres of federal land on and near Point Spencer to BSNC as part of the land owed to it under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, plus 180 acres to the State of Alaska. Current infrastructure at Point Spencer includes an airstrip and a U.S. Coast Guard LORAN-C navigation facility, decommissioned in 2010. Young’s bill would allow the Coast Guard to retain its use of the 140-acre site and give it the option of leasing space from BSNC if it needs to in the future. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Cali., chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee supported the legislation, Young said in a May 16 release. “We are desperately in need of development in the region, particularly as activity in the Arctic continues to increase, and this bill establishes a path forward for a variety of necessary tasks and missions, including search and rescue operations, shipping safety, economic development, oil spill prevention and response, port development and refuge, arctic research, and maritime law enforcement,” Young said. Increasing maritime activity in the Bering Strait is a major reason the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also investigating the possibility of enhancing the marine infrastructure in the region, currently centered in Nome. In March 2013, the Corps of Engineers released a preliminary study of its own — part of ongoing multi-year planning — that narrowed a list of potential Western Alaska deepwater port sites to Nome and Port Clarence, specifically for their respective infrastructure and proximity to deep water. A number of projections have been made as to how much Bering Strait vessel traffic will increase in the coming years if summer Arctic sea ice continues to recede. The study reports that from 2009-2013, the trans-Strait vessel count grew from 239 to 349 in 2013, including the first liquefied natural gas tanker — headed south — through the Strait. The Northern Economics team referenced the Corps of Engineers work numerous times in its study. A federal Arctic port plan was originally scheduled to be released earlier this year, but a desire by Corps leadership to investigate more options in regards to specific site plans has pushed the release of the draft plan back closer to the end of the year, according to Corps of Engineers Alaska spokesman Curt Biberdorf. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Breakwater next step in Seward marine development

The City of Seward is ready to jumpstart development that has been decades in the making. When Gov. Sean Parnell signed the fiscal year 2015 capital budget May 28, Seward was officially awarded $5.9 million from the state to complete its breakwater and begin full-scale work on what the city calls the Seward Marine Industrial Center. Total, the city has gathered $25.9 million for the breakwater, to be built in front of Seward Ship’s Drydock. The money came in three chunks: $10 million as part of the $453 million bond package approved by voters in 2012; $10 million in the fiscal year 2014 capital budget; and most recently the $5.9 million approved by Parnell. At 1,200 feet long when finished, the breakwater will all but enclose roughly 15 acres of water behind it, Seward Community Development Director Ron Long said. That space will be available to anyone wishing to lease it, Long said. While it may not be momentous or even overly exciting, getting a breakwater in place is the lynchpin to developing the industrial center. The breakwater will shelter the shipyard’s waterfront and the city’s adjacent cargo dock from the battering Gulf of Alaska waves that periodically make their way up Resurrection Bay. “The cargo dock never really got any traction because the breakwater was never completed,” he said. Parties from numerous user groups including oil and gas support companies, barge services and the Western Alaska Community Development Quota, or CDQ, fishing fleets have expressed interest in using the industrial harbor when the breakwater is standing, he said. All of the CDQ groups currently homeport in Seattle and travel to the Bering Sea to fish. A 2013 report to the Legislature regarding the $10 million appropriation emphasized that the Coastal Villages Region Fund CDQ group spends up to $10 million on vessel maintenance and nearly $20 million on moorage and other costs each year in Seattle. According to the city, the CDQ groups could save up to $75,000 in fuel per trip by harboring in Seward versus Seattle. Once complete, Long said it’s up to the city to be proactive and get firm commitments from the groups interested in using Seward as a base of operations. “People have been listening to Seward say we’re going to build that breakwater for 25 years; they’re not going to put any money down on the table until they actually see something,” he said. That time will likely come in about a year. Long said the city can begin dumping rock in October, as to not disturb returning salmon. He said the interim months would give contractors enough time to stockpile rock for the project from the nearby city quarry. Work will continue through April of next year, and if need be, the finishing touches will be put on the breakwater in the fall of 2015, according to Long. Barring an unforeseen setback, the area behind the breakwater will officially be open for business in the spring of 2016, but access to the shipyard, cargo dock and fuel storage facility will also remain open during construction. “We want to be careful that we keep those users alive and well during the construction period,” Long said. Federal marine habitat impact mitigation plans — which the project’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permit is contingent upon — are currently being worked out, Long said. “Now it’s close enough to fully funded that we’re gong ahead with (requests for proposal) and contracts will be on the street pretty quick,” he said. When designing the breakwater, city officials took advantage of the state-of-the-art vessel bridge simulator at AVTEC, the state’s local vocational and technical training campus. Long said variations of a basic breakwater design and extreme weather conditions were plugged into the simulator while vessels ranging from 400-foot tank barges to large catcher-processors and mega yachts were steered through the entrance. In the end, the city saved the state some money on what was originally a $27.9 million project. “We crashed tens of millions of dollars of vessels up against the virtual breakwater and as a result we changed a couple minor aspects to the breakwater and wound up peeling about $2 million off the cost,” he said. The water that will be behind the breakwater is 24 feet deep now, Long said. He doesn’t foresee the need to have a deeper harbor, as users with larger vessels would likely head to the city’s deepwater railroad dock, but it could be dredged to 31 feet before undercutting the existing dock sheet pile would become an issue, he said. The genesis for the Seward Marine Industrial Center came in 1986 when city voters approved a $30 million general obligation bond to purchase and construct the infrastructure for what shortly after became Seward Ship’s Drydock, Long said. It was then that the first portion of the breakwater was built as well. Seward recently made its final payment on the 25-year obligation, he said. The dry dock and the prospective business center are at the end of Nash Road across Resurrection Bay from the city proper. “A little town of 2,500 people just retired $30 million of debt invested out of their pockets, so there’s a lot of public buy-in wanting to see this area developed,” Long said. As Long explained it, the breakwater is one of three components to the Seward Marine Industrial Center. The second is the shipyard — in the process of being purchased by Vigor Industrial LLC, the Portland, Ore.-based shipbuilder that operates the Ketchikan shipyard as Vigor Alaska. Vigor will act as the “anchor tenant” of the industrial center, Long said. While the shipyard is operated privately, the property is owned by the city. Vigor Industrial announced its preliminary agreement with Jim Pruitt, the owner of Seward Ship’s Drydock in January. In May, the Seward City Council approved operations and maintenance lease transfers from Seward Ship’s Drydock to Vigor. Once the final details of the sale are worked out and it is finalized, Vigor Alaska’s shipyard development coordinator Doug Ward said Vigor plans to invest in the Seward shipyard as it did when it purchased the Ketchikan shipyard in 2012, although perhaps not quite on the same scale. Vigor Industrial currently operates six shipyards in Oregon and Washington in addition to its Alaska facilities. Working with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which owns the Ketchikan property, Vigor has overseen more than $130 million of facilities construction and upgrades at its southern Alaska yard. Ward said having two of the state’s largest shipyards under congruent ownership should help draw added marine business to Alaska and Long said the city’s discussions with AIDEA about Vigor as a tenant were nothing but positive. Vigor spent roughly $250,000 on a comprehensive environmental assessment of the Seward shipyard and it came back with a “clean bill of health,” Long said, that was encouraging not only to city officials, but to residents as well. Also reassuring was Vigor’s emphasis to hire locally when expanding its workforce Ketchikan workforce, he said. According to Ward, 97 percent of Vigor Alaska’s 161 employees at the end of 2013 were hired from Ketchikan. “What we expect (Vigor’s) going to do is to keep on doing what they do best,” Long said. “They’ve demonstrated a commitment to the environment; they’ve demonstrated a commitment to their workforce and to doing a good job attracting repeat customers. That’s been their history and their business model and their standard that they’ve used in previous acquisitions. That’s what they’ve said they’re going to do and that’s what we look forward to.” The remaining component to Seward’s Marine Industrial Center is the uplands, of which the city has more than it knows what to do with, according to Long. The uplands are ideal for bulk raw commodity storage, he said, and businesses will likely develop around what support the harbor users and Vigor need. Those “self-sorting” needs could include net mending, propeller repair, welding and fabrication shops, warehouse and refrigeration space or even forklift rental, Long surmised. He said in five years he hopes to be able to see the map of the industrial center’s future — ultimately a “thriving working waterfront” supporting business that “filters out through all facets of the economy that keep a town alive and thriving and a place where people want to be,” Long said. “That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Wash out halts rail service to Seward

