Elwood Brehmer

Small improvement seen for Copper River run

The Copper River sockeye run has improved after an abysmal start, but not enough for managers to allow for normal fishing periods in the famed early season fishery. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists appear to have correctly predicted a smaller than normal 2020 Copper River sockeye run, but it is shaping up to be even less than expected. Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz said June 2 it was unlikely the drift gillnet fishery would be opened for a regular 12-hour period June 4, as sockeye passage past the Copper River sonar at Miles Lake was only about half of what managers expected it would be. Through June 1 just 79,482 sockeye had been enumerated at the sonar in the lower river. Comparatively, more than 220,000 sockeye had moved past the sonar by the same time last year despite additional fishing time in the commercial fishery. The low sockeye escapement figures continue despite managers closing the regular, 12-hour Thursday fishing periods during the second and third weeks of the fishery. The Copper River District normally opens in mid-May with 12-hour fishing periods on Mondays and Thursdays. “We’re just going to be watching that sonar real close and hoping to get a few days of 20,000-plus (sockeye),” Botz said. Botz said the sockeye run appears to be late and small, while the Copper River chinook run — expected to be strong this year at roughly 60,000 fish — also appears to be smaller than forecasted, although getting an accurate early read on the chinook return is more difficult, Botz noted. Overall, department biologists forecasted a smaller Copper River sockeye run of 1.5 million fish this year compared to a 10-year average of 2.1 million wild fish. The Gulkana Hatchery supports a small portion of the annual Copper River sockeye run. The department’s official forecast estimated a commercial sockeye harvest of 771,000 fish versus a harvest of 1.2 million sockeye last year. The Copper River chinook return and harvest was initially expected to be strong with a total run of 60,000 fish and an all-fishery harvest of up to 36,000 fish possible. Fishing improved for the gillnet fleet during the May 25 and June 1 openers, with 33,777 and 31,522 sockeye taken during the respective periods. The larger catches followed drastically low catches in the first two openers of the season in which the combined harvest was just 6,071 sockeye, which led to the restrictions on fishing time. According to Botz, ground prices for the prized Copper River salmon have improved somewhat from initial low prices of $3.25 per pound for sockeye and $6.25 per pound for chinook, but only to the $4 per pound range for sockeye and nearly $7 per pound for chinook. Widespread restaurant closures in the Lower 48 have greatly reduced the traditional primary market for Copper River salmon. The run is still better than 2018 when low sockeye returns forced managers to greatly restrict fishing time to achieve sufficient escapement. Just more than 44,000 sockeye were harvested during the entire 2018 Copper River season and only 45,000 fish had passed the sonar by June 1 of that year, compared to the 79,000 fish this year. Chinook catches have also been low this year, with 5,751 fish caught during the first five openers, but with no other way to track the Copper River chinook return until the fish reach counting stations at upriver tributaries, Botz said the time restrictions put on the fishery because of the low sockeye counts could have allowed a significant number of fish into the river. It’s just too soon to know for sure. Cordova District Fishermen United Executive Director Chelsea Haisman said the fishery has been disappointing so far, but fishermen understand the need to restrict time and allow for adequate fish passage into the river. “We certainly wouldn’t want to see the run put in jeopardy in the long-term,” Haisman said. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Banks issuing deferrals as economic impacts arrive

Alaska’s banks generally had a solid start to 2020 but what’s in store for the rest of a tumultuous year is anyone’s guess. First National Bank Alaska, the state’s largest local bank, ended the first quarter of the year with assets totaling nearly $3.86 billion, up from approximately $3.81 billion to start the year. FNBA netted $14.1 million in the first quarter, which is in line with the bank’s performance in recent quarters, according to figures in reports published by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Anchorage-based Northrim Bank held more than $1.67 billion in total assets on March 31 — a 2.4 percent increase during the quarter — and generated $2.3 million in net income during the first quarter. In Fairbanks, Denali State Bank surpassed the $300 million mark in assets, finishing the first quarter with $306 million in total assets for an increase of 3.4 percent in the first quarter. Denali also netted $552,000 during the quarter. Denali State Bank CEO Steve Lundgren said in an interview that the community bank finished the first quarter “on budget” and has since seen its loan portfolio grow by nearly 20 percent, largely due to participating in the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which provides low-interest loans to small businesses seeking help for payroll and other fixed costs to weather the coronavirus-induced economic upheaval the country is facing. According to Lundgren, Denali has processed about 430 PPP loans totaling roughly $41 million. He said most of that cash went into the bank in the form of deposits. The vast majority of PPP loans are expected to convert to grants as long as borrowers use the financial aid on qualifying expenses and don’t reduce their workforce after receiving the funds. Despite the ostensible economic shutdown that caused Alaska’s unemployment rate to jump from 5.2 percent in March to 12.9 percent in April, according to the state Labor Department, Denali has not seen a corresponding spike in loan delinquencies or charge offs, according to Lundgren. “I tell my staff, I tell my board that’s because we process a significant amount of loan deferrals,” he said, adding that most of the deferrals are for three months. Lundgren said Denali customers have mostly been proactive and requested help if they saw personal financial trouble on the horizon. The true test to the effectiveness of the bank’s help — and that from government on all levels — will be in late summer when those payment deferrals expire. Denali leaders in May used an increase in revenue to fund their loan loss reserve for the entire year, according to Lundgren. The bank had a loan loss allowance of $3.3 million in the first quarter, according to the FDIC reports. “I’m cautiously optimistic that as the state continues to open up we won’t see many delinquencies,” he said. Northrim Chief Lending Officer Michael Huston said he couldn’t speak to what bank leaders are seeing internally in the second quarter until the final numbers are published, but added there is a general concern among financial analysts nationwide about banks’ ability to handle the stress that could be coming. “I think there’s a fair amount of concern about credit quality among banks,” Huston said. Wells Fargo Alaska Commercial Banking Market Executive Joe Everhart said in an interview that he was among the many close observers who had a very positive view of the Alaska economy as recently as late February. However, he now expects the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic to lag behind the rest of the country because Alaska’s economy is largely built on industries that have been hit hardest by the global shutdown — oil and tourism. Wells Fargo loan officials began reaching out to borrowers early and processed many 90-day loan deferrals, according to Everhart. He said they’re starting to work on the steps for the next 90 days if business conditions don’t quickly improve. Officials for the very large national bank are adapting their policies to where they’re working, Everhart said, noting the bank is even processing some 14-month payment deferrals for businesses, such as those in the tourism sector, that might not have meaningful revenue until a year from now. “To expect a customer to have income to make payments when they don’t have revenue is challenging,” he said. There are still reasons to be optimistic amid the challenges and uncertainty, according to Huston. “I think most of our customers are working with their customers. We’re all in this together,” he said. Everhart also noted that through various aid programs Alaska residents, businesses and local governments are cumulatively expected to receive roughly $3 billion in federal assistance — a lot of money for a small state. “I have to think that’s going to provide a great backstop in this (economic) storm,” he said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Biz community seeks expansion of grant program

Lawmakers are looking for ways to expand the number of small businesses that can qualify for $290 million in COVID-19 aid just as the state’s program set up to disperse the funding is getting up and running. Anchorage-based Credit Union 1 began taking applications from small businesses for pandemic relief grants June 1 through the AK CARES program that is being administered by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state’s development bank. At the same time, legislative leaders were in discussions with officials in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration on ways to reverse limitations on eligibility for the grant pool codified only a few weeks ago when the Legislature briefly reconvened in Juneau to appropriate pandemic aid funds on May 20. The $290 million available to small businesses through AK CARES is part of the roughly $1.5 billion of federal money allocated to the State of Alaska through the federal CARES Act approved in late March by Congress and President Donald Trump to help businesses and individuals impacted by the economic restrictions imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. When Dunleavy administration officials began writing the rules for the AK CARES program in late April they excluded small businesses that had already received some sort of federal pandemic aid from being eligible for the state program — seeded with federal money — in order to spread assistance to as many businesses as possible. But state officials and lawmakers have since heard from many small business owners that they need to be able to get help at both the state and federal levels to survive, and even that may not be enough for some. As it stands, Alaska-based and operated small businesses, sole proprietorships and many nonprofits that employ 50 or fewer full-time employees that have not received other federal COVID-19 aid can apply to Credit Union 1 for AK CARES grants between $5,000 and $100,000, according to a checklist provided by the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Credit Union 1 was chosen to lead the program through a competitive bidding process that will be reopened soon for other lenders interested in assisting with grant administration, according to AIDEA spokesman Karsten Rodvik. The grants can be used to cover payroll; utilities; rent or mortgage payments; personal protective equipment; re-opening expenses and short-term loan payments or credit debt incurred as a result of the pandemic, according to the Commerce Department. Marijuana businesses, those that are a secondary source of income for the owner and businesses that have previously filed for bankruptcy are not eligible for AK CARES grants. Alaska Senate President Cathy Giessel said in an emailed statement that the Senate is “deeply concerned” about the availability of grants to small businesses and is working with administration officials to expand eligibility for AK CARES. “We must ensure Alaska small businesses receive this money as soon as possible,” Giessel said. House Majority coalition spokesman Austin Baird similarly wrote in an emailed response to questions that House leadership wanted to expand the pool of businesses eligible for AK CARES assistance when the total $1.5 billion was appropriated in late May, but the Legislature ultimately decided to approve it with the administration’s sideboards rather than delay the release of the funds. Giessel believes the rules can be amended administratively or through the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee and will not require the Legislature to reconvene. The Budget and Audit Committee generally handles fiscal matters when the Legislature is not in session. House leaders are less confident that a legal fix to the issue can be made as easily, but lawmakers are consulting with the Legislature’s attorneys on a possible remedy, according to Baird. Dunleavy spokeswoman Lauren Giliam wrote in an email that the governor wants to see eligibility for the AK CARES program expanded and it was limited because the rules were drafted when the PPP loan fund was depleted. “There were many Alaskan businesses that had not been able to access federal funding, so the program was structured to ensure access to some type of relief for as many businesses as possible,” Giliam wrote. She also noted that while the rules currently restrict access to AK CARES funds, local governments can still use their federal CARES Act funds to provide similar small business aid. It’s unclear exactly when the issues might be resolved but Anchorage Economic Development Corp. CEO Bill Popp said many small business owners need all the help they can get as soon as they can get it. “We have thousands of businesses that are in a cash crunch right now,” Popp said. He emphasized that grants are necessary because even low-interest loans put businesses at a significant disadvantage at a time when cash flows are uncertain to nonexistent. And while Dunleavy has lifted most of the state’s health mandates and allowed all businesses to reopen, the customers are not always returning. “Consumers are not flocking to businesses like they have before,” Popp said. He cited an April survey by AEDC of more than 250 business owners that found 38 percent of those surveyed feel it is likely or possible that they will go out of business soon. “Even with all this assistance a lot of businesses are going to go away,” Popp said. Anchorage Chamber of Commerce President Bruce Bustamante largely echoed Popp’s sentiments, adding that he’s hearing from business owners concerned that the assistance isn’t being made available quickly enough for some to survive. “If you’re a business in trouble you need cash immediately,” Bustamante said. Through May 30, the federal Small Business Administration had processed 10,135 Paycheck Protection Program loans in Alaska totaling just more than $1.2 billion, which was just 95 more loans than had been handled a week prior, according to SBA figures, indicating demand for the program is dwindling. The vast majority of PPP loans are expected to convert at least partially to grants as long as businesses apply the funding to qualifying expenses, such as payroll, utilities and rent; 75 percent of the loan amount must be spent on payroll in order to be converted to a grant. Alaska had nearly 72,000 small businesses in 2018 that accounted for 99.1 percent of all Alaska-based companies according to the SBA. Michael Huston, chief lending officer for Northrim Bank said the Anchorage-based lender, which has processed more than 2,400 PPP loans, has had to decline a “pretty small number” of PPP applications, mostly for businesses that either didn’t qualify for the program or had incomplete or dual applications through other lenders. Without firm numbers, Huston estimated Northrim has denied less than 5 percent of PPP loan applications. Credit Union 1 received 470 AK CARES applications in the first day of the program, according to spokeswoman Jessica Gallagher. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