Alaska Railroad passengers hoping to take the train to Seward will have to wait at least one more day to get there by rail. High water at Skookum Creek near Portage washed out an 80-foot section of the track bed adjacent to the bridge over the creek Tuesday morning. The railroad’s Glacier Discovery train route has also been shortened as a result of the washout, according to an Alaska Railroad Corp. release. The sightseeing train will stop at Whittier instead of following its normal route to whistle stops at Spencer and Grandview south of Portage. Seward-bound passengers have the option of taking a motor coach provided by the railroad if they choose. Railroad crews began maintenance on the right-of-way almost immediately after the erosion was discovered. As of late Wednesday the railroad’s goal was to have service restored by Friday the release states. “This area experienced significant isolated rainfall that measured as much as a half-inch every 10 to 15 minutes for a sustained period. We are essentially dealing with a new river channel that did not exist,” railroad vice president of engineering Clark Hopp said. In all, the railroad estimated about 300 to 400 passengers per day are impacted by the schedule changes. One coal train from Healy to Seward has been delayed as well, the railroad said. Anyone wishing to cancel or reschedule train tickets or take the motor coach to Seward can call the Alaska Railroad at (907) 265-2494 for more information. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Deadlines looming for Interior gas project

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is in overdrive to finalize agreements for all of the facets of the complex plan to deliver lower cost natural gas to the state Interior. Staff from AIDEA’s project partner, Colorado-based engineering and consulting firm MWH Americas Inc., helped lay out the near-term Interior Energy Project timeline to the state authority’s board of directors at a June 4 meeting. “The next three months are going to be very critical as we drive towards financial close, and that’s the goal, getting to financial close,” MWH Vice President and Managing Director Rick Adcock said. The first step to getting to financial close with all the parties involved in late October is finally completing the working agreement for the future of the project. AIDEA Executive Director Ted Leonard said the agreement would lay out the ground rules with MWH over the up to 30-year life of the project. It should be ready for board review at the June 26 AIDEA board meeting, he said. “We are right now in the process of completing the concession agreement, which is the main agreement that AIDEA will have with the project company,” Leonard said. AIDEA is also actively looking for gas from one, or possibly more, North Slope suppliers, he added. Those talks will continue over the next couple weeks. Chris Brown, a vice president and Alaska manager for MWH said the team hopes to have a gas supply contract in place by June 30. The $332.5 million in bonds, loans and direct appropriations that the state gave AIDEA to put towards the project last year in Senate Bill 23 for the IEP is reserved specifically for North Slope natural gas production, liquefaction and shipment down the Dalton Highway to Fairbanks and North Pole. Converting to natural gas heat from fuel oil could cut heating costs up to 50 percent for some residents, multiple studies have indicated. First gas is scheduled to reach the Interior in late 2015, when Fairbanks Natural Gas, a small private utility that serves the center of Fairbanks, should have its distribution system fully built out. Golden Valley Electric Association, the region’s power utility, could also have a substantial demand for gas that would be burned to generate electricity. Leonard said AIDEA is still investigating the possibility of hauling Cook Inlet gas north to Fairbanks, much the way Fairbanks Natural Gas currently operates, but on a larger scale. Using Inlet gas could be an easier and cheaper solution, particularly with the option of hauling it the majority of the way by rail. However, the availability of gas from the region has limited that option. Hilcorp, the main producer in Cook Inlet, is making supply commitments into 2019 and is “examining the market’s appetite for even longer supply commitments,” Hilcorp spokeswoman Lori Nelson wrote in an email to the Journal. Further, Nelson wrote that Hilcorp is interested in supplying all of Interior’s gas needs, as it does Fairbanks Natural Gas and Southcentral utilities, and that the company thinks it can be an equally reliable supplier to other parties around Fairbanks. AIDEA projects residential gas demand from the IEP to be about 7.5 billion cubic feet, or bcf, of gas annually by 2021 — less than 10 percent of Southcentral’s gas demand of about 90 bcf per year. Currently, Fairbanks Natural Gas gets just less than 1 bcf per year from Hilcorp. If North Slope gas is used, the utilities — Fairbanks Natural Gas, the Interior Gas Utility and Golden Valley — will have to agree to a price range until a final price can be worked out, members of the IEP team said. Brown said the goal is to have a final gas price pinned down Oct. 3. The utilities would then enter into final off-take agreements and the rest of the Slope LNG plant contracts and others would fall in line by the end of October. All of the items on the IEP list are very interdependent, he said. “In order to get to that off-take agreement there has to be a gas price; there has to be (operating expenditures and capital expenditures) for the LNG plant; there has to be trucking and storage costs known,” Brown said. The size of the LNG plant, which could cost more than $180 million for a 9 bcf plant, likely won’t be finalized until the gas demand is clear, as well. “It’s the interplay of increasing certainty that allows the process to move forward,” Brown said. During the feasibility stage, AIDEA estimated the “burner tip,” or gas cost for consumers, would about $15 per thousand cubic feet, or mcf. Now the team has to work towards an indicative cost range that will be the basis for the preliminary off-take agreements, Brown said. Those agreements are needed by July 30 to keep the process moving, he said. MWH’s Adcock said other potential industrial and federal government customers are being pursued as well. “We’re trying to get all of the utilities to the table to help us understand demand profiles (and) timing,” Adcock said to the board. While everyone involved repeatedly acknowledged the aggressive timeline of the project, AIDEA board member and former state senator for Fairbanks Gary Wilken noted that the board was told in February the commercial agreements would be in place by the end of May and that timeline has been pushed back five months to the end of October. In April the AIDEA board approved a $15 million loan to Fairbanks Natural Gas to jumpstart the expansion of the utility’s distribution system so its customers could be able to receive gas when it becomes available. A key term of the loan was Fairbanks Natural Gas consenting to a “take or pay” agreement of 0.5 bcf of gas. Wilken said he has concern with the fact that Fairbanks Natural Gas could decline the $15 million loan at 3 percent and look for a private lender at likely a higher interest rate if it can find a better gas price than the IEP can provide. Golden Valley President and CEO Cory Borgeson said a hitch in the plan is that it doesn’t incentivize the utilities to sign up early; they are offered the same gas price no matter when they sign up. Part of the answer has to be a non-guaranteed price, he said. Without the utilities’ gas demand, the whole project could fall apart. “Every one of the utilities is going to act like a business and make their decision based on the narrowing of that (gas) price range,” AIDEA’s Leonard said. Adcock said he’s confident off-take agreements will be reached with the utilities given that everyone understands the importance of the agreements to the project. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