King Cove land swap rejected once again

President Donald Trump’s Interior Department is now 0-2 attempting to get a land swap to facilitate a road out of the village of King Cove through the courts. U.S. District Court of Alaska Judge John W. Sedwick threw out a July 2019 land exchange agreement between Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and King Cove Corp. leaders on June 1, marking the second time in just 14 months that the courts have rejected such a deal that is a precursor to building a long-sought but contentious emergency access road through what is now wilderness-designated territory in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula. Sedwick ruled that Bernhardt rushed the process to complete the land deal with the Alaska Native village corporation and in doing so violated both the federal Administrative Procedures Act and the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, that largely guides federal land-use policy in the state. The ruling is similar to one issued in late March 2019 by Federal District Court of Alaska Judge Sharon L. Gleason for a nearly identical agreement approved by Bernhardt’s predecessor, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in 2018. Both judges ruled that the Republican Interior leaders did not adequately justify their rationale for reversing the department’s policy from a 2013 decision by Obama-era Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to deny a land exchange for the road in the interest of preserving the wilderness area of the Izembek Refuge. In both instances Trump’s Interior secretaries were sued by a coalition of conservation groups led by the Anchorage-based nonprofit environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska. Trustees attorney Bridget Psarianos in a prepared statement called land swap deals “failed attempts to dodge the laws mandating protections of our national wildlife refuges.” “We are thrilled the court rejected this corrupt and illegal land exchange, finding that it is contrary to the purposes of Izembek and ANILCA, and that such an exchange could not be done without congressional approval,” Psarianos said. “We hope this is the last time we need to ask a court to reject such an exchange.” An Interior Department spokesman wrote in an emailed statement that, “The Secretary firmly believes that the welfare and well-being of the Alaska Native people who call King Cove home is paramount, and the Department stands behind its decision.” A spokeswoman for King Cove Corp. was not immediately available for comment. King Cove leaders and Alaska lawmakers have long petitioned federal officials to approve the 11-mile gravel road extension through the Izembek wilderness; they see it as an essential link for emergency services when bad weather prevents flights out of King Cove or boat travel across Cold Bay. Opponents to the road argue allowing a road of any kind through what is now congressionally-designated wilderness would set a terrible precedent for future development of public lands and King Cove leaders and administration officials have arbitrarily rejected all other transportation options. In late 2013, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a land swap deal passed by Congress in 2009 after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service environmental review determined the road would irreparably damage critical waterfowl habitat in the 315,000-acre Izembek Refuge. In summer, the refuge is home to 98 percent of the world’s population of Pacific black brant, a goose that breeds there, according to the Interior Department, as well as other sensitive wildlife and waterfowl. With a paved runway longer than 10,000 feet, Cold Bay’s airport has one of the longest civilian runways in the state and is the area’s main link to Anchorage 600 miles away. The old military post was built during World War II. King Cove’s airport has a 3,500-foot gravel runway for the community with roughly 950 year-round residents. Over the years 18 people have died in plane crashes or waiting to get medevac service out of King Cove, according to the Interior Department. However, no one has died trying to leave since 1994. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was enfuriated by Jewell's decision in 2013 and has largely led the effort in Washington to get the road built, called the ruling "another bitter disappointment" for the people of King Cove in a statement to the Journal. "I continue to believe the Department of the Interior has full authority under existing law to complete this land exchange, that the federal goverment has an obligation to protect local residents' health and safety, and that a gravel, one-lane, life-saving road is the best way to meaningfully accomplish that," Murkowski said. "I refuse to give up on helping the people of King Cove." The initial agreement signed by Zinke contained no rationale for the policy change — which led to the court’s conclusion that it violated the Administrative Procedures Act — but Bernhardt attempted to remedy the situation by attaching a 20-page memorandum outlining the reasons for the policy reversal to the agreement. According to Bernhardt’s agreement, the land swap would be an equal-value trade not subject to acreage limitations. However, King Cove Corp. would agree to relinquish its rights to 5,430 acres of land it had selected within Izembek under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act but has yet to be conveyed. The Native village corporation would still have rights to other yet-to-be-conveyed selections outside of the refuge. Sedwick ruled that despite the memo, in which Bernhardt argued other options are unreliable and human safety should be prioritized over wildlife habitat, the secretary failed to support the policy change with new information and did not offer to restrict use of the road. Prior agreements stated the road would be open only to emergency-use by residents to counter opponents’ claims that it would benefit fish processors in the region wanting to ship their products out of the Cold Bay airport. “The Secretary offers no new information or data to justify his contrary finding that the value of the added acreage to the refuge system (from King Cove Corp. lands) counters the negative effects of a road through Izembek,” Sedwick wrote of the APA arguments. Attorneys for King Cove Corp. also argued in supporting briefs that the land exchange is a new policy instead of a change in old policy because it does not specifically authorize construction of the road. However, Sedwick concluded that the argument does not hold water because Interior officials have explicitly stated that the reason for the agreement is to build the road. Regarding ANILCA, he also concluded that Bernhardt did not provide enough justification for reversing Jewell’s 2013 decision. Interior attorneys stressed in written arguments that the latest land swap would advance the economic and social interests of King Cove residents who regularly engage in subsistence activities in the refuge, but Bernhardt’s memo does not address the issue, according to Sedwick. “The 2013 (record of decision) indicated that the effects on subsistence use stemming from a land exchange would be neutral,” the judge wrote. “The Secretary does not point to evidence that counters this finding, nor does he provide analysis to explain why a road’s benefits would outweigh its detriments in terms of effect on subsistence users and uses.” ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Lawsuit against MARAD may proceed

A federal judge denied the U.S. Maritime Administration’s motion for judgment in Anchorage’s lawsuit against the agency over more than $300 million in failed construction at the city’s port done more than a decade ago. U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Edward J. Damich rejected the Maritime Administration’s arguments that memorandums of understanding signed in 2003 and 2011 outlining the city’s and agency’s roles in the Port of Anchorage Intermodal Expansion Project were cooperative, and therefore not binding agreements. Agency attorneys argued that the MOUs were more ceremonial in nature and did not make the government responsible for the project. The Anchorage port was renamed the Port of Alaska by city officials in 2017. Damich concluded that the MOUs are “binding and valid contracts” that have not been voided largely because the Maritime Administration, commonly known as MARAD, spent at least $14 million in Municipality of Anchorage and State of Alaska money on non-construction project costs such as legal fees, audits, salaries and contract claims out of a total of $163 million transferred to the agency for the project. MARAD was tasked with participating in the city port construction project — a first for the agency — partly as a means to more easily direct federal funding to it following discussions between the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation and former governor and Port Director Bill Sheffield, according to court documents. The port expansion work also benefited Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, which is adjacent to the port. Damich wrote that the costs MARAD paid with city and state money “clearly fall within the guise of administrative expenses” and well exceed the 3 percent administrative fee the agency was to receive under the 2003 MOU. Attorneys for Anchorage argued the administrative costs supported their assertion that the municipality “hired” MARAD to oversee the project and therefore is liable for the work that went wrong. According to accounting records submitted by government attorneys, MARAD used approximately $9 million of state and port money fund a settlement with Integrated Concepts and Research Corp., the prime contractor on the project, in October 2012 as part of an $11.3 million settlement and another $1.6 million of nonfederal project funding in a $4.1 million January 2017 settlement. Municipal attorneys allege those settlements were deliberately made without the city’s knowledge, which MARAD’s lawyers don’t dispute. The city is seeking more than $320 million from MARAD to recoup the $163 million of local money spent on the project as well as the money port officials estimate it will cost to fix what is left from the failed work that ended in 2010. ICRC was owned by Koniag Inc., the Alaska Native Regional corporation for Kodiak, when the project started but was sold to a Virginia company in 2007. The municipality first sued a suite of contractors, including ICRC, involved in the dock design for the expansion project in March 2013. That lawsuit netted $19.3 million for Anchorage through seven individual settlements made in early 2017. The dock designer maintains faulty construction methods caused sheet pile facings supporting the new docks to fail nearly immediately after installation at the port. Damich’s ruling followed a two-day “mini trial” held Feb. 18-19 in a San Francisco courtroom in which attorneys for both sides called witnesses to make their arguments in the complex and drawn out case. It sets the stage for a full trial, which municipal attorneys have said could be held this year. The current members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have said resolving the lawsuit is important if the city hopes to capture very large sums of federal money for the scaled back port modernization program that is currently underway. MARAD awarded the port a $20 million in grant Feb. 11 to help fund the new petroleum and cement terminal under construction at the port, which is expected to cost more than $200 million. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Change of course for Pebble reignites access issues