July hearing set for Kenai Loop gas payments

Buccaneer Energy, Cook Inlet Region Inc., and the State of Alaska will be back before the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission July 7 to duke it out once more over gas royalty rights from Buccaneer’s Kenai Loop well pad. The hearing will be held — as has been the case with most milestones in the dispute — if the parties cannot come to an agreement on royalty payments prior to July 7. CIRI claims Buccaneer owes it royalties for gas Buccaneer drained from the Native corporation’s land that is adjacent to the Kenai Loop pad. Buccaneer once held a now-terminated gas lease with for the CIRI property. It does not dispute that the drainage is occurring. The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which owns the property under the Buccaneer pad also owes it money, CIRI claims, because the authority has been receiving royalties on gas that CIRI had right to. Whether or not CIRI is liable for production expenses if it is eligible to receive gas revenue will be another point of debate at the hearing. The commission ordered Buccaneer to set up an escrow account by June 1 to hold its Kenai Loop production revenue until the dispute is resolved and make monthly deposits to the account starting June 10. Formation of the account has been delayed as Buccaneer asked the commission for clarification regarding details in the order and a brief comment period for the other parties was also established. How Buccaneer’s May 31 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in South Texas will impact negotiations and where its money goes immediately remains unclear. All of the parties have said an agreement has been close at times during months of negotiations. Buccaneer’s bankruptcy filings list the company’s combined assets at between $50,000 and $500,000 and liabilities of $50 million to $100 million. In May 2013, Division of Oil and Gas Director Bill Barron denied Buccaneer’s application to form a Kenai Loop unit from its leases in the area. When the application was submitted in July 2012 Buccaneer was the working interest owner to 7,499 acres of lease space in the proposed unit. The company had right to 4,827 acres Mental Health Trust Authority land, its 1,275-acre lease with CIRI and 1,391 acres of state land over four leases. Units are typically formed when an oil or gas pool extends beyond a sole landowner’s property; they are a way to parcel royalties and prevent drainage or other resource rights disputes among multiple lessees. Before the decision to deny the unit was made, CIRI informed the division that it had terminated Buccaneer’s lease, but Buccaneer did not acknowledge that fact, according to Barron’s ruling. CIRI’s termination of the lease has subsequently been upheld in Alaska Superior Court. Barron wrote in the 20-page document that his decision was based on the fact that Buccaneer was at the time the sole working interest owner in the area, thus making unit formation unnecessary. Additionally, the state land leases were set to expire on at the end of September 2012 when the application was filed a couple months prior to their expiration. The only interest that would have been protected by granting the unit would have been Buccaneer’s by way of gaining state lease extensions, according to Barron’s findings. He also claimed that Buccaneer made no commitments to fully develop the gas resources in the unit, and “exploration may be a component of unit activity but the primary purpose of unitization is development of reserves proven during the primary term of a lease,” Barron wrote. Subsequently Buccaneer appealed Barron’s decision in April 2013 to the Department of Natural Resources commissioner. That appeal is currently unresolved before commissioner Joe Balash. The commissioner is withholding a decision on the appeal while the “fundamental issues involving the leases that would underpin the proposed unit are addressed” through either a settlement reached by the parties or the conservation commission process, according to DNR spokeswoman Elizabeth Bluemink. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Prudhoe flight first commercial use over land for UAS

The nation’s the first commercial unmanned aircraft flight over land took place June 8 when a drone working for BP flew over the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a certificate of authorization, or COA, to allow BP to survey pipelines, roads and other North Slope equipment, the agency announced June 10. “These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a formal statement. ConocoPhillips was awarded restricted COAs last summer to fly over its offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea. They were the first COAs issued for commercial UAS operations in the country. Unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer AeroVironment conducted the flight for BP with its Puma, a hand-launched fixed-wing UAS with a wingspan of about nine feet. “The flight operation will use light detection and ranging 3D technology to survey the gravel roads and pads at Prudhoe Bay. This technology will help BP optimize the planning and implementation of maintenance programs for the North Slope infrastructure throughout Prudhoe Bay. Targeting maintenance activities on specific road areas will save time, and address safety and reliability,” BP Alaska spokeswoman Dawn Patience wrote in a company statement. Curt Smith, U.S. technology director for BP, said the company is seeking precision mapping of Prudhoe Bay oil field roads, which the light and range technology, or LIDAR, mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles, can provide. The goal, however, is to aid in the company’s implementation of GPS-aided guidance for vehicles and equipment in the field. BP has been testing various approaches to driver and operator assistance with GPS in the field but found that the oilfield roads were not adequately mapped. LIDAR data, which can map surface contours to five centimeters horizontal and one-centimeter vertical accuracy, solves that problem and it is most effectively delivered from the air, with the UAV as an effective way to do that, Smith said. It’s also the only way to map off-road facilities like pipelines, where truck-mounted LIDAR can’t go, he said. The procedure will also enable BP to plan rig moves from pad to pad in the field because the condition of oil field gravel roads can be surveyed, and needed repair done, before heavy, bulky rig components are moved to a new location. Now that the system is up and running people at the field are coming up with new ideas, like using the unmanned aircraft to survey power transmission lines. “You know you have a winner (in a new technology) when people start asking, ‘can it do this?” Smith said. “Our initial goal was safety, to give vehicle operators assistance in driving during whiteouts and poor visibility but we’re finding more and more uses for this,” Smith said. GPS-aided vehicle operation is commonly used in agriculture and in large surface mines but its application by BP on the North Slope will be a first. But BP isn’t ready for autonomously-controlled vehicles, at least yet, Smith said. The company will start with “driver-assisted” GPS where the operator has access to a display screen with guidance instructions. In early May, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta made a trip to Alaska to formally open the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex operated by the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, an extension of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012 it mandated the FAA to draft and implement regulations to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. The Pan-Pacific Test Range and five other sites like it across the country were formed by the agency to allow government and industry a place to safely experiment with regulations and new technology. “The 2012 reauthorization law tasks us with integrating small UAS in the Arctic on a permanent basis. This operation will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress,” Huerta said. Alaska is widely considered a top test site for UAS because of its extensive uninhabited areas with relatively little air traffic. Oil and gas companies in the state have also expressed interest in the craft for surveying on and offshore leases and existing infrastructure — a cheaper and safer means of monitoring than manned flights. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Prudhoe flight a first for unmanned craft

BP partook in the nation’s the first commercial unmanned aircraft flight over land June 8 when it flew over Prudhoe Bay. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a certificate of authorization, or COA, to allow BP to survey pipelines, roads and other North Slope equipment the agency announced June 10. “These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a formal statement. Unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer AeroVironment conducted the flight for BP with its Puma, a hand-launched fixed-wing UAS with a wingspan of about nine feet. "The flight operation will use light detection and ranging 3D technology to survey the gravel roads and pads at Prudhoe Bay. This technology will help BP optimize the planning and implementation of maintenance programs for the North Slope infrastructure throughout Prudhoe Bay. Targeting maintenance activities on specific road areas will save time, and address safety and reliability," BP Alaska spokeswoman Dawn Patience wrote in a company statement. In early May FAA Administrator Michael Huerta made a trip to Alaska to formally open the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex operated by the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, an extension of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012 it mandated the FAA to draft and implement regulations to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. The Pan-Pacific Test Range and five other sites like it across the country were formed by the agency to allow government and industry a place to safely experiment with regulations and new technology. “The 2012 reauthorization law tasks us with integrating small UAS in the Arctic on a permanent basis. This operation will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress,” Huerta said. Alaska is widely considered a top test site for UAS because of its extensive uninhabited areas with relatively little air traffic. Oil and gas companies in the state have also expressed interest in the craft for surveying on and offshore leases and existing infrastructure — a cheaper and safer means of monitoring than manned flights. ConocoPhillips was awarded restricted COAs last summer to fly over its offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea last summer. They were the first COAs issued for commercial UAS operations in the country. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Buccaneer files for bankruptcy

Buccaneer Energy, an independent Cook Inlet explorer with high hopes but skimpy resources, saw those hopes come crashing down May 31. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection that day in a U.S. Bankruptcy Court in south Texas. The company has been fighting a rear-guard action on finances almost since the time it arrived in Cook Inlet, bidding on lease sales and then bringing a jack-up rig to the Inlet from Asia with a Singapore company and the State of Alaska as partners. Buccaneer had also become embroiled in a dispute with Cook Inlet Region Inc., which owns land adjacent to the state land on which Buccaneer’s producing Kenai Loop gas wells are located. Buccaneer previously had a lease on the CIRI land but the Anchorage-based Alaska Native corporation for Southcentral terminated the lease. Buccaneer sued, claiming the termination was improper, but lost in court. Meanwhile, CIRI filed a complaint with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that regulates industry production practices, alleging that Buccaneer’s Kenai Loop wells were draining gas from its lands. After two hearings and months of deliberations, the conservation commission decided May 22 to escrow all revenues from gas sales minus operating expenses at Kenai Loop until it could sort out how the gas should be shared among Buccaneer, CIRI, the State of Alaska and the Mental Health Land Trust. Under the commission order, the escrow account was to be created at an Alaska bank by June 1, and revenues to be deposited on the 10th day of each month beginning in June until an allocation was determined. Cut off from its only source of cash income amid its restructuring, Buccaneer had no choice but to file for protection, sources familiar with the company said. In bankruptcy filings for its parent and subsidiary companies, Buccaneer claimed combined assets of $50,000 to $500,000 and liabilities of between $50 million and $100 million. In a state Superior Court civil dispute between Buccaneer and CIRI paralleling the AOGCC case, the Native corporation sued for compensation over the gas drained from its land. On April 22, Judge Frank Pfiffner stayed a ruling on CIRI’s drainage claims until a decision is handed down by the commission or an agreement is reached between CIRI, Buccaneer, the Department of Natural Resources and the Mental Health Trust Land Office, which owns the Kenai Loop property adjacent to CIRI’s parcel. As of June 3, Buccaneer had not set up the escrow account, AOGCC Commissioner Cathy Foerster said. The company asked for clarifications regarding its responsibilities, she said, and a 10-day comment period was issued for the other parties involved to respond. June 10 is also the deadline set by the commission for the parties to reach an agreement on gas and royalty payments. If an agreement is not reached, the commission will determine gas rights at a future hearing. “We don’t have an agreement yet; we’ve been close a few times over the last year — certainly the last six months,” DNR Commissioner Joe Balash said June 2. “I would say there’s no good reason we don’t have an agreement, that’s my perspective.” The “hodgepodge” of subsurface ownership, combined with disputing past and future payments has complicated negotiations, he said. Trust Land Office Deputy Director John Morrison said there has been “good communication among all four parties” and that he felt they were close to an agreement June 3. CIRI spokesman Jason Moore said it is unclear whether Buccaneer’s bankruptcy would influence negotiations, but also that the Native corporation could see the bankruptcy coming. Moore said CIRI pressed for the escrow account to be set up to hold funds in dispute. Further, he said the Trust Land Office owes CIRI “a lot of money” for royalties it has taken from CIRI gas produced on the Kenai Loop pad. CIRI has a right to 20 percent of production minus expenses, according to Moore. CIRI Land and Energy Development Vice President Ethan Schutt said at an April 21 AOGCC hearing that the Kenai Loop wells were producing in the neighborhood of 8 million cubic feet of gas per day. Morrison said the Trust Land Office is “pretty comfortable” that the payments it receives from Buccaneer will be safe from creditors involved in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy action after discussing the issue with counsel.  Foerster said she did not know whether the bankruptcy would affect Buccaneer’s regulatory commitments. As for the Land Trust Office’s royalties, Balash said there is a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, between the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and DNR that gives the department the responsibility to help the authority maximize revenue from its lands. The MOU shifts gas royalty payments that typically go to the Division of Oil and Gas to the Trust Land Office when produced on Trust land, he said. “At least from where I sit (the MOU) causes all ‘ties’ to go to the trust, and that’s OK because the situation we find ourselves in is that it’s either going to the general fund or the Mental Health Trust account and either way they’re state sources of revenue,” Balash said. Income from leasing and resource development on the 1 million acres of Mental Health Trust land across the state is part of the roughly $26 million the trust budgets each year for programs and services for Alaskans with disabilities and mental illness, according to the trust. Overall, Balash said the state has had “a couple rubs” with Buccaneer during the company’s oil and gas work in the state, but he said the issues were nothing out of the ordinary. Buccaneer still holds other Cook Inlet leases that are currently without issue, he said. “They were an aggressive company and had a lot of enthusiasm; they just didn’t have enough capital,” Balash said. Plague of problems Before the May 22 Kenai Loop decision and the May 31 bankruptcy filing, a lot of other things went wrong for Buccaneer, including a dispute and a lawsuit with its first rig operator, delays in getting the jack-up operating, problems siting the rig at an offshore location in the Inlet and an expensive dry-hole on the Peninsula. The unraveling of the company’s Alaska strategy began in March when the board of directors suspended CEO Curtis Burton with pay pending a review of operations. Burton meanwhile filed a lawsuit in a Texas state court arguing a breach of his employment contract. On May 14 the board completed its review, terminated Burton and also removed him from the board. Burton’s lawsuit continues, meanwhile. What really aggravated the financial situation was when an investor that had promised to help fund expensive offshore drilling at Buccaneer’s Southern Cross prospect failed to come through with the money. One of Buccaneer’s shareholders, Meridian Capital International Fund, stepped in with interim financing, but the company was still left seeking other longer-term capital. There was a second win, however, with a potentially major gas discovery at Cosmopolitan, near Anchor Point. It was a bittersweet development, though. To raise cash, Buccaneer had to sell its minority interest in the discovery to its partner in Cosmopolitan, BlueCrest Energy of Fort Worth, and also its share of the jack-up rig. Through all of this, Buccaneer worked on a long-term refinancing strategy. On April 30 the company’s major creditor, Meridian Capital CIS Fund, an affiliate of Meridian Capital International, sold its debt to Houston-based AIX Energy LLC, a privately-held energy finance group that has been affiliated with Meridian. Meridian itself remained as a major shareholder in Buccaneer. Sources familiar with Buccaneer said a major payment to AIX on the debt is due June 30, but that may be delayed due to the bankruptcy. What made people really take note of Buccaneer initially in Cook Inlet was its discovery of the small Kenai Loop gas field near the city of Kenai and successful production of gas in 18 months from the time the exploration well was drilled, which is light-speed compared with the lengthy permitting and occasional lawsuits that get other companies bogged down. Ironically, it was Kenai Loop that finally forced the company into bankruptcy after the commission’s decision. The company will now sell most of its assets. Kenai Loop’s discovery came at a time when the regional utilities were deeply worried about depleted gas fields in Cook Inlet and the possibility that they would have to import gas as liquefied natural gas. Buccaneer showed, with a drill bit, that there was still gas to be found. Also, the company found new gas just a mile from the long-producing Cannery Loop gas field, formerly owned and operated by a large company, Marathon Oil. This seemed to show that the large companies like Marathon that have long dominated the industry were not aggressively exploring despite the utilities’ worries.  “As part of the Chapter 11 proceedings Buccaneer Energy has also reached an agreement in principle with its secured lender on certain critical elements of a plan of reorganization that would result in the sale of substantially all of the company’s assets,” Buccaneer said in a June 2 press release. Meanwhile, there are no changes, for now, in production operations. The company has three employees overseeing the Kenai Loop gas wells. “Buccaneer will continue to operate and oversee its assets during and throughout the restructuring process,” the press release said. The restructuring should allow Buccaneer to pay off its creditors, but at the expense of its assets. “The company expects to have sufficient cash on hand throughout the Chapter 11 proceedings to pay all of its post (bankruptcy) petition obligations as they come due,” the press release said. What next for Endeavor rig? With the bankruptcy filing of Buccaneer Energy, what happens to the Endeavour jack-up rig that is still parked at Port Graham in lower Cook Inlet and partly owned by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority? The answer: AIDEA and Ezion Holdings, the remaining partner in the rig, are looking for work for the rig and wells to drill. Buccaneer had chartered the rig for its exclusive use to drill several wells in the Inlet this summer, including a deep test for oil at the “Tyonek Deep” North Cook Inlet gas field held by ConocoPhillips’. That well will not be drilled, this summer at least. AIDEA officials expect Buccaneer will be relieved of its charter obligation as a part of the bankruptcy filing. Assuming the South Texas bankruptcy court approves this, the rig would be placed back under the control of Kenai Offshore Ventures, the AIDEA/Ezion partnership that owns the Endeavour, according to Mike Catsi, business development manager for the authority. “KOV, through its member-manager Ezion, is already investigating and negotiating with a replacement rig manager,” an entity to take the place of Buccaneer. The day-to-day management of the rig is through a drilling contractor, Spartan, which is also managing the other jack-up rig in the Inlet, the Spartan 151 that is working for Furie Operating Alaska, another independent working in the Inlet. Catsi said Buccaneer, through a subsidiary Kenai Drilling, was obligated to make payments and it did so through Dec. 1, 2013. However there were five monthly payments from the end of 2013 and through the first months of 2013 that were deferred and not yet due, Catsi wrote in an email. There may yet be business for the rig. “AIDEA has been approached by another party who has expressed strong interest in using the rig in Cook Inlet. AIDEA has passed this information through to Ezion Holdings,” Catsi wrote. Buccaneer had promoted the rig being brought to Cook Inlet and persuaded AIDEA and Ezion Holdings to help finance the purchase of the drilling unit and its move to the Inlet. Buccaneer was originally an investor and a major partner in Kenai Offshore Ventures but had to sell its shares last year when the company encountered financial difficulties. Although it was no longer an owner, Buccaneer still had its charter of the rig for drilling, however. In his email, Catsi described AIDEA’s current relationship with the rig: “AIDEA is a Preferred Member in Kenai Offshore Ventures, LLC with a stake of about $23.6 million invested.  Ezion Holdings Limited and its affiliate Teras Investments Pte., Ltd. (who bought out Buccaneer’s stake in KOV in January of this year) are the Common Members of KOV; Buccaneer is no longer a member of KOV,” Catsi wrote. “AIDEA is entitled to receive repurchase payments of its entire investment plus dividends at fixed dates, if KOV’s revenues and cash permit.  AIDEA has received one payment against dividends owed to AIDEA of about $4,062,000 in February of this year.  All of AIDEA’s investment plus dividends must be repaid by KOV by January 1, 2018 (regardless of KOV’s revenues and cash) or AIDEA may pursue recourse to all its security including the rig.” The Endeavour is capable of drilling to 20,000 feet and in water depths up to 300 feet. It was originally designed for the North Sea but was in storage in Asia when it was purchased by the Kenai Joint Ventures partners. After modifications it was brought to Cook Inlet. The other jack-up rig in the Inlet, the Spartan 151, was brought earlier from the U.S. Gulf coast by Escopeta Oil and Gas (now Furie Operating Alaska). AIDEA made the decision to help Buccaneer get its jack-up to Alaska because at the time it was not clear that Escopeta could get the Spartan rig moved. The authority felt there was an urgent need to have a jack-up rig in Alaska because of the belief then that there could be shortages of natural gas in Southcentral Alaska. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected] Tim Bradner contributed to this story.  