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has changed the course of the Pebble project but what it means for the fate of the highly contentious development remains to be seen as area landowners vow to prohibit access. David Hobbie, Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District regulatory chief, confirmed during a May 22 conference call with reporters that the lead permitting agency had changed the project’s transportation corridor from a southerly route across Iliamna Lake to one along the lake’s northern shore that also ends at a new site for a west Cook Inlet port. The total re-route is part of the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative, or LEDPA, identified by Army Corps Alaska officials, and combines aspects of other development alternatives evaluated in the draft environmental impact statement released in February 2019, according to Hobbie. Other details of the LEDPA will be discussed in the Corps’ record of decision that will follow the final EIS, which is currently scheduled to be published later this summer. Numerous groups opposing the project allege the north road route is a late-stage move to appeal to the Pebble Partnership’s ultimate desire to build a much larger 78-year mine instead of the 20-year mine plan the company is advancing because the Iliamna Lake ferry that is part of the south alternative could not support the larger operation. That’s in part because an April 24 memo from representatives of AECOM — the global engineering firm hired to write the EIS — indicates Pebble changed its preferred alternative from the southern ferry route to the northern road-only transportation corridor from the mine site to the port. However, Hobbie said Pebble changed its plans to conform to what the Corps had already determined: that the north road-only corridor was ultimately the best option for the environment. The Corps’ decision was based on widespread public concerns that the year-round ferry across the massive lake could disrupt winter travel across lake ice for residents of lake villages and impact Iliamna’s unique population of freshwater seals, among other issues, according to Hobbie. “We did exactly what the public asked us to,” he said of the Corps amending the plan for the project. Pebble leaders routinely stress that the company has applied for permits for its 20-year mine plan and any subsequent plans expand the project would require a whole new round of permitting while Pebble’s parent company, Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., has advertised the project as a multi-generational opportunity and cites the metal resources in the total Pebble deposit — not just those that would be extracted via the 20-year mine — in its investor pitches. Pebble CEO Tom Collier noted in a prepared statement that the north route was Pebble’s preferred option for most of the project’s history and said the company initially selected the ferry route because it was thought regulators would prefer the smaller wetlands footprint it offers. “The choice between the two transportation alternatives for Pebble has always been a close call,” Collier said. “Now that the (Army Corps of Engineers), working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other cooperating agencies, has indicated that the northern corridor is the preferred approach we look forward to seeing the final EIS for the project.” He added that the company also supports using a pipeline instead of trucks to haul concentrate from the mine site to tidewater. According to Northern Dynasty, the pipeline would cut truck traffic on the mine access road by roughly half. However, the Corps’ change of plans does not account for one potentially significant complicating factor for Pebble; the landowners along the north route, at least for now, want nothing to do with the project. Alaska Native village corporation Pedro Bay Corp. owns much of the land along Iliamna’s northeastern corner and Iliaska Environmental LLC is a majority owner of a rock quarry at Diamond Point, the new location for the Cook Inlet port needed to supply materials to the mine and export its metals. Iliaska Environmental is owned by the Igiugig Village Council and along with Pedro Bay Corp. and Bristol Bay Native Corp., which controls subsurface rights to the village corporation lands, strongly opposes the project. The Igiugig Village Council issued a statement May 25 contending the Diamond Point quarry is a “critical component” of the north route that Pebble will not have access to. “(Pebble’s) plan for Diamond point presented in the EIS does not fit with our plans for Diamond Point, and should not be considered an acceptable alternative,” the statement reads. In contrast, the south ferry route allowed Pebble to utilize lands owned by Alaska Peninsula Corp., which the junior mining company has an access agreement with, for the roads and ferry terminals on the north and south sides of the lake to access a port at Amakdedori on Cook Inlet. Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole wrote via email that the company intends to work with each of the landowners along the north route and believes “we will be able to gain the right-of-way needed to build the transportation corridor.” Pedro Bay Corp. CEO Matt McDaniel wrote to Corps of Engineers Pebble project manager Shane McCoy last July to reiterate that the company “has not, and will not, consent to the Pebble Limited Partnership’s use of its lands for the Pebble project.” As such, the north route should not be considered practicable in the final EIS, McDaniel wrote. McDaniel’s letter quickly spurred a memo from the Corps to Pebble requesting an analysis of feasible northern corridor options around Pedro Bay Corp. lands, but a consultant to Pebble determined there isn’t one. While Pedro Bay Corp. owns most of the land along the northeast portion of Iliamna Lake; there is a mountainous strip of state lands to the north that is bordered by Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The brief alternative route report concluded that a route around Pedro Bay lands would require up to 15 miles of tunneling or “extreme mountain road construction” and would be much longer than the proposed route across Pedro Bay lands. “Given the adverse nature of the terrain that exists north of PBC land, and the constraints imposed by design criteria for a road to serve the proposed Pebble mine; it has been determined that construction and operation of a road that would pass north (of) PBC lands is not practical or reasonable,” the July 2019 consultant report states. Several other Cook Inlet-area Native corporations including CIRI also own parcels around Diamond Point. BBNC leaders have also criticized Corps officials for advancing the north route as viable despite the landowners’ consistent opposition to the project. BBNC Lands and Natural Resources Vice President Dan Cheyette wrote in a May 21 letter to Corps of Engineers Alaska officials that the LEDPA must be the least environmentally damaging development alternative but must also be practicable, and a route across lands owned by entities that don’t support Pebble is not. “In defining the LEDPA for the Pebble project, BBNC demands that the Corps remove from consideration all alternatives that would require use of its subsurface or surface estate, as our lands are unavailable to (Pebble),” Cheyette wrote. “This includes the eastern terminus of the northern transportation corridor at Diamond Point,” which is also partly owned by a BBNC subsidiary. Cheyette and other opponents to Pebble argue that Corps officials should draft another EIS that would focus the public’s attention on the updated plan for the project. The Corps’ Hobbie said there are no plans for a new or supplemental Pebble EIS because the LEDPA doesn’t contain anything that wasn’t in the first draft. “There’s nothing in the current LEDPA that has not been evaluated in the EIS,” Hobbie said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska businesses receive $1.2B in PPP loan with funds still available

There is still nearly $150 billion left in the federal government’s primary program to help small businesses through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Small Business Administration handled 4.4 million loan approvals totaling $511 billion nationwide through May 23 from the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program, according to a summary report provided by the agency. Intense demand caused the initial $350 billion approved by Congress to jumpstart the program in the CARES Act to be exhausted in mid-April after being available for just two weeks as small businesses across the country applied for the financial relief. Congress subsequently approved another $310 billion in PPP loan funds April 24. Michael Huston, chief lending officer for Northrim Bank said the Anchorage-based lender has processed more than 2,400 PPP loan applications and continues to but demand has waned. “There is money available. Those applications have slowed significantly since the first few weeks of the program but we do stand ready to help businesses that need the assistance,” Huston said in an interview. Across Alaska, the SBA tallied 10,040 PPP loan approvals totaling just more than $1.2 billion before Memorial Day weekend, according to the report. The program is meant to provide small employers — primarily those with less than 500 workers, with some exceptions — payroll funding for up to eight weeks following the receipt of the loan. Sen. Dan Sullivan has stressed the desire in Congress to maintain the employer-employee relationship as much as possible through the worst of the pandemic-induced economic restrictions in multiple interviews and briefings following the passage of the CARES ACT and the PPP loans are meant to be a vehicle for that. Huston said there are very few “fine print” restrictions as to what small businesses — and 501(c)3 nonprofits and Tribal organizations as well — qualify for a loan. “For the most part it’s one-size-fits-all as long as you are an eligible business,” he said. Seasonal employers, who make up a major portion of Alaska’s economy, can now choose to use any 12-week period between May 1 and Sept. 15, 2019, to calculate their PPP loan amount instead of the prior limitation of Feb. 15 to June 30, according to updated SBA rules. The change is especially important for businesses that have peak activity in the summer, such as many tourism businesses in the state, as many do not have a full complement of staff early in the year but will still be hit hard by virus-related travel restrictions and consumer fears throughout the year. There are a few more hurdles to get the loan forgiven, such as using at least 75 percent of the money for payroll or other fixed costs, but generally businesses that were eligible for a loan should be eligible to have some portion of it forgiven, as Congress intended, Huston said. “Whether they’ll be able to get all of the amount forgiven is directly tied to how they used the funds,” he added. Employers can also have their total of forgiven funds reduced if they have fewer employees on June 30 than during their reference period used to tally the loan amount, but SBA rules indicate exceptions for laid off employees who did not accept rehire and other circumstances. Huston described the SBA’s 11-page PPP loan forgiveness application as being “a little bit like completing your 1040 tax return. They walk you through it and sure there’s going to be some questions that aren’t answered, but as the SBA and as the financial institutions are running into them on a consistent basis they’ll be able to get some answers to those FAQs that will help everybody else as they continue the process,” he said. He also noted ongoing discussions in Congress regarding extending the loan forgiveness period beyond eight weeks along with changes to the repayment terms and 75 percent payroll expense threshold. Currently, payments on unforgiven PPP loan amounts are deferred for six months and the loans have a maturity of two years with a 1 percent interest rate, according to the SBA. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska LNG Project gets major federal approval

Alaska has cleared the biggest regulatory hurdle to developing a long-sought North Slope natural gas pipeline project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday issued a record of decision authorizing construction of the state’s plan for the many-billion-dollar Alaska LNG Project, concluding a three-year-plus environmental impact statement process. AGDC President Frank Richards called it a “momentous day for the project” and thanked FERC for largely sticking to its timeline for the EIS during a Thursday morning meeting of the AGDC board. AGDC submitted its application for the massive project to FERC in April 2017. “As anybody in the infrastructure development process knows, to go through the (National Environmental Policy Act) process in three years is an exceptionally fast time,” Richards said. Since the current iteration of the project began in 2013, the three major Slope producers and the state have spent more than $600 million to reach this point, with the state share about $240 million of that total. At its core, the project consists of a large North Slope gas treatment plant; an 807-mile buried natural gas pipeline from the Slope to the Kenai Peninsula; offtake points for state use, and a three-train liquefaction plant at Nikiski capable of producing up to 20 million metric tons of LNG per year for export to Asian markets. If developed, the project would generate upwards of 18,000 jobs during construction and roughly 1,000 new jobs during its 30-year operational life, according to AGDC and state Labor Department estimates. It would also provide natural gas to the Fairbanks area and other communities along the pipeline route that currently rely on fuel oil for heating and in some cases power generation. Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation commended AGDC for securing the construction permit in formal statements. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called it a “capstone moment” for the project and said the FERC certificate and order are extremely valuable assets for the state. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who was Department of Natural Resources commissioner when the state, BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil began early-stage work on the project, said getting North Slope gas to world markets through the LNG export plan would benefit not only Alaska but also the entire country. “Producing more energy responsibly strengthens our economy, is good for the environment, and dramatically increases our country’s national security. I thank FERC for their diligence in completing this work, and thank all of the Alaskans who, throughout the years, have worked to move this project forward,” Sullivan said. The Alaska LNG Project is the latest attempt to commercialize the large volumes of North Slope natural gas. State and energy company officials have tried since the late 1970s to put together a plan to produce and sell the gas that is considered “stranded” based on the location lacking infrastructure to access global or even local markets. However, frequently changing market and political conditions and the tremendous expense of developing a North Slope gas project — the cost of the pipeline — have scuttled prior efforts. To that end, it’s also unclear at this point if the Alaska LNG Project is economically viable, especially at current low prices amid a global oversupply. While Alaska Gasline Development Corp. officials still have several other state and federal authorizations to secure, the favorable record of decision, or ROD, means confirming Alaska LNG’s economic viability is the next major task for the state-owned corporation. Dunleavy said an ongoing economic review of the project will go a long way toward determining where it goes from here. The governor has been sharply critical of the state leading the project through AGDC — a structure championed by former Gov. Bill Walker — but has followed the recommendation of the large North Slope producers and others who urged the administration to finish the permitting that was already well underway when Dunleavy took office in late 2018. Many observers and insiders view securing the FERC construction license as a way to de-risk the project for potential investors and developers. In April AGDC board approved a strategic plan calling for the state to find a new project sponsor by 2021 or put the project assets, such as its permits and engineering work, up for bid. According to Richards, Flour, an international engineering and construction firm, has completed an updated class 4 cost estimate for the project, which AGDC — with help from BP and ExxonMobil — is running through economic models. In 2016 AGDC pegged the project at about $43 billion including significant contingencies. Many industry experts believe the $43 billion estimate to be high given the rapid expansion and technological evolution of the LNG industry. A better picture of the project’s economic viability should be available in June, Richards said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Donlin owners hope to resume drilling soon