Point Thomson-TAPS connection complete

At Point Thomson, it is $2 billion dollars down and $2 billion to go for ExxonMobil. Sofia Wong, the Point Thomson infrastructure and pipeline manager for ExxonMobil, said a pipeline connecting the eastern North Slope gas field to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, or TAPS, was completed in March. The 12-inch, 22-mile pipeline will carry natural gas condensates to the Badami field line that is a common carrier to TAPS, she said. “Our expectation is by 2016 we will be starting to produce at 10,000 barrels per day (of condensates) into TAPS,” Wong said. A hydro test will likely be run on the pipe in July. The pipeline has a capacity of 70,000 barrels per day. Early production will be slow with three wells — two injector wells and one production — until it’s known how the gas reserve responds to production, she said. Point Thomson is about 60 miles east of Prudhoe Bay on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The natural gas field is estimated to hold roughly 8 trillion cubic feet of gas, roughly 25 percent of total North Slope gas reserves. The gas also contains about 200 million barrels of usable liquids. It was originally discovered in 1977. Unlike Prudhoe Bay gas, the Point Thomson field is under high pressure, Wong said, making it easy to capture the liquids for TAPS. “When you get gas at 10,000 pounds and you let it expand into separators, the condensate, the liquids just simply fall out and you collect those and put them into the pipeline,” she said. “(It’s) very simple from a process standpoint.” The gas processing facility will arrive at Point Thomson via barge along with summer in 2015. The four-piece modular plant is currently being constructed in Korea, according to Wong. To date, ExxonMobil has spent about $2 billion on Point Thomson. The major producer expects to spend a total of about $4 billion on the project to get it to full production, the company has said. During the winter of 2012-13, the first construction season for ExxonMobil at Point Thomson, about 2,200 vertical supports were installed for the pipeline. Nearly all of the pipeline construction work was done by a subsidiary of Interior Alaska Native corporation Doyon Ltd., Wong said. The peak of just-completed winter construction at Point Thomson saw about 1,200 people working on the project, she said, similar to the first-year job numbers. Of those, 729 were rotational Slope positions, meaning some were backed by an additional laborer. Wong said ExxonMobil has a camp of about 100 workers in Deadhorse managing logistics. Overall, Alaska-hire rates on Point Thomson are in the 85 percent range, she said. Other major work last winter included laying another 1 million cubic yards of gravel to expand the site pad to the north on top of the 1 million cubic yards laid during the first construction season. Over the summer, 2.2 million gallons of diesel storage was added to the site, Wong said. Completion of a warehouse and Alaska Clean Seas maintenance facility is scheduled for this year’s warmer months. The infrastructure at Point Thomson will go a long ways towards spurring future North Slope gas development, particularly since the State of Alaska, the three major Slope producers, and TransCanada, a pipeline company, have agreed on a framework of ownership for a large export liquefied natural gas project, she said. “Point Thomson has been key to the progress we’ve made on the large (LNG) project,” Wong said. If the $40 billion to $65 billion project ever comes to fruition, she said another $6 billion to $8 billion of investment will be needed at Point Thomson to capture the gas there and would be part of the overall expenditure. She said that investment would include a 30-inch gas line connected to a treatment plant in Prudhoe Bay. “It’s the 8 trillion cubic feet of gas that we’re focusing on; that’s really what I call the prize,” Wong said. “The condensate that comes along with that is just gravy that comes on top of the natural gas.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

Wind power storage generating heat, displacing diesel

President Barack Obama has long touted an “all of the above” energy strategy for America. In Western Alaska, a small group of villages is putting the rhetoric to work. By implementing a complex power management system in four Kuskokwim Bay-area communities, the team at Intelligent Energy Systems has started to employ wind power for heat, expanding the use of a renewable energy source typically limited to electric generation. “With respect to villages in Western Alaska, renewables is not a luxury. It’s a necessity that has to be harnessed to make those villages sustainable,” said Dennis Meiners, a project manager for Anchorage-based Intelligent Energy Systems. “We’ve invested in infrastructure and this is a way to support it.” Meiners’ team has been working to integrate wind energy into diesel-supported grids in Kwigillingok, Kongiganak, Kipnuk and Tuntutuliak — a collective population of about 1,700 residents. The village governments formed the Chaninik Wind Group in 2005 as a way to pool resources and develop affordable energy solutions, Meiners said. In Kwigillingok, five remanufactured 95-kilowatt Windmatic turbines not only offset the burning of diesel for Kwig Power Co., they also heat homes when the wind blows hard, as it often does in the flat, treeless region. Common peak load from Kwig Power’s 100 customers is about 250 kilowatts, according to Kwig Power Manager William Igkurak, meaning the five turbines can supply the community’s power demand when they’re generating at peak capacity. Currently, about 25 homes in “Kwig” have been outfitted with electric thermal storage units, Igkurak said. The thermal storage units are metal, wall-mounted boxes filled with ceramic bricks that are heated by an electric coil. Rather than dump excess power generated by the turbines when the wind is really whipping, the electricity is diverted from the traditional grid to heat the storage units, ultimately reducing the diesel, or fuel oil, burned for heating in Kwig as well. “This project is still in its infancy,” Igkurak said. The hope is to grow the number of thermal storage units in the village to further maximize peak production of power, he said. Even still, the project displaced about 25 percent of Kwig Power’s historic diesel consumption in its first year, he said. Surplus electric heat costs about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, or kwh, for residents with the storage units, according to Igkurak. He said the current price of diesel-generated electricity from Kwig Power is more than 60 cents per kwh. For further efficiency, the “micro grid” is getting wind power storage in between the wind turbines and the thermal electric storage units thanks to Detroit, Meiners said. The storage should allow the utility to shut down its fossil fuel power system when wind production meets demand. By installing eight Chevrolet Volt lithium-ion battery packs, Kwig power will have enough storage to meet peak demand for 15 minutes, he said, enough time to fire up the diesel generators. Thus, when the wind provides excess power it will go to the batteries first, and on to the thermal storage units only when the batteries are charged. Lithium-ion batteries can be charged and discharged quickly and have a life many times longer than traditional lead-acid batteries when cycled properly, Meiners said. Together, the eight battery packs take up about as much space as two refrigerators, he said, while the same amount of lead-acid storage would fill a small room. A Chevy Volt battery pack typically sells for $4,000 to $6,000 without the add-ons to adapt it to a vehicle. The exact impact the batteries will have on ratepayers won’t be known for another six months, Meiners said, after the system has been tuned and in place some time. However, he expects it to eventually displace upwards of 50 percent of the utility’s diesel need, he said. The wind system is down as the storage is integrated, Igkurak said, but it should be back up and running by the end of June. Igkurak and Meiners emphasized that the wind-diesel system is a demonstration project. “We would like to prove that the system works in our small community,” Igkurak said. Purchasing, transporting and installing the batteries cost about $600,000, Meiners said. The Chaninik Wind Group received a $750,000 grant from the Department of Energy in 2010 to help fund $2 million worth of energy improvements in the four villages. Contributions from numerous other sources rounded out project payment.  A classic example of the challenges of infrastructure work in rural Alaska, the batteries were shipped last August and arrived in Kwig in October, but were not able to be moved into place until late January when the region’s marshy ground finally froze, Meiners said. Only about half of the project’s costs are in materials, Meiners said. The rest have gone to construction and transport costs to the remote area. The turbines being used in the communities were originally used in small wind farms in California, Meiners said. Using the remanufactured mid-sized turbines was a way to save money, he said. “Nobody’s making stuff for villages. It’s about adapting available technology to the situation. It’s not a market; it’s not something (General Electric) is going to invest in,” he said. Despite being an experiment of sorts, Meiners said similar projects with larger turbines will likely be “pretty common” in rural areas like Western Alaska with good wind resources. He estimates a 1-megawatt system could be installed for about $5 million. Such a system would displace about 100,000 gallons of diesel and be able to pay for itself within 10 years — a target timeline — he said. The initial operating life of a multi-use wind power system is about 25 years, he said. Bigger turbines that push wind power capacity well past peak demand will be vital to fully realizing the benefits of wind in rural Alaska, according to Meiners. “It’s a matter of gaining confidence that the technology is going to solve the problem and when the willingness to invest in it because we should be moving towards ways to install larger turbines in smaller villages, just like you install a hydro project,” He said. “You look at the whole community energy need. That’s the economic way to do it.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

Pebble sues EPA over attempt to veto mine

The Pebble Limited Partnership took the Environmental Protection Agency to court May 21 and claimed the agency is illegally overstepping its bounds by attempting to block a mine before the permitting process begins. In a statement released in conjunction with Pebble’s complaint filed in U.S. Alaska District Court, company CEO Tom Collier said the plea to the court to stop EPA’s actions is not an attempt to strip the agency of its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act. Rather, he said, it is an attempt to ensure guidelines set by Congress are followed. “Simply put, EPA has repeatedly ignored detailed comments that we, the State of Alaska, and others have made about this massive federal overreach and continues to advance an unprecedented pre-emptive regulatory action against the Pebble project that vastly exceeds its Clean Water Act authority,” Collier said. “If EPA ultimately vetoes Pebble before a development plan is proposed or evaluated through the comprehensive federal and state permitting processes, the precedent established will have significant, long-term effects on business investment in this state and throughout the country. Litigation is necessary in order to get the agency’s attention and bring some rational perspective back to the U.S. permitting process.” In February, the EPA said it would initiate a seldom-used Clean Water Act process to block large-scale surface mining in the Bristol Bay region to protect the region’s robust salmon fishery. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy referenced the 1,000-plus page Bristol Bay watershed assessment released a month before as reason to block Pebble, stating a large, open-pit mine in the region would cause “irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries.” If developed, an Iliamna-area Pebble copper and gold mine would likely be one of the largest of its kind in the world. All of the company’s mineral claims are on state land. While the EPA has vetoed wetlands permit applications 13 times since the inception of the Clean Water Act in 1972, it has never used the power to deny a permit before an application was submitted, as is the case currently with Pebble. The regional Army Corps of Engineers handles wetlands permit applications under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act for all projects, public or private, that could impact wetlands. Subsection 404(c) states that the EPA can prohibit the use “of any defined area as a (material) disposal site” when the agency administrator deems the placement of fill material “into such an area will have an unacceptable adverse effect” on fish, wildlife or water supplies. Pebble’s complaint states that Congress limited the EPA’s authority in the permitting process to reviewing applications after they have been evaluated by the Corps of Engineers. Additionally, Pebble claims the mine’s impact on such areas cannot be judged because it has not released a formal mine plan or applied for wetlands permits. “If the EPA veto proceeding is allowed to upend the permitting process, the entire administrative process will be eviscerated,” the complaint states. “There will be no concrete proposal, no specification of ‘such materials’ or ‘such area,’ no consideration of alternatives, no conditions imposed by a permitting agency, and no mitigation requirement. Neither the Corps nor the state will be able to bring their expertise to bear.” By working to prevent development on state land in the region, Pebble also argues the EPA is also violating the intent of the Cook Inlet Land Exchange, a 1976 agreement between Cook Inlet Region Inc., and the state and federal governments. Under the acreage swap, the State of Alaska was awarded ownership of federal lands with high mineral potential — the same lands where Pebble’s copper and gold claims exist today. According to Pebble, the mineral value of the land was “one of the driving factors in the state’s selection.” In return, the state turned over property that was ultimately be conveyed to CIRI through the federal government. CIRI subsequently gave up its Lake Clark-area holdings north of Iliamna to complete the federal Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. “Both the Statehood Act and the Cook Inlet (Land) Exchange legislation explicitly provide Alaska with the right to manage its lands for economic development purposes,” the complaint states. Mine opponents have countered Pebble’s claims that a mine would ignite Bristol Bay’s economy by contending it would put thousands of fishing jobs in the region in jeopardy. The annual ex-vessel value of Bristol Bay salmon has been between $140 million and $185 million since 2009. The EPA Inspector General’s office notified the agency May 2 that it would review the information gathering and science behind the watershed assessment at the request of Pebble, the State of Alaska, and members of Congress. Pebble has claimed intra-EPA communications prove the three-year assessment process was biased against mine development from the get-go. Region 10 EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader has said the agency followed all prescribed public involvement guidelines in forming the assessment and that the 404(c) process, which usually takes about a year, will continue during the Inspector General’s review. Trout Unlimited responded to Pebble’s litigation May 22 by demanding the group release a complete mine plan. The national coldwater fisheries nonprofit has been at the forefront of the fight against Bristol Bay mine development for years. “Clearly, this is a last ditch effort from a company which now has no major mining experience on its team and has lost at every step of the way. It’s ridiculous that PLP is using resources to file a lawsuit but continues to refuse to apply for official permits after promising to do so for nearly a decade,” TU Alaska Executive Director Tim Bristol said in a formal statement. “The fact is, (Pebble Limited Partnership) can apply for a permit today, but they refuse to do so because they will have to reveal to the public once again that they will build a colossal open pit mine, impact wetlands and waterways, destroy salmon habitat and threaten thousands of jobs and unique way of life.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Hecla CEO: Bright future for Greens Creek