Update: Donlin Gold workers will begin returning to the project site May 22, accoridng to spokeswoman Kristina Woolston. Donlin with have "an aggressive and measured approach" to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that will include testing for the virus. About 120 people were working there before the camp was shut down in early April. The owners of the Donlin gold project hope to soon resume drilling work paused in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the remote mine site and are starting to prepare an updated assessment of the project’s viability. NOVAGold Resources Inc. CEO Gregory Lang said Donlin Gold started its 2020 drilling campaign in February and worked through March before closing down the camp in early April to comply with state health recommendations and travel restrictions. Crews used three drilling rigs to complete six boreholes prior to April, according to Lang. NOVAGold is a 50 percent owner of Donlin Gold in Western Alaska along with mining industry giant Barrick Gold Corp. He said he believes Donlin’s ambitious drilling program — with 80 holes totaling approximately 22,000 meters — can still be completed this year but when it will resume is unclear. Company leaders are currently evaluating when workers can pick up where they left off, Lang said during NOVAGold’s annual shareholder meeting call on May 14 . “They will not return to site until it is safe to do so,” he stressed. Lang noted that Donlin donated its food supplies to food banks and shelters in area villages when the camp was closed. Donlin Gold secured several state permits and land-use approvals for an access road, fiber optic cable and other facilities in January. The company is also continuing a multi-year program started last year for the project’s key dam safety permit from the Department of Natural Resources, which is one of the last major approvals on Donlin’s list. The drilling work, along with engineering and geologic refinements in the project will be added to an updated feasibility study, according to Lang. “A lot of inputs have gone down since the last study, not very many have gone up,” NOVAGold chairman Tom Kaplan said. Kaplan said he does not believe the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed gold to more than $1,700 per ounce in recent days, noting it was at roughly $1,600 before the global crisis began. “It’s accelerating trends which were already in place,” he said. The price of gold is likely to double or triple from where it is currently, Kaplan contends. He said there is no defined price that will trigger development of Donlin. “When Barrick’s ready to move forward, we’ll be ready to move forward,” Kaplan said. Donlin Gold last performed a comprehensive analysis of its massive project in 2011 when it was concluded the complex undertaking would cost $6.7 billion to complete. As proposed, the open-pit mine in the upper Kuskokwim River drainage would be one of the world’s largest, producing more than 33 million ounces of gold over an initial 27-year life. A 315-mile natural gas pipeline from the west side of Cook Inlet would fuel a power plant at the mine and fuel storage tanks would be built at Dutch Harbor, in addition to the very large-scale operation at the mine site. Lang said with 39 million ounces of measured and indicated resources Donlin is roughly five times larger than the average large-scale development-stage gold mines worldwide. The deposit’s average grade of 2.25 grams per ton is also more than double the industry average, which continues to decline, he added. Additionally, the 39 million-ounce resource is contained to roughly three kilometers of an eight-kilometer mineralized trend, NOVAGold leaders highlighted. “It’s clear how hard it is to find a resource comparable to what we have at Donlin,” Lang said. The deposit is on a parcel owned by The Kuskowkim Corp., a Native village corporation and the mineral rights are held by the regional Native corporation Calista Corp, both of which have been strong supporters of the project, although some local village organizations and Tribal governments have become more vocal in their opposition to the mine in recent years. Opponents contend a mine the size of Donlin adjacent to the Kuskokwim poses an unacceptable risk to the river’s fishery, particularly the salmon runs that are widely depended upon for subsistence harvests. A group of 13 village and Tribal leaders from the area sent a letter to NOVAGold and Barrick executives May 13 noting the Association of Village Council Presidents formally opposed the project last year and they did not reach the decision lightly. “We are of course open to responsible resource development in our region when applicants can demonstrate through science that our waters and lands will not be threatened, the Donlin project has failed to meet this bar and thus it is our responsibility to future generations to say no to this risky project,” the letter states. Donlin and NOVAGold leaders often tout the support they have from The Kuskokwim Corp. and Calista for developing the project. The mining companies have partnered with the Native corporations on workforce development and scholarship programs among other things. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

New analysis of Livengood underway with improving markets

The Livengood gold project has renewed life amid rock-bottom oil prices and vastly improved expectations for gold. Marcelo Kim, chairman of Vancouver-based International Tower Hill Mines Ltd., which owns the Interior Alaska prospect, stressed that company leaders and many outside analysts believe the economic stimulus efforts being employed by governments worldwide to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will bring about a resurgence in gold markets. The Federal Reserve’s recent moves to cut interest rates in combination with widespread credit backstops and the loosening of banking requirements all add up to a very favorable outlook for gold producers and sellers, according to Kim. Kim said in a May 12 conference call that expectations for rising inflation following the federal stimulus package of the Great Recession in 2009 largely didn’t materialize because banks didn’t expand their credit offerings following the financial crisis. This time, however, much of the $2.2 trillion Congress approved under the CARES Act is intended to be quickly spent on businesses and individuals instead of keeping banks afloat. “We believe that these are signs that we are in the early innings of a new market for gold,” Kim said. He cited a late April report from Bank of America analysts that forecasts gold prices will rise to upwards of $3,000 per ounce over the next 18 months. Gold is currently trading for about $1,700 per ounce following a steady climb in price that started last year and hasn’t stopped. Gold prices peaked in late 2011 at nearly $1,900 per ounce but spent much of the intervening years fluctuating between $1,100 and $1,300 per ounce before starting to climb again last year. International Tower Hill Mines is sanctioning an updated pre-feasibility study that will build off of a similar study published in late 2016 and incorporate the metallurgical and optimized engineering work done since then, according to Kim. The junior mining firm, which holds 100 percent of Livengood, downsized its operational plans by nearly half following the 2016 study. That work concluded that a mine capable of milling 52,000 tons of ore per day over a 23-year life would cost approximately $1.8 billion to develop and have significantly reduced operating costs versus the company’s original plan from 2013 for a $2.8 billion, 14-year mine processing about 100,000 tons per day. The current mine plan calls for producing 6.8 million ounces over the 23-year mine life with an all-in cost of $1,247 per ounce. The Livengood prospect holds nearly 9 million ounces of proven and probable gold reserves at a market price of $1,250 per ounce and approximately 11.5 million ounces of measured and indicated resources, according to International Tower Hill. Kim said he expects much of the gold resources to become reserves as prices rise. As proposed, Livengood would be a conventional, open-pit mine near the Dalton Highway about 70 miles north of Fairbanks. International Tower Hill expects the mine will generate about 1,000 jobs during construction and 350 long-term jobs during operation if it is developed as currently planned. CEO Karl Hanneman said drilling has shown significant resource potential immediately beneath the pit deposit as well as elsewhere on the property. Historical placer deposits to the northeast of the pit resource reflect the need for additional drilling as well, Hanneman said. “Over the last several years, we have quietly remained laser-focused on improving our geological and metallurgical understanding of the Livengood gold deposit,” he said. That work will be incorporated into the new pre-feasibility study and a timeline for that work should be available in the coming weeks, according to Hanneman. ITH director Stephen Lang said during the call that Livengood is a deposit requiring an average of 140 tons of ore to recover an ounce of gold, which is a good “strip ratio” for a mine of its size. “The mine and the mill are both large enough to give a considerable economy of scale but not in the very, very large range, which adds quite a bit of complexity in the operations and scheduling,” Lang said. The relatively low mining requirement helps relieve cost pressures on the project and is “particularly helpful in offsetting any long-term oil price increases,” Lang added. While being on the road system limits some of the development and logistics costs incurred by more remote mines in Alaska, Livengood and other mines in the state are susceptible to changes in oil prices because diesel is used to power mine operations. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Copper River closes for a week after poor sockeye showing