Prospects are strong at the Greens Creek silver mine near Juneau, according to senior leadership at the mine’s operating company. Hecla Mining Co. President and CEO Phil Baker said in a May 22 interview with the Journal that the 2013 drill results at the mine are some of the best he’s seen in his 13 years with the company. “We have a mine plan that’s 10 years but we fully expect that it will go well past that,” Baker said. A 24-year-old underground silver, zinc, lead and gold operation, Greens Creek is the largest silver mine in the United States and among a handful of the largest in the world, Baker said. The mine has been run on a seven to 12-year plan for most of its life. Baker said if a new tailings facility — currently in the final stages of state and federal permitting — can be constructed, it could push Greens Creek’s future out 15 years or more. Baker made his comments after Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based Hecla’s shareholder meeting held May 22 in Anchorage. Further longevity at Greens Creek would mean steady, but not significantly increased production because of footprint limitations, he said. The total Greens Creek property is 27 square miles. It’s location near the center of Admiralty Island, southwest of Juneau, surrounded by Tongass National Forest and Admiralty Island National Monument-Kootznoowoo Wilderness land makes expanding difficult, community relations manager for Hecla Mike Satre said. Hecla purchased Greens Creek in 2008 from Kennecott, a subsidiary of industry giant Rio Tinto. The company is also the longtime operator of the Lucky Friday silver mine in Idaho and the Casa Berardi gold mine in Quebec, which it purchased last year. Baker said Greens Creek has driven the company’s revenue since the purchase, contributing nearly 75 percent of Hecla’s $800 million of overall cash flow in the past four years. “Greens Creek is one of the few mines that have the sort of cash flow generation that it does in the world,” he said. “There are dozens of them, but it’s one of those dozens.” As Baker noted, first quarter silver production at Greens Creek was nearly identical to 2013 at 1.78 million ounces — up less than half a percent year-over-year. The Southeast mine accounted for 72 percent of Hecla’s total first quarter silver production. For the year, the company expects to produce between 6.5 million and 7 million ounces of silver and about 55,000 ounces of gold at Greens Creek, according to its quarterly report. The mine mill processed an average of 2,252 tons of ore per day during the quarter. Recent drilling in Greens Creek’s Deep 200 South mineralization area intersected a 28-foot area with 27.3 ounces per ton of silver; 0.46 ounces per ton of gold; 13.7 percent zinc; and 6.7 percent lead. Additionally, a five-foot intersection in the same area was found to contain 52.1 ounces per ton of silver. Baker said the collection of metals at Greens Creek are “extraordinarily important” to its strong economics. As of the beginning of the year, Greens Creek had proven and probable reserves of 92.5 million ounces of silver at 11.9 ounces per ton; 713,000 ounces of gold at 0.09 ounces per ton; 678,000 tons of zinc and 256,000 tons of lead. Current silver prices at about $20 per ounce are off more than 30 percent from 2011 when the precious metal went for nearly $30 per ounce, but are still much improved over a decade ago when silver went for less than $4 per ounce. “Long-term the (silver) outlook is extraordinary,” Baker said. New technological applications have doubled global demand for silver over the past 30 years to about 1 billion ounces per year and he said that market could double again in the next 30 years as Asian economies grow. “As people get wealthier, they consume more of those things that have silver in them,” he said. While silver markets track closely with gold currently, Baker said he thinks a divergence between the two is likely as silver demand grows. Low silver prices in prior decades limited exploration and has led to few new mines, he added, a factor that could tighten the market and mean strong silver prices long-term. To do its part in meeting projected silver demand with Greens Creek, Hecla has started a list of programs to get Southeast’s youth thinking about careers in mining, part of an emphasis the company has to hire locally, according to Baker. He said mines offer career opportunities for a wider range of skill sets than some might recognize. “There’s 400 employees (at Greens Creek) and you’ve got engineers and chemists and accountants and miners and mechanics and nurses and janitors — you’ve got everything,” he said. Two diesel mechanics that were hired in May became the first Greens Creek employees who visited the mine as eighth graders on class tours that began in 2008, went through the company’s Pathways to Mining Careers high school partnership program with the University of Alaska, and began work at the mine. “I’m convinced that over the course of the next 10 years we will have class after class of new employees that are from Juneau — that’s where they want to live,” Baker said. Most Juneau residents that work at Greens Creek commute by boat, but to retain and attract workers from other regions of Alaska and Outside, new camp and housing facilities were built at the mine in the last two years. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Corps of Engineers gains flexibility for Alaska projects

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has more leeway to develop and maintain marine infrastructure in Alaska under the latest version of legislation that governs the Corps’ authority. Under the proposed Water Resources Reform and Development Act unveiled by a congressional conference committee May 15, ports and harbors in many of Alaska’s outlying communities would be included in the remote and subsistence harbors program that prioritized projects for funding in Hawaii and the U.S. territories but left Alaska out in the 2007 version of the bill. Currently, Alaska Corps of Engineers Program Manager David Martinson said small, remote port and harbor projects must be at least 70 miles from another mode of transportation and a majority of goods brought into the nearest community must be consumed there, among other requirements to climb the funding ladder. Instead of having to meet a list of  “ands,” in-state development would qualify through the addition of “or Alaska” in the new bill, he said. “That really helps with harbors that may be close to a system but are still a small or remote harbor,” Martinson said. Port Lions on Kodiak Island, for example, could qualify for funding prioritization because it is an isolated community even though it is less than 30 miles from the City of Kodiak. According to Sen. Mark Begich’s office, such projects would be eligible for up to $10 million in dedicated funding. The latest bill also requires such small and remote harbor projects be prioritized based on their environmental, social, and regional benefits with large projects, not just how they fit the Corps of Engineers’ national economic development program, Martinson said. Projects will be compared based on which is the “best buy,” he said, and a project’s local benefits will be viewed as equal to the national benefit if the legislation passes.  “What remains to be seen is how we’re going to work through the implementation to show how all the projects are prioritized nationwide to compete for funding,” Martinson said. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed the House last October by a vote of 417-3, and the Senate’s version passed 83-14. The bipartisan legislation passed the House May 20 and passage is expected in the Senate before heading to the president’s desk. Alaska’s congressional delegation has supported the bill. “I worked hard to secure millions of dollars that will now be coming home to Alaska for our ports and harbors. (This) bipartisan progress will translate into more jobs for Alaskan’s, the elimination of bureaucratic red tape, and investment that will be an economic boost for local communities,” Begich said in a May 13 release from his office. An amendment in the bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski would allow the Corps of Engineers to partner with non-federal public entities on a deep-draft Arctic port. Currently, the Corps of Engineers can only use its engineering and construction know-how for other federal agencies or departments. Results from a Corps of Engineers study recommending an Arctic port plan utilizing one or more locations on the Seward Peninsula near Nome is expected in the coming months. The language in the new bill would permit work with the State of Alaska or a local government to possibly expand on what, if any, port plan the Corps approves, Martinson said. The Corps would not be able to partner with a private group for Arctic port development. In the recently wrapped-up session, the Alaska Legislature increased the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s reach to cover Arctic infrastructure development. The state financing corporation in the past has often partnered with private business either as a financer or owner in projects, with the private sector as a builder and operator. “As this administration seems to ‘lead from behind’ when it comes to Arctic investment and vision, my amendment to allow for partnerships with non-federal public entities could be a game-changer in terms of getting an Arctic deep-draft port closer to becoming a reality in the state,” Murkowski said in a formal statement. She and Begich both lauded language in the bill lifting federal “navigational servitude” over uplands adjacent to the City of Seward small boat harbor, potentially opening them up for development. Additionally, what had been a directive from Corps of Engineers leadership to trim the cost and length of study-time would become law under WRRDA. With few exceptions for large projects, the bill mandates that infrastructure development studies be completed in three years and for less than $3 million, something Arctic port study program manager Lorraine Cordova has said her team worked to accomplish. While the bill approves roughly $10 billion in port, flood control, lock and dam and environmental across the country, it also defunds $18 billion worth of old or inactive work approved prior to the 2007 Water Resources and Development Act. Defunded projects either haven’t begun construction or have not been funded, federally or otherwise within the last six years. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Pebble sues EPA over attempt to veto mine