It’s been a very rough start to what was already a harried season for Copper River salmon fishermen. Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers announced the Copper River District will be closed for commercial fishing during the regular 12-hour period scheduled for May 21 due to very low initial sockeye catches indicating a lack of fish. Early indications for the May 18 opener show fishermen harvested 1,698 chinook, which Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz described as “low,” but just 4,550 sockeye, which Botz called “dramatically low.” Subsistence gillnetting will remain open during the commercial closure, but waters inside the expanded Chinook closure area will be closed to all harvest. Botz said that while it has been a late and cold spring and weather deterred some fishing May 18, department officials expected a harvest of more than 28,000 sockeye based for that day based on the overall forecasted run. The total harvest from the first two 12-hour openers was 3,250 chinook, 6,023 sockeye and a handful of chum. Botz said May 19 that the sonar at Miles Lake used to enumerate Copper River sockeye had just been installed and was up and running. Managers expect fishing to resume May 25 with the time and area being announced May 22, according to the closure announcement. ADFG biologists initially forecasted a smaller Copper River sockeye run of 1.5 million fish this year compared to a 10-year average of 2.1 million wild fish. The Gulkana Hatchery supports a small portion of the annual Copper River sockeye run. The department’s official forecast estimated a commercial sockeye harvest of 771,000 fish versus a harvest of 1.2 million sockeye last year. The Copper River chinook return and harvest was initially expected to be strong with a total run of 60,000 fish and an all-fishery harvest of up to 36,000 fish possible. The early harvest figures this year are reminiscent of 2018 when the sockeye harvest averaged just 8,660 fish over the first three periods. Subsequent fishing closures limited the commercial catch to 44,400 fish in 2018; however they allowed the run to surpass minimum escapement goals with 701,577 sockeye counted at Miles Lake that year. Adding to the challenge for fishermen are lower prices for the salmon they do catch, a direct result of the restaurant closures largely in the Seattle area imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Botz said ground prices for the first period May 14 was $3.25 per pound for sockeye and $6.25 per pound for chinook. In recent years the price for famed Copper River chinook has been significantly higher; Botz noted it was around $10 per pound last year and the ex-vessel price averaged nearly $13 per pound in 2018. Botz said there is speculation that an improving retail market could boost prices for subsequent periods. Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle was advertising Copper River king salmon for $74.99 per pound at the time of this writing. Copper River sockeye was selling for $49.99 per pound at the renowned market. On May 20, 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage had no kings for sale but was selling sockeye for $30.95 per pound. Botz and Cordova District Fishermen United Executive Director Chelsea Haisman both said participation in the fishery was down slightly from previous years but not much. Botz estimated it was 85 percent of normal and Haisman surmised about 70 fewer boats than last year participated in the first openers based on delivery totals. There were 372 deliveries made May 14 and 412 made May 18. Haisman said logistics complications delayed some fishermen from fishing and others have been slow to participate because of the cool spring. She said there is still some ice flowing downriver from Miles Lake. “Our hope is that it’s just early and time will tell,” she said. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

New deal for idled North Slope oil project in the works

A cash-starved North Slope oil project could again have new owners with hopes of resuming production later this year. Majid Jourabchi, CEO of Houston-based Thyssen Petroleum, said May 20 that he is part of a team attempting to buy majority ownership in the long-delayed Mustang oil project from investors in Caracol Petroleum, the primary owner. Alpha Energy, through its subsidiary Caracol, has failed to make good on payment commitments to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority for months. Singapore-based Alpha most recently missed an April 15 deadline to put a $60 million investment into Mustang, according to AIDEA spokesman Karsten Rodvik. The cash infusion into the project was part of a loan agreement the AIDEA board approved changes to in January after Caracol missed its first two quarterly loan payments starting last year. The loan was a modification of AIDEA’s $70 million total investment made in two tranches in 2012 and 2014 in the holding companies set up for the Mustang project’s infrastructure development. Rodvik wrote via email that the current volatility of oil markets has caused additional challenges for the project and the authority is reviewing its alternatives as a creditor to Mustang. The AIDEA board of directors discussed the project in an executive session during its May 20 meeting. Anchorage-based Brooks Range Petroleum — jointly owned by Thyssen and Caracol — operates the project. The current ownership group is the latest in a series of convoluted structures since oil prices first fell in 2014 and funding for the project became scarce. Brooks Range briefly started production from the small field in early November through temporary modular facilities after years of delays brought on by collapsed oil prices and other financing challenges. Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission records show Brooks Range produced an average of 478 barrels of oil over 23 days from the well in November. However, production has been shut in since. The Mustang project is adjacent to the southern portion of ConocoPhillips’ large Kuparuk River field and also near the Nanushuk oil project being developed by Oil Search. The field is estimated to hold about 22 million barrels of oil and could peak at production rates of about 12,000 barrels per day when fully developed. Jourabchi, who said he is a shareholder in Alpha and is on the investment firm’s board of directors, said his group has plans to resume work at Mustang in the coming months and restart production late in the year if they are able to buy the project from Caracol and oil prices continue to recover. He declined to provide more information on the situation, saying it could compromise the negotiations. “We’re trying to bring ownership back to the North Slope,” he said. Alaska North Slope crude is selling for about $30 per barrel and prices are generally starting to recover following the market shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Saudi-Russia price war. Representatives for Alpha and Caracol could not be reached. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska Air starting Bristol Bay, Unalaska service with regional help

Alaska Airlines is doing what it can to fill the void in air service to Western Alaska created when Ravn Alaska suddenly grounded its fleet earlier this spring. The major domestic airline is partnering with regional carrier Grant Aviation to provide twice-weekly scheduled service to Unalaska through Cold Bay starting May 16, Alaska Airlines Regional Vice President Marilyn Romano said. Regular passenger service between Anchorage and Dillingham and King Salmon — where Alaska has historically offered seasonal jet service — will also start earlier this year. The first flights to the Bristol Bay hub communities are scheduled for May 18, according to Romano. Dillingham, King Salmon and Unalaska-Dutch Harbor are just three of the 115 communities across the state that used to be served by Ravn Alaska and its subsidiary carriers. Ravn filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection April 5, grounding its fleet of 72 aircraft, following a 90 percent drop in its passenger revenue as travel halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a company statement. Alaska Airlines had partnerships with Ravn at hubs across the state and Romano said it is very difficult to watch the company suffer largely as a result of the health crisis. “It’s hard to think about the 1,300 employees for Ravn that are currently out of work and I know they’re working hard still today, as far as I’ve been told, to see how they could possibly get their operation up and running,” she said in a May 12 interview. Alaska’s moves to backfill Ravn’s service are just part of a larger effort from multiple carriers statewide, Romano noted. “Very quickly, not just Alaska Airlines, the aviation community as a whole really stepped up from both the passenger and cargo side to quickly see how these markets could be served in some way and I think what we’ve got today is most of the markets, whether they’re a (larger) Part 121 market or a Part 135 (air taxi) market, are being covered in some form or fashion,” she said, adding that many of the smaller airports Ravn served are inaccessible to Alaska’s fleet of Boeing 737 jets. That is the case for Unalaska, so Alaska Airlines is flying to the Alaska Peninsula community of Cold Bay, which has a 10,000-foot runway from its days as a military airfield during WWII. From there, Grant Aviation will take passengers the remaining roughly 150 miles to Unalaska. The Cold Bay airport has periodically been used as an emergency landing site for international flights with mechanical or other issues. The Cold Bay stop will be part of Alaska’s service to Adak farther out the Aleutian Chain, according to Romano. She said preparing for the coordinated service to Unalaska — the largest seafood port in the country — has been “a real collaboration” between the communities, airlines and state and federal Transportation officials. While the travel restrictions imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19 have decimated the airline industry worldwide, Romano said the period of very low passenger demand has provided a window for Alaska and other carriers to work out solutions to serve rural communities. “It’s been relatively calm but you never want to, if you can help it, have a community with no access to travel. There are critical needs to travel,” she said. As for Bristol Bay, Alaska first had to arrange to sublease Ravn’s ground facilities at the King Salmon and Dillingham airports before it could start service, as the airlines shared space when they both flew to the communities in years past. “We’re ready to go,” Romano said. “We’ve got our plan for moving employees around filed with the state and the communities.” Alaska will start fly to Dillingham three times per week and King Salmon twice per week briefly before ramping up to daily flights in June along with activity in the region’s commercial salmon fishery. Many Bristol Bay-area residents have long pled for Alaska Airlines to provide year-round passenger service to the region and Romany said the airline currently plans to do so this year. “They seem really happy about that in those communities,” she said. Romano added that Alaska will be flying additional charter flights in and out of Bristol Bay to move commercial fishermen and salmon processor workers as safely as possible. Many leaders and residents in rural fishing towns have expressed serious concerns about the ability to safely move seasonal workers in and out of their communities amid the pandemic. “Some of those seafood workers will actually move from a quarantine situation right onto a charter flight as opposed to scheduled service. Any level of safety that any of us can do together is going to help,” she said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

New Hilcorp-Enstar gas deal adds up to rate savings

Southcentral natural gas customers could collectively save $53.6 million under the latest contract between Enstar Natural Gas Co. and Hilcorp Alaska. According to a letter containing the amended contract terms filed with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, Enstar customers should save approximately 7 percent in gas costs from June 1 through March 2023, when the utility’s prior contract with the Cook Inlet producer was set to expire. The new terms also extend the agreement through March 2033. According to Enstar’s filing, Hilcorp “reliably delivered” 82 percent of the utility’s gas in 2019 and is expected to cover 80 percent this year. Enstar could purchase anywhere from 64 percent to 97 percent of its annual gas requirement under the new terms. The utility expects its demand to remain at roughly 33.6 billion cubic feet, or bcf, per year through 2025. The contract has a base firm quantity of 25 bcf per year. Enstar officials noted that multiple Cook Inlet producers have filed for bankruptcy in recent years. Furie Operating Alaska had its gas production halted in early 2019 when a production line froze, causing Enstar and other utilities to purchase gas elsewhere and draw on stored reserves for several months. Furie filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last August. “This gas supply certainty is vital at a time of growing scarcity,” the letter states. Enstar supplies gas to approximately 148,000 customers. Gas will be sold at $7.55 per thousand cubic feet, or mcf, in the first year of the contract but will vary afterwards. According to Enstar’s filing, the price for gas in subsequent years will be set through a calculation based on three price indices published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the price cannot increase more than 1.5 percent or decrease more than 1 percent in any given year, meaning the deal has an effective price ceiling of $8.89 per mcf in 2033. Prior contracts between the two had fixed price inflation rates of 2 percent to 4 percent, but “Enstar does not believe that an inflexible, always-positive inflation factor appropriately reflects how production costs increase and decrease over time,” the letter states. The agreement amends and extends a contract signed in 2016. At the time most gas contracts in Cook Inlet were five years or less. In 2018, the first year of that deal, Hilcorp sold to Enstar for an average price of $7.56 per mcf. State Sens. Josh Revak, Shelley Hughes and Senate President Cathy Giessel all urged RCA to approve the contract in comments to the commission. Hughes and Revak noted the combination of price reductions and long-term supply as needed benefits during a highly uncertain economic period and Giessel highlighted that it will ensure Alaska is developing and utilizing its own resources. “When Alaska gas is on relative price parity with imports, this use of our own resource will support the direct and indirect jobs in the resource development industry that in turn support our communities,” Giessel wrote in her comments. A public comment period for the contract is open through May 20 on the RCA website. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska delegation signs on to effort against banks shunning Arctic

Alaska’s congressional delegation is at the center of a growing cadre of Republican lawmakers pushing back on big banks that have decided not to invest in Arctic oil and gas projects. Three dozen senators and representatives signed a May 7 letter to President Donald Trump that first thanked his administration’s pursuit of American “energy dominance,” which has largely focused development of coal, natural gas and oil resources nationwide. The U.S. was the top oil producer in the world immediately prior to the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, with companies producing just more than 13 million barrels per day in early March, according to the Energy Information Administration. But the letter mostly urged the Trump administration to look into how the federal government can counter the group of large banks that have recently publicized policies against financing oil projects in the Arctic and select other parts of the country. Many of the same institutions are also shying away from investments in coal as well. In recent months Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo have all confirmed that to varying degrees they would not be supporting future Arctic oil projects. Most of the statements have been made through the banks’ social and environmental policies. The decisions have been praised by numerous congressional Democrats, conservation groups and renewable energy advocates across the country but have made the banks a target for lawmakers from oil, gas and coal producing states. “Scoring cheap political points at the expense of American energy workers is an affront to our economic success and it must be confronted,” the May 7 letter states. The signatories included Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young. The lawmakers also questioned why lending institutions that received federal support during the 2008-09 financial crisis and will potentially benefit from participating in CARES Act programs should be allowed “to pick energy winners and losers in order to placate the environmental fringe.” “As every sector of our economy struggles to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and seeks financial stability from the federal government, environmental extremists are using the pandemic to accelerate their goal of putting American energy jobs in the grave,” the letter states. “We urge you and your administration to use every administrative and regulatory tool at your disposal to prevent America’s financial institutions from discriminating against America’s energy sector while they simultaneously enjoy the benefit of federal programs.” Sullivan helped get the ball rolling for Republicans while participating an April 24 signing ceremony for legislation to add funding to the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program in the Oval Office. Sullivan first said the COVID-19 response aid would help many Alaskans, including those working in the oil and gas, fishing and tourism industries, through this exceptionally difficult period. He said further that he doesn’t believe the banks should be allowed to receive federal support and at the same time “discriminate against a critical sector of the U.S. economy.” “I like the idea of looking into that; you’re right. You know, that got (to) where they were pushed by the radical left, and so they’re afraid of the radical left,” Trump responded. Sullivan said in an interview with the Journal prior to the letter that it is the “irony and hypocrisy” that some of the same banks kept afloat by federal aid roughly a decade ago “still find it OK to discriminate against the energy sector, particularly our state” that goes beyond free market principles and at a minimum warrants congressional attention. He acknowledged that it’s currently unclear exactly what Congress or the administration could do regarding the banks but said his staff is working with administration officials and other congressional offices as well to find possible remedies to the situation. “If you implemented what the national Democrats want, America, as the energy superpower of the world, which we have achieved and is now being threatened, wouldn’t have a chance and the dominant powers would be Saudi Arabia, Russia; and somehow they think that would be good for our country. It’s remarkable and fundamentally frightening to me,” he told the Journal. In January, 16 Democrat senators wrote to Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf asking that the bank commit to not financing oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Similar letters from congressional Democrats have been sent to other major bank executives as well. Alaska Oil and Gas Association CEO Kara Moriarty said Sullivan made “a really valid point” to Trump while noting that the banks have generally stated a prohibition on direct Arctic oil project financing, which does not preclude general lending to oil and gas companies that work in the region. How exactly the individual banks will decide which oil projects are acceptable and which aren’t is just one question they need to answer, she said, adding that how each institution defines “Arctic” is another. The bans on Arctic oil investments likely apply to the North Slope, as it is within the technical definition of the Arctic, Moriarty said, while also pointing out that the Arctic Council classifies the Aleutians as Arctic — and some federal agencies — have even broader definitions. “I do think it is frustrating to see these huge financial institutions in my mind arbitrarily decide that projects and financing in the Arctic is too risky because some of them have listed care for the environment and things of that nature (in policy statements) and yet they’re still investing in companies and projects in countries that have a way worse environmental record than America does and certainly Alaska,” she said. “If a bank’s risk profile doesn’t view that projects in the Arctic are going to meet their risk criteria, that’s fine, but making blanket statements that ‘we won’t be investing’ even without giving a project the benefit of the doubt is sort of like agencies saying ‘we’re never going to permit a project in the Arctic.’ How can you say that?” Wells Fargo interprets the Alaska Arctic to be the North Slope, according to spokesman David Kennedy. He wrote in an email that the bank did not have a comment on letter to Trump but clarified the bank’s policy regarding working with the oil and gas industry in the state, noting that the decision to forgo funding Arctic oil projects was part of a larger move away from all project-specific transactions in the region. The bank, which has branches in Alaska, will continue to offer general corporate credit facilities for oil and gas companies in Alaska, according to a statement from Wells Fargo. “Wells Fargo is a leading provider of credit to Alaska Native Corporations and responsible oil and gas exploration and production companies doing business in Alaska, and we want to continue those relationships long into the future,” the statement said. Moriarty said she hasn’t heard of any companies in Alaska struggling to find financing as a direct result of the banks’ decisions but that’s mostly because funding isn’t something oil companies often disclose. “We operate under some pretty strict anti-trust rules. Price and investors and who they’re getting money from and how they’re getting money for projects — that just isn’t stuff we talk about, but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” she said. First National Bank Alaska CEO Betsy Lawer said the large oil companies operating on the North Slope typically have lines of credit with other financial institutions to fund portions of their work. FNBA, as a community bank, instead focuses its oil industry lending on Alaska-based companies in the support service sector, Lawer said. A JPMorgan Chase spokesman declined to comment on the May 7 letter and other banks did not respond to questions in time for this story. ANWR lease sale Bureau of Land Management officials continue to inch ahead with plans for an oil and gas lease sale in the ANWR coastal plain despite historically bad dynamics in world oil markets but it remains unclear when the controversial silent auction-style sale will finally be held. BLM Alaska officials released the final version of the environmental impact statement in mid-September and BLM State Director Chad Padgett said at the time he hoped to hold a lease sale for the entire 1.6 million-acre coastal plain before the end of the year, reiterating a common theme heard from other Interior Department leaders. While a record of decision — a prerequisite to a lease sale — could have been signed by agency officials as soon as 30 days after the official Sept. 20 final EIS notice was published in the Federal Register, but 2019 ended with little word from BLM or Interior leaders about it. BLM Alaska spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters noted in an emailed response to questions that it is not uncommon for a record of decision to be issued up to several months after a final EIS is made public. “This decision will take into consideration the many important issues and potential impacts we heard during our multi-year scoping and public comment process which resulted in almost 2 million comments received,” Ellis-Wouters wrote. The commenters largely expressed concerns about impacts to subsistence lifestyles, the migratory patterns of the Porcupine caribou herd that uses the coastal plain for calving and opportunities for increased jobs and economic opportunities in the state, she added. Ellis-Wouters also noted that to comply with the 2017 tax bill, which opened the Coastal Plain to oil and gas exploration, BLM does not have to hold the first lease sale until December 2021. However, many supporters of drilling in ANWR have pushed for a sale before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term to make sure Republicans maintain control of the process. Bloomberg reported May 11 that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he does not think the immediate collapse of oil markets will dampen industry interest in an ANWR lease sale, which he believes will likely be held this year. Moriarty said it’s too tough to tell what industry’s response to a lease sale would be as uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic has made even very near-term predicting in the historically volatile industry impossible. “You’ve got to let the process work. You’ve got to make sure the EIS is defensible in court because those that oppose development of the coastal plain are going to say, ‘well, the reason they didn’t show is because of low prices’ or ‘the reason they didn’t show is because of high prices’ or ‘the reason they didn’t show is’ — it just doesn’t matter,” Moriarty said. “There’s always a reason fabricated as to why we’ll never have a successful lease sale in this price environment so the process has to continue.” It’s widely believed that a record of decision authorizing a lease sale will be challenged in court. If a record of decision advancing a sale is approved, BLM will issue a Call for Nominations to industry, which usually takes 30 days and then a Notice of Sale announcing the date will be issued following a review of industry’s submissions, according to Ellis-Wouters. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Long-sought Railbelt utility reform becomes law

After more than five years of highly technical analysis, delicate negotiations and numerous fits and starts along the way, the path to restructuring Alaska’s once-disjointed Railbelt electric system is officially complete. Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed legislation April 29 fortifying the authorities of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska and directing the six Railbelt electric utilities to establish a new organization to plan for and manage deeply integrated utility operations. RCA Chair Bob Pickett thanked Dunleavy for signing Senate Bill 123 — spawned from recommendations the commission made in 2015 — and said it will eventually help provide Railbelt region residents with more reliable and effective power service in a formal statement. “A cooperative effort of legislative leadership, the RCA, utilities, independent power producers and other public interest representatives contributed to this successful outcome, which started in 2014 at the direction of the Legislature,” Pickett said. SB 123 passed the Senate unanimously and received broad support in the House. It codifies the work that the Railbelt electric utilities have done at the behest of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to better integrate the long-term planning of the six utilities and provide a consistent path for renewable power producers to access the regional transmission system. “SB 123 will foster cooperation among the interconnected utilities and ensure consumer needs are efficiently and reliably met,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, the chair of the Railbelt Electric System Committee that drafted the legislation. Renewable Energy Alaska Project Executive Director Chris Rose called the signing of SB 123 “historic,” a term used by many individuals involved in the Railbelt electric work. “Efforts to reform the Railbelt electric grid to improve coordination and efficiency among the six utilities something that people have been trying to do for decades. This is a major win for everyone,” Rose said. “It will create a better environment for renewable energy development, create efficiencies that will lower electric costs for consumers and allow Alaskans to have a say on what projects are built in the future.” In 2014, lawmakers directed the RCA to conduct a detailed examination of the issues facing the Railbelt electric grid, which stretches across the service territory of six utilities from Fairbanks to Homer that collectively have a customer base typically served by a single utility in the Lower 48. The RCA’s analysis resulted in a frank June 2015 letter to the Legislature that characterized the Railbelt electric system at the time as “fragmented” and “balkanized” and recommended the utilities be afforded time to voluntarily improve their coordination before the commission would seek to clarify its authority to direct coordinated utility operations. At its core, SB 123 mandates the Railbelt electric utilities work with other stakeholder-driven organizations to form an electric reliability organization, or ERO, that would oversee implementation of system-wide reliability standards and coordinate long-term planning amongst the utilities. It also gives the RCA explicit authority to rule on the necessity of large infrastructure projects, such as generation plants, that utilities may pursue. The primary end goal for many stakeholders is to achieve “economic dispatch” across the entire Railbelt — from Homer to Fairbanks — or consistently maximizing use of the most efficient power generation through near-constant power sales between the utilities. Currently, the limited capacity of transmission lines in the region can inhibit economic dispatch of electricity, particularly from the state-owned Bradley Lake hydropower facility near Homer that provides some of the lowest-cost power in the region. While the process of getting from the June 2015 letter to the passage of SB 123 was lengthy and included multiple setbacks, such as the scrapping of an application to jointly form a transmission company to support transmission infrastructure investments last year, utility leaders generally supported the concept. Last December the general managers and CEOs of the regional utilities signed a memorandum of understanding outlining how they would form an ERO dubbed the Railbelt Reliability Council, governed by a board comprised of utility representatives and stakeholders championing independent power producers and others. Utility leaders acknowledged the bipartisan support already behind SB 123 last fall was an impetus to developing the MOU, which calls for the reliability council’s implementation committee to have a business plan for the council ready by this December. MEA spokeswoman Julie Estey wrote via email that the committee’s work has been slowed by a couple weeks while the utilities were immersed in responding to the COVID-19 emergency, but it has not stopped. According to Estey, 11 applications for two unaffiliated implementation committee seats are currently being reviewed and the results are expected in the middle of this month ahead of a vote to finalize the committee roster. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Predictability a priority for ferry work group