The Pebble Limited Partnership took the Environmental Protection Agency to court May 21 and claimed the agency is illegally overstepping its bounds by attempting to block a mine before the permitting process begins. In a statement released in conjunction with Pebble’s complaint filed in U.S. Alaska District Court, company CEO Tom Collier said the suit is not an intent to strip EPA of its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act, but rather an attempt to ensure guidelines set by Congress are followed. “Simply put, EPA has repeatedly ignored detailed comments that we, the State of Alaska, and others have made about this massive federal overreach and continues to advance an unprecedented pre-emptive regulatory action against the Pebble project that vastly exceeds its Clean Water Act authority,” Collier said. “If EPA ultimately vetoes Pebble before a development plan is proposed or evaluated through the comprehensive federal and state permitting processes, the precedent established will have significant, long-term effects on business investment in this state and throughout the country. Litigation is necessary in order to get the agency’s attention and bring some rational perspective back to the U.S. permitting process.” In February, the EPA said it would initiate a seldom-used Clean Water Act process to block large-scale surface mining in the Bristol Bay region to protect the region’s robust salmon fishery. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy referenced the 1,000-plus page Bristol Bay watershed assessment released a month before as reason to block Pebble, stating a large, open-pit mine in the region would cause “irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries.” If developed, an Iliamna-area Pebble copper and gold mine would likely be one of the largest of its kind in the world. All of the company’s mineral claims are on state land. While the EPA has vetoed wetlands permit applications 13 times since the inception of the Clean Water Act in 1972, it has never used the power to deny a permit before an application was submitted, as is the case currently with Pebble. The regional Army Corps of Engineers handles wetlands permit applications under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act for all projects, public or private, that could impact wetlands. Subsection 404(c) of the act gives the EPA the power to deny permits to projects that will use a defined area as a material disposal site and “have an unacceptable adverse effect” on fish, wildlife, or water supplies. Pebble’s complaint states that Congress limited the EPA’s authority in the permitting process to reviewing applications after they have been evaluated by the Corps of Engineers. Additionally, Pebble claims the mine’s impact on such areas cannot be judged because it has not released a formal mine plan or applied for wetlands permits. The EPA Inspector General’s office notified the agency May 2 that it would review the information gathering and science behind the watershed assessment at the request of Pebble, the State of Alaska, and members of Congress. Pebble has claimed intra-EPA communications prove the three-year assessment process was biased against mine development from the get-go. Region 10 EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader has said the agency followed all prescribed public involvement guidelines in forming the assessment and that the 404(c) process, which usually takes about a year, will continue during the Inspector General’s review. Early May 22, Trout Unlimited responded to Pebble’s litigation by demanding the group release a complete mine plan. The national coldwater fisheries nonprofit has been at the forefront of the fight against Bristol Bay mine development for years. “Clearly, this is a last ditch effort from a company which now has no major mining experience on its team and has lost at every step of the way. It’s ridiculous that PLP is using resources to file a lawsuit but continues to refuse to apply for official permits after promising to do so for nearly a decade,” TU Alaska Executive Director Tim Bristol said in a formal statement. “The fact is, (Pebble Limited Partnership) can apply for a permit today, but they refuse to do so because they will have to reveal to the public once again that they will build a colossal open pit mine, impact wetlands and waterways, destroy salmon habitat and threaten thousands of jobs and unique way of life.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Commerce Dept. focusing on addressing energy problems

Alaska Commerce Department Commissioner Susan Bell highlighted the wide-ranging work her department is involved in across the state in a May 19 speech to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. Bell said dealing with the ever-present energy issues the state faces are “central” to the mission of many of the 13 agencies in the broad Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. “When we’re thinking about our economic foundations something we all need to do is think about how we use the energy resources we’re blessed with and how we bring down the cost of energy across the state,” she said. Through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and its sister agency the Alaska Energy Authority, both under the Commerce umbrella, the department is involved in major projects to lower the cost of living in the state. Bell serves on the board of directors for both state groups, as well as the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board. AIDEA’s Interior Energy Project includes more than $260 million of work to develop an area-wide natural gas storage and distribution network in Fairbanks and North Pole. While gas will initially be supplied via trucks hauling it from the North Slope, Bell said the distribution system is a long-term investment. “Whether we have a large (gas) pipeline or a medium-sized pipeline it will be critical that we have a market in place and ready to use that gas when it comes.” Bell said. Getting natural gas to the Interior could cut heating bills in half for the region’s residents that currently rely on fuel oil, economic impact studies have indicated. Lowering energy costs is one of the single most important things the state can do to spur job creation, Bell said. As AIDEA works to lower heating costs, AEA is focused on meeting the Legislature’s goal of generating at least 50 percent of the state’s electricity through renewable sources by 2025. Bell said a little more than 20 percent of Alaska’s power comes from such sources — primarily hydro — now. She stressed that the impetus behind the work is to reduce cost. “We’re not just developing renewables for renewables’ sake,” she said. Alaska’s biggest renewable energy project, which will be one of the tallest dams in the country if it’s built and would get the state to the 50 percent goal, is the Susitna-Watana dam. In the state’s 2014 fiscal year about to end June 30, AEA had a $95 million budget for “very detailed” environmental, engineering and technical work to get the project to FERC licensing, Bell said. There is $20 million to continue Susitna-Watana study in the 2015 capital budget on Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk now. With AEA as a catalyst, the Legislature has appropriated $227.5 million since in 251 renewable energy projects large and small across Alaska through the Renewable Energy Fund since its inception in 2008, she said. The Legislature put $22.8 million towards the fund in the pending capital budget. Bell called the 50-plus mile long Red Dog mine road and port system in Northwest Alaska a “template” for future resource development. Owned by AIDEA, the transportation infrastructure to the zinc mine is considered by some one the authority’s greatest success story. “Our department has been working to increase the visibility of our resources as well as the tools that we have from permitting to financing entities like AIDEA that can partner with the private sector, with our banking community,” Bell said. AIDEA is in the midst of a several years-long environmental impact statement process to ultimately build another industrial road in the region, a 220-mile road from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler mining district. The authority is finalizing a route and working with local communities to answer key questions about the project, she said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

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