Achieving consistent, dependable ferry service is the top priority for members of the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group following their first working meeting April 30. “They just want to know that they can get from point A to point B on a reliable schedule,” Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables said of the region’s residents. He acknowledged the frequency of future ferry service likely won’t be what folks want, but said it needs to be something communities and build around. Venables also chairs the state Marine Transportation Advisory Board. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, went one step further, saying the need for predictable and reliable service is not even up for debate; it’s how the state gets there that needs to be hashed out. Stedman said ferry service needs to be a more affordable transportation option for Alaskans who don’t have the means to travel frequently by air. The Alaska Marine Highway System needs to get “back to the basics” as a system primarily for Alaskans, noting some accommodations must be made because it receives Federal Highway funding. “You’ve got to have a transportation corridor; it’s basically one of the most fundamental aspects of an economy,” Stedman said, also emphasizing that he’s open to significant changes in the system’s structure but cutting off service is unacceptable. “Isolation — that’s not much of a solution,” he said. Work group chair Adm. Tom Barrett said the first few meetings would focus on establishing the high-level objectives the group will push for. The AMHS Reshaping Group will also devise a strategy for implementing its recommendations and eventually provide the administration and Legislature with a path for how they can further the transition. Recently retired as president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., Barrett also served as Deputy Transportation secretary under President George W. Bush. The group was originally scheduled to meet April 16 but that meeting was cancelled for technical difficulties. An administrative meeting to set up the group was held in February. He stressed a need to simplify broad aspects of the system so its operations can be more easily adapted to varying conditions. Previous ferry system reform efforts produced recommendations that should be considered, Barrett said, suggesting they previously were not accompanied by a way to make them happen. “The heavy lift will be down in writing an implementation plan for the changes we agree to eventually,” he said. Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed the nine-member Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group in February after his administration commissioned a study to examine ways to reform the system with a focus on reducing its annual state subsidy. The study, published in January, highlighted many of the challenges facing the system, but did not provide significant recommendations for restructuring its operations or management. The work group’s recommendations are due by the end of September for implementation in fiscal year 2023, according to the governor’s office. Former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration partnered with the Southeast Conference on a two-year study finished in 2018 that urged lawmakers to set up the system as a public corporation with an expert board of directors that could plan long-term and be largely above the political fray. The Alaska Marine Highway System is currently an agency in the Department of Transportation. That study led to a bill establishing that would have established the new structure, but it received little attention by the Legislature. Venables and Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, stressed the common message that the current structure greatly inhibits efficient operations — in terms of spending and decision-making, among other issues — because each new governor means new leadership and often a new strategic direction. “It needs some kind of governing board where it doesn’t become a target each time the administration changes,” Stutes said. Gov. Mike Dunleavy added urgency to the desire to overhaul the ferry system last year when he proposed a roughly 75 percent cut to the system’s annual operating subsidy. The budget would have shut down the system in October after three months of service. Legislators and the governor ultimately agreed to a cut of just less than 50 percent for a $46 million appropriation that was intended to keep the system running year-round but with several-month gaps in service for some communities. A series of mechanical and structural problems among the ever-aging vessels and issues with shipyard repairs led DOT to charter private vessels to some communities as a stopgap measure last winter. Barrett questioned what the financial objective of the system should be — whether that is simply improving cost recovery or finding ways to operate within a set budget. He said the work group could meet as often as once per week as its work ramps up and he also wants to hear opinions from outside the group, such as from Tribal representatives. Barrett suggested the group might break into committees to work out the specifics of some of the broader issues facing the ferry system. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Senators: All tools on table to deal with Saudi oil glut

Alaska’s senators say the federal officials should consider all options to help buoy the country’s struggling oil industry but simply restricting imports could invite other issues. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan discussed the situation in separate interviews with the Journal. Sullivan said that limiting oil imports to the U.S. while the world is oversupplied makes sense at a “base level” but acknowledged that imposing such a restriction effectively would require accounting for a host of other factors. “All of the tools are on the table,” he said. Sullivan subsequently issued a joint statement May 4 with Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota urging the Trump administration to apply national security tariffs to oil imports from Saudi Arabia and Russia. The statement says the tariffs would counter the “anticompetitive behavior” of the two countries, which were embroiled in a roughly six-week oil price war that exacerbated the market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and ended in mid-April with a broad agreement to cut daily global production by nearly 10 million barrels. “Saudi Arabia and Russia’s continued dumping of crude is having lasting and damaging effects on American energy producers. This is intentional — Russia and Saudi Arabia are tired of competing with us and want to put American oil and gas producers out of business so the can once again dictate energy prices to the world,” the senators said. Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she is wary of tariffs or an outright ban on oil imports, but echoed Sullivan in adding that “right now, all options are on the table” to deal with the oversupply of crude. “We’ve got a situation right now that is facing us that is a real challenge so how we can be creative is something that we need to look to,” Murkowski said in an interview. Both of Alaska’s senators signed a March 16 letter to Saudi leaders with 11 other senators urging the government to help stabilize oil markets but Sullivan has taken a much more direct approach since, highlighted by the May 4 statement with Inhofe and Cramer. Sullivan said he has been on several calls in recent weeks trying to improve the oil market situation with the Trump administration officials, fellow members of Congress and directly with Saudi leaders. In a two-hour call with 12 other senators Sullivan recalled telling Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman that there would be enough support in Congress to withdraw U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia if the country didn’t stop attempting to manipulate world energy markets. “I told the energy minister, ‘Right now you’re talking to 13 of your best friends but stand by and I promise you we will be your worst enemy if you don’t stop what you’re doing that’s hurting our constituents,’” he said. According to Sullivan, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz participated in the call and noted that 54 senators voted against the administration’s last military weapons sale to the Saudis; however, Trump vetoed the Senate’s measure disapproving the sale and the Senate maintained it. Adding those 54 senators to the 13 on the call — all of whom voted in support of the arms deal — gets to a veto-proof 67 votes to remove troops from Saudi Arabia, Sullivan remembered Cruz telling the energy minister. “I’m not bluffing,” Sullivan said. “The Saudis can be very squirrely but they listen to threats to their existence and trust me, without the U.S. military protecting them there’s a major threat to their existence. The Saudi military is not formidable and couldn’t stop any of their neighbors from invading them.” The number of U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia is classified, according to Sullivan, but he said that the U.S. has missile batteries there that could also be pulled. He also emphasized that he will be among many members of Congress watching the Saudis closely to make sure they adhere to the two-year production agreement. “When a country that we’ve helped and protected starts to take actions that directly negatively and significantly hurt people that I’m privileged to represent and there’s some indications that they’re doing it on purpose, for that reason, it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said further. The agreement to cut oil production by roughly 10 percent worldwide starting in May was hailed as “unprecedented” when the leaders of major oil producing countries announced it last month. Yet, oil prices continue to languish, particularly in the U.S., because the deal does not come close to counteracting the even more massive decline in daily oil demand brought on by economic shutdowns imposed to fight the spread of COVID-19. According to the International Energy Administration, worldwide oil demand fell by approximately 29 million barrels per day in April, or about 30 percent, from a year ago. The IEA expects overall oil demand in 2020 to fall by 9.3 million barrels per day, the group said in its April Oil Market Report. The price for global benchmark Brent crude has stabilized in the high $20s per barrel versus the $63 per barrel Brent oil averaged in January just prior to pandemic spreading across the globe, but prices for Alaska and Lower 48 oil have fallen even further. The prices for Alaska North Slope and West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, briefly went negative April 20 and have since recovered; however, oil in those markets continues to trade at a steep discount to Brent. As of May 4, WTI sold for $20.39 per barrel and a barrel Alaska North Slope crude went for just $14.60 despite trading at a slight premium to Brent as recently as January. Alaska economists have said that the relative isolation of the West Coast market where most oil from the state is sold from the rest of the country and a surge of oil imported from the Middle East — mainly Saudi Arabia — has depressed the price of Alaska oil even further. Before the production cut agreement in which Saudi Arabia is supposed to scale back to 8.5 million barrels per day, Saudi leaders insisted the country would increase its production to about 12.3 million barrels per day. According to a February S&P Global Platts report Saudi Arabia produced 9.7 million barrels per day in January. And even though the Russian-Saudi truce is approaching a month old, the impacts of the war are still being felt in the U.S. According to the Energy Information Administration, domestic crude stocks hit more than 527 million barrels in the third week of April, up 9 million barrels from the week prior and nearly 30 million barrels more than was stored a year ago. Stores of refined products have stabilized of late but also far exceed what was available a year ago, according to EIA data. Sullivan and Murkowski both acknowledged that roughly 40 million barrels of oil sitting in tankers off the West Coast was purchased in February and March by U.S. refiners. “As much as I want to say turn those tankers around we don’t want them here; they’re replacing Alaska crude or they’re taking up space in our limited storage — again I think we need to recognize that many of our refiners are set up to take just exactly that heavy Saudi crude and that’s what they need,” Murkowski said, while also questioning how the contracts would be resolved if the foreign oil was wholly turned away. North Slope crude generally has a slightly lighter makeup than Saudi oil and refiners can adjust to handle different oils with adequate lead-time. Sullivan and Murkowski both said they have tried to encourage other countries to fill their national oil storage systems to help ease the global oversupply. According to the IEA, which helps coordinate global oil storage, if each country with storage available were to “top off” its reserves up to 2 million barrels per day could be pulled from the market over about three months. “It’s not going to save us, but it’s not bad,” Sullivan said of the idea. Murkowski said following a call with Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette that the Energy Department has made space available to domestic producers in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. “Lease it out so producers could offload, keep it there and basically pay to retrieve it later,” Murkowski said. She has said she will co-sponsor legislation authorizing $3 billion for the Energy Department to purchase U.S. oil to fill the SPR when Congress reconvenes. Additionally, Murkowski said Energy officials are looking into more storage for refined products. “We’re looking to what we can do to address the storage issues,” she said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska Air Group absorbs $232M loss in first quarter

Alaska Air Group Inc. leaders reported a $232 million first quarter loss on May 5 as demand for air travel ostensibly remains at zero. It marked the first quarterly loss for the Seattle-based parent company to Alaska Airlines and regional carrier Horizon Air in more than a decade, CEO Brad Tilden said. Tilden called the result, which was driven by a 14 percent drop in passenger revenue for the quarter, “sobering” in an investor call but said there is “no doubt” that the second quarter will be much worse. Executives chose not to forecast even near-term financial performance and business metrics given the very high uncertainty as to what lies ahead but stressed a goal of reaching breakeven cash flow by the end of the year while also admitting they do not yet know how they will get all the way there. According to Tilden, the company had a cash burn rate of roughly $400 million per month at the start of April that has been brought down to about $260 million per month currently and the hope is to get it to $200 million per month in June to continue towards the breakeven goal. The company has suspended its share repurchase and dividend programs. Alaska Air Group stock closed May 5 trading at $28.97 per share. It had largely traded in the mid-$60s per share to start the year before a pandemic-induced drop started in late February. Tilden commended airline employees’ focus on safety and caring for guests even as business has nearly ground to a halt. “In the face of one of the greatest challenges in the history of aviation our people at Alaska and Horizon are doing extraordinary work to respond to these circumstances,” Tilden said. All Alaska and Horizon passengers will be required to wear facemasks starting May 11. He added that the airlines are requiring all flight attendants and customer-facing employees to wear face masks, are encouraging passengers to self-scan boarding passes, have slowed the boarding process to reduce crowding and suspended most in-flight services in attempts to limit the spread of coronavirus. Alaska Airlines President Ben Minicucci noted the airline was one of the first major domestic carriers to feel the impact of the public response to the virus hit its business in late February as the Seattle area saw the first confirmed outbreak in the U.S. Ticket cancellations overtook new bookings on March 11 for the first time in Alaska’s history, Minicucci said, and as of May 5 the airline was mired in a stretch of 56 consecutive days of net negative bookings. Alaska has waived all of its ticket cancellation and change fees through the end of the year. He said passenger levels are starting to show “very modest” week-to-week improvement but demand is still down more than 90 percent from historical levels. Capacity at Alaska Airlines was down approximately 80 percent in April and May and that trend is expected to continue at least into June. Alaska Air Group received $992 million in federal CARES Act assistance from the federal government April 23. The aid breaks down to a $725 million payroll grant and a $267 million 10-year Treasury loan. It requires the company not institute mandatory furloughs or pay cuts through Sept. 30. Tilden said the support covers approximately 70 percent of the company’s payroll through September. The Treasury Department also took rights to buy 847,000 non-voting shares of common Air Group stock at the April 9 closing price $31.61 per share. Overall, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act allocated $50 billion for grants and loans specifically to airlines. Air Group Chief Financial Officer Shane Tackett said the company currently holds about $2.9 billion in cash and short-term investments that includes the CARES money; a $400 million draw on existing lines of credit; $425 million from a 364-day term loan and $50 million in secured financing acquired after the end of the first quarter. Air Group started the year with about $1.5 billion in cash and marketable securities. The $2.9 billion will last the company a little more than 11 months and Air Group has the ability to borrow against about $2 billion worth of aircraft it owns outright, Tackett said. Alaska and Horizon also separately applied for $1.1 billion in CARES Act loans apart from the payroll funding. “Banks and investors we’ve spoken to have indicated interest in lending against these assets with reasonable terms,” he said. Alaska Air Group also has roughly $500 million in real estate as well as its loyalty program that could both be leveraged for further liquidity, Tackett said, adding that it all totals to between $7 billion and $8 billion of collateral that holds upwards of $4 billion worth of incremental liquidity potential. He acknowledged that taking on the potential debt load is not ideal but may be needed to simply survive. “Taken together, our hands-on liquidity, our access to additional financing and our aggressive goals to reach cash breakeven results will ensure that we bridge this downturn and are prepared to rebuild our success during a recovery,” Tackett said. Air Group executives for years have stressed a desire to have an “investment-grade” balance sheet and have focused on paying down debt in the past. The company’s debt-to-capitalization ratio stood at 48 percent at the end of the first quarter, compared to 41 percent to start 2020. Tackett said Air Group’s airlines have cut discretionary spending by $50 million per month and deferred $600 million in capital spending, meaning the company’s total capital spend will be less than $175 million this year. Additionally, more than 5,000 of Air Group’s 23,000 employees have taken 60 days of voluntary unpaid leave, according to Tackett. Executive pay has been cut and management hours have also been reduced by 10 percent as well, he said. Alaska Airlines has also expects to permanently ground at least 12 mainline aircraft — likely Airbus aircraft acquired from its 2016 purchase of Virgin America — and is retraining 240 of its Airbus pilots to fly the Boeing 737 aircraft Alaska has traditionally flown. “I believe that all 23,000 of our people understand that if we can achieve a breakeven cash burn rate our destiny is squarely back in our control, which means we are also in control of building towards a better future again,” Tackett said. “It’s an objective we have to get to.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

ConocoPhillips to curtail Slope production by 100k per day

ConocoPhillips announced Thursday morning it will cut its North Slope oil production by about 100,000 barrels per day as the price for Alaska crude continues to flounder relative to other oil benchmarks. The announcement came as ConocoPhillips, which currently produces the most oil in Alaska, also reported a companywide first quarter loss of $1.7 billion as the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic ground economies to a halt and oil prices collapsed. Oil production will be curtailed in June at the company’s Kuparuk River, Alpine and Greater Mooses Tooth-1 fields. The large Kuparuk and Alpine fields are primarily on state lands, while GMT-1 is in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The state production tax is applied to NPR-A oil, but the state does not receive royalty revenue from production in the federal reserve. According to a company statement, the production curtailment will start in late May and how long it lasts will be determined month-to-month. ConocoPhillips 218,000 net equivalent barrels per day in the state during the first quarter. “This decision was made in response to unacceptably low oil prices resulting from global oil demand destruction caused by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a global oversupply of oil,” ConocoPhillips Alaska said in a statement. “The curtailment will essentially leave the oil stored in the reservoirs, available for resumption of production at a later date. The actions ConocoPhillips Alaska is taking with this production curtailment underscore the extraordinary challenges currently facing the oil and gas industry in Alaska and elsewhere.” The cuts should not impact Trans-Alaska Pipeline System operations, according to the statement. ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said the cuts will be enacted by shutting in wells and the 100,000 barrels per day amount is largely driven by the minimum volume of oil the company needs to continue moving through its facilities at the fields to keep them operational. “We want to be able to respond quickly if market conditions improve,” Lowman said. Alaska Division of Oil and Gas spokesman Sean Clifton wrote via email that ConocoPhillips informed state officials about their curtailment plan last week and has assured them that TAPS throughput will remain sufficient. “It is likely they’ll have to bring production back up when Arctic temperatures return in fall, regardless of market conditions,” Clifton wrote. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which is owned by the major North Slope producers, said April 24 it had begun “prorationing,” or reducing oil throughput in TAPS by about 10 percent, or 50,000 barrels per day, to deal with a lack of oil storage capacity projected for late May in the system. Alyeska and the producers routinely slow TAPS throughput in summer for maintenance activities. While oil prices are depressed worldwide, the situation has been magnified for Alaska due to market conditions on the West Coast, where the vast majority of Alaska oil is sold. Alaska North Slope, or ANS, crude sold for $10.67 per barrel on Wednesday while West Texas Intermediate — the primary price for Lower 48 oil — sold for $15.06 per barrel and oil traded on the global Brent benchmark went for $22.54 per barrel. The spread between the ANS and global Brent prices that is now hammering Alaska was benefiting the state just a few months ago. As recently as January ANS crude was trading at a $2 per barrel premium to Brent and in prior months Alaska oil had sold for up to nearly $4 per barrel more than Brent. Transportation constraints limit the amount of oil produced east of the Rocky Mountains that can be sent west. That soft barrier has led to the development of ostensibly two oil markets in the U.S. West Coast refiners also purchase large amounts of Middle East oil and Saudi Arabia’s oil price war with Russia — that started in March and continued into mid-April — exacerbated the glut of oil available to West Coast buyers. Petroleum economists have also noted that West Coast oil demand largely comes from the transportation sector, which has been hit especially hard by government-mandated travel restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. Leaders from the world’s top oil producing nations on April 12 announced a global agreement to cut 9.7 million barrels from daily production in May, or about 10 percent of oil production worldwide. Under more normal market conditions prices would jump on the anticipation of such significant supply cuts, but the unprecedented drop in demand is overriding all other market factors. ConocoPhillips leaders have announced $400 million of cuts to the company’s spending plan in Alaska since mid-March. In early April the company told its drilling contractor Doyon Drilling that it would be laying down its North Slope drilling rig fleet indefinitely. On April 16, ConocoPhillips executives said they planned to curtail about 225,000 barrels per day of oil production from fields in the Lower 48 and Canada. A statement accompanying Thursday’s first quarter earnings report says companywide voluntary production curtailments in June will likely total approximately 460,000 barrels per day. Q1 numbers The $1.7 billion first quarter loss followed a $720 million fourth quarter and nearly $7.2 billion full-year profits. ConocoPhillips’ total revenue for the first quarter of the year was down more than 40 percent compared to the end of 2019 to just more than $4.8 billion. The overall loss translated to a loss of $1.60 per share. ConocoPhillips stock traded for $42.40 near the end of trading Thursday, on par with its prior closing price. The company’s per-share price bottomed out at $22.67 on March 18 when the first round of spending cuts was announced. It traded at around $60 per share for much of the winter. The overall quarterly loss was driven by losses absorbed in the company’s Lower 48, Canada and corporate business segments. According to the earnings report, ConocoPhillips’ Alaska operations netted the company $81 million during the first quarter. According to Lowman, ConocoPhillips paid $218 million in taxes and royalties to the State of Alaska and spent $509 million on capital projects during the quarter. The company remains on track to start oil production at its Greater Mooses Tooth-2 project on the North Slope in late 2021, according to the earnings report statement. ConocoPhillips realized an average price of $38.81 per barrel for its oil in the first quarter, down about 18 percent from an average of $47.01 for the fourth quarter of 2019. ConocoPhillips ended the quarter with $13.7 billion in liquidity compared to $14.1 billion in cash and short-term investments at the end of 2019. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

